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A conversation with Arianna Huffington, author of THRIVE

A conversation with Arianna Huffington, author of THRIVE

What’s wrong with the current definition of success?

Our definition of success right now is based almost solely on money and power. In fact, success, money and power have practically become synonymous. And so to succeed, we lead lives of overwork, sleep-deprivation and burnout. These are actually considered badges of honor! We voluntarily drive ourselves into the ground, if not the grave.

This idea of success can work—or at least appear to work—in the short term. But over the long term, money and power by themselves are like a two-legged stool—you can balance on them for a while, but eventually you’re going to topple over. And more and more people—very successful people—are toppling over.

It’s no longer sustainable: not for individuals, companies, societies or our planet.

 The architecture of how we live our lives is badly in need of renovation and repair. When we go to work, we leave our lives—in fact, our souls—behind. What we really value, what really makes us happy, what really makes us thrive, is out of sync with how we live our lives and what we spend our time doing. And so we urgently need some new blueprints to reconcile the two.

To live the lives we truly want and deserve, and not just the lives we settle for, we need a Third Metric, a third measure of success that goes beyond the two metrics of money and power, and consists of four pillars: well-being, wisdom, wonder, and giving.

Is burnout really that bad?

Burnout, stress, and depression have become worldwide epidemics. It’s why, in the French edition of HuffPost, Belgian philosopher Pascal Chabot called burnout “civilization’s disease.”

The numbers are staggering:

In the U.S. alone, stress costs American businesses an estimated $300 billion a year, and sleep deprivation another $63 billion.

Three-quarters of all U.S. health-care spending is for the treatment of chronic conditions that can be managed and prevented, like heart disease and diabetes, which by the year 2035 will afflict an astounding 590 million people.

In the U.K., prescriptions for antidepressants have gone up 495% since 1991. In Europe, from 1995 to 2009, the use of antidepressants went up by nearly 20% per year.

Germany lost 59 million workdays to psychological illness in 2011, up over 80% in fifteen years.

And look at our epidemic of addiction. More than 22 million people in the U.S. are using illegal drugs, more than 12 million are using prescription painkillers with no medical reason, and almost 9 million need prescription pills to go to sleep. The percentage of adults taking antidepressants has gone up 400% since 1988.

And according to a Harvard Medical School study, 96% of leaders report feeling burned out.

So this isn’t just an American phenomenon, it’s worldwide. Both in the West and in emerging economies, there are more people everyday who recognize that we’re rushing down a dead-end—that we're chasing a broken dream. 

What made you aware of this issue?

My own personal wakeup call began very abruptly on April 6, 2007. The first thing I remember that morning is finding myself lying on the floor of my home office in a pool of blood. It was my own, as it turned out. I know it might be a juicier story if it was someone else’s, but that would be a very different story.

I had collapsed from exhaustion and lack of sleep. On my way down, my head had hit the corner of my desk, cutting my eye and breaking my cheekbone.

In the next few days, I learned that doctors’ waiting rooms are good places to think. As I was going from MRI to CAT scan to echocardiogram to find out what was wrong with me, I had time —finally—to ask myself the sorts of questions that have been asked by philosophers throughout the ages. The Greeks asked what is a good life? But in the last few centuries, instead of continuing to ask ourselves these valuable questions, we started acting as if the good life is simply about more money and more power.

So I asked myself, is this the life I really want? What kind of success am I after?

Having founded the Huffington Post two years earlier, I was working eighteen hours a day, seven days a week. And it was working, according to traditional measures of success. But I was not living a successful life by any truly sane definition. I was on my way up in the ways that don’t matter. And on my way down—literally—in the ways that do. My life, I realized, was out of control. I was not thriving.

And after all the tests, it turned out nothing was wrong…except for the fact that everything was wrong. 

 What changes did you make in your life as a result of that experience?

Of course, it’s never a convenient time to change your life. On the other hand, and even more important, I realized it’s always the right time to change your life.

So I adopted some daily practices to keep me on track. I renewed my estranged relationship with sleep—and, in fact, I became a sleep evangelist. If it were possible to be an ordained sleep evangelist, believe me, I’d be a Reverend. I might even be a Cardinal. I began meditating. I began to be much more deliberate about building in time to recharge.

All these changes started adding up, and I couldn’t help but notice how out of sync it was with our work culture. It was like going back to your old drinking buddies after getting out of rehab (and by the way, I’ll be your Third Metric sponsor if you need one).

I began to realize that if you want to live a balanced life, you have to fight to do it. But I also noticed that the people who were genuinely thriving in their lives were the ones who had made room for well-being, wisdom, wonder, and giving.


What happened when you talked about this issue in the commencement speech you gave at Smith College in 2013?

Six years after my “aha!” moment, I reflected on all this in a commencement speech at Smith College. Instead of finding ways to be successful in the world they were entering, I told the graduates to redefine success. Before taking their place on top of the world, I urged them to change it.

Clearly I hit a nerve. There was a big response to the speech, both by the graduates there and in the weeks that followed. It made me realize how widespread this urge is to redefine success and what it means to lead “the good life.”

In the year since that speech, it seemed like there was an explosion of these themes everywhere in our culture. It’s like when you learn a new word and then keep hearing it used all over the place. In fact, I think we’re actually in a special moment in history now—a moment we’ll look back at later and realize that this was when things changed.

A perfect storm has gathered, the result of a combination of disruptive technology, a dysfunctional health care system, a growing recognition that our world is becoming unmanageable, and most important, the growing demand of people to have more well-being in their lives, to live lives of meaning, and to thrive.

What made you decide to write THRIVE?

The perfect storm we’re in is part of the collective longing to redefine success and what we value.  When this storm landed right on me, I broke the solemn promise I’d made to myself to never write another book.

Even though I broke my promise, ironically, this was the easiest and most flowing book I’ve ever written (you know what they say: the 14th time is a charm!) But really, as I was writing, I felt like I really was thriving: no caffeine-fueled all-nighters, no deadline-fueled stress.

Yes, it turns out there is a different way to finish a project—and get 8 hours sleep, and find time to meditate and workout. Who knew there could be such a thing as mindful book-writing? I wish I’d learned that 13 books ago!

What was your purpose in writing THRIVE?

When I was writing Thrive, I wanted it to be about my own personal journey, how I learned the hard way to step back from being so caught up in my busy life that life’s mysteries would pass me by. But it was also important to me to make it clear that this was not just one woman’s journey—to capture our collective desire to stop living in the shallows, to stop hurting our health and relationships by striving so relentlessly after success as the world defines it.

I was driven to this by my own wake-up call. Many people come to this same place through other kinds of wake-up calls: burnout, sickness, addiction, the loss of a loved one, the end of a relationship, a job change. But it can also be a line of poetry that stirs something in you. That’s why I sprinkled so many pieces of poetry and quotes throughout the book.

And you believe we now have a critical mass for change?

Yes, absolutely. Everywhere you look, you see this critical mass—it has materialized, coalesced, fermented, exploded—whatever it is that critical masses do.

For example, this was the year of CEOs coming out as meditators. In other words, they came out as people who go in. Mark Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce, revealed he’s been meditating for 25 years. Ray Dalio, the CEO of Bridgewater, said he’s been meditating more than 40 years. Mark Bertolini, the CEO of Aetna, broke his neck in a ski accident, which led him to yoga and meditation.

And it doesn’t stop with CEOs: George Stephanopoulos, Jerry Seinfeld, and Lena Dunham have come out as regular meditators. And, of course, Steve Jobs was a lifelong meditator who talked about how when he meditated his intuition blossomed and he could see things more clearly.

Basically, 2013 was the year when meditation and mindfulness finally stopped being seen as vaguely flaky, vaguely new age-y, definitely California, and fully entered the mainstream.

People are ready for this change. Whenever I speak about this, and particularly over the last year, people come up to me and say, “I’m a cancer survivor and it changed my life,” or they lost somebody, or they decided to change careers and do what they love—everybody has a story about something that put them in that moment where they saw in a crystal clear way what they truly valued, and how right it felt. The question is, how do we stay in that moment?

Are there large-scale consequences, politically, of the way we’re currently living?

Wherever we look around the world, we see smart leaders—in politics, in business, in media—making terrible decisions. What they’re lacking is not IQ, but wisdom. Our connection, our pathway to our wisdom has been severed by the way we define success.

Living without access to our wisdom explains the gulf between what we know we should be doing on a host of issues—on climate change, on growing economic inequality, on the failed war on drugs, on infrastructure spending, on education—and what we’re choosing to do instead.

Why do you describe this as the third women’s revolution?

The first women’s revolution was led by the courageous suffragettes more than a hundred years ago. The second was led by Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, who fought (and Gloria is still fighting) to expand the role of women in our society and give them full access to the corridors of power.

Our current definition of success—in which exhaustion is a badge of honor, practically a virility symbol—was largely created by men. And because women are still outsiders in many sectors of the workplace, they’re less invested in the status quo. Even very successful women are still more likely to be managing their home life, so it’s reasonable to think women will be the ones most inspired to bring in a more well-rounded idea of what constitutes success.

For instance, there’s the fact that working moms get the least sleep, with 59% in one survey reporting sleep deprivation, and 50% saying they get six hours of sleep or less. And 43% of women who have children will quit their jobs at some point. Around three-quarters of them will return to the workforce, but only 40% will go back to working full-time.

Most of the time, the discussion about the challenges of women in the workplace centers around the difficulty of navigating a career and children—of “having it all.” It’s time we recognize that, as the workplace is currently structured, a lot of women don’t want to get to the top and stay there because they don’t want to pay the price in terms of their health, well-being, and happiness. When women do leave high-powered jobs, the debate is largely taken over by the binary stay-at-home-mom versus the independent career woman question. But, in fact, when women at the top—or near enough—opt out, it’s not just because of the kids, even though that’s sometimes what takes the place of the job they’ve left. And the full reasons why they’re leaving also have implications for men.

Women have already broken glass ceilings in Congress, space travel, sports, business, and the media—imagine what we can do when we’re all fully awake and thriving.

Do you think businesses see the need for this change?

If we look at the business world today we see two very different things. First, we see a lot of burnout: a business culture obsessed with quarterly earnings and short-term profits. But we also see an increasing recognition of the effects of workplace stress on the well-being of employees—and on a company’s bottom line.

More and more companies are recognizing that what’s good for us as individuals is also good for business—that the health of employees and the bottom-line are inseparable.

What’s the financial incentive for businesses to make these changes?

A lot of what we call health care is really sick care—and it turns out that sick care is a lot more expensive than health care. For instance, U.S. employers spend 200-300% more on the indirect costs of health care—things like absenteeism, sick days, and lower productivity—than they do on actual health care payments.

That’s why about 35% of large and midsize U.S. employers now offer some sort of stress-reduction program, including Target, Apple, Nike, and Procter & Gamble. At HuffPost, we have two nap rooms, which, I’m happy to say, are now always booked. Although the other day I was walking by and I saw two people walking out of one. Hey, whatever it takes to recharge. Just don’t tell HR, ok?

Why aren’t more companies getting on board?

That percentage is growing, but what’s keeping it from being 100%—which is what it should be— is the stubborn, dangerous myth that there is a trade-off between high performance at work and taking care of ourselves.

Not only is there no trade-off between high performance and living a balanced life, you can’t sustain high performance without balance.

Basically, there’s still too much of our workplace culture based on some version of Sun Tzu’s The Art Of War. For instance, that book is still on CEO.com’s list of “24 Leadership Books To Read Before You Die.” The problem is that if you live like that, you better read it soon, because you’re not going to have as much time, if you know what I mean.

You see the effects of this thinking everywhere—in language like “killing it,” “crushing it,” “defeating our competitors”—all of which put us in a permanent state of fight-or-flight.

To change the workplace, we need a new language to go along with all the new science we have—language focused on creating, imagining, inspiring, and building teams rather than “killing enemies.”

Meditation may have arrived, but our machismo-fueled culture of overwork and sleep deprivation as badges of honor has not yet left.

And, yes, I see the paradox here: these practices—meditation, yoga, sleeping, recharging and renewing ourselves, etc. —make us better at our jobs, while at the same time they also make us realize that our jobs don’t define the totality of who we are. So if you want to do these things to be better at your job and climb the ladder, that’s great, they’ll do that for you. But they’re also going to make you reconsider the ladder that they’re helping you climb up.

Why are you so passionate about sleep?

Sleep, or how little we get, has become a symbol of our prowess, a badge of honor. We make a fetish of it. It’s even considered a virility symbol. I once had dinner with a man who bragged to me that he’d gotten only four hours of sleep the night before. I resisted the temptation to tell him that the dinner would have been a lot more interesting if he had gotten five.

Sleep has become aspirational—more of a survival tactic and less of a way to really recharge, renew and reconnect with ourselves. Studies show that more than 30% of people in the U.S. and U.K. are not getting enough sleep.

Yet there’s a reason why sleep deprivation is classified as a form of torture, and why it’s a very common, and successful, strategy used by cults. Sleep deprivation reduces our emotional intelligence, self-esteem, sense of independence, empathy, positive thinking, and impulse control. In fact, one study found that the only thing that gets better with sleep deprivation is “magical thinking” and reliance on superstition. So the only career sleep deprivation might help you in is fortune-telling! 

Of course, sleep deprivation is also associated with stress and higher risk of a host of illnesses, like heart disease. Lack of sleep was a “significant factor” in the Exxon Valdez wreck, Challenger Space Shuttle explosion, and the nuclear accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.

Bill Clinton, who famously used to get only five hours of sleep, once admitted, “Every important mistake I’ve made in my life, I’ve made because I was too tired." Let’s hope his wife has learned more about the benefits of sleep. She did say after she stepped down as Secretary of State that the first thing she wanted to do was to get “untired.” I not only hope she’s done that, but that if and when she returns to the campaign trail she’ll be the public face of changing this mostly-male-created, stressed out, dysfunctional work culture we have.

Sleep is a feminist issue, because of all the sleep-deprived Americans, women are the most fatigued. 

 Does getting more sleep really make that big a difference in performance? 

Sleep is the ultimate performance-enhancing drug. Cheri Mah, a researcher at the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic, ran a study in 2011 which involved Stanford basketball players getting more sleep. Three-point shooting and free throw went up 9%, which I’m told is a significant increase (I’m too busy sleeping to learn the particulars of basketball statistics).

Further, an Australian study found that poor sleep could be shaving as much as .8% off the GDP. In the U.S., given that real GDP increased only 1.9% in 2013, that’s a huge effect.

Our leaders might be asleep at the wheel in Washington, but we could give the economy a jumpstart ourselves by just hitting the sack. In fact, just turn on C-SPAN and watch what passes for political debate and you’ll be helping our economy by sleeping in no time.

Talk a bit about the importance of mindfulness.

When I first heard about mindfulness, I was confused. My mind was already full enough, I thought—I needed to empty it, not focus on it. My conception of the mind was sort of like the household junk drawer—just keep cramming things in and hope it doesn’t jam. Then I read more about it, by people like Jon Kabat-Zinn and Oxford psychology professor Mark Williams, and it made sense.

 While the world provides plenty of flashing, high-volume signals directing us to make more money and climb higher up the ladder, there are almost no worldly signals reminding us to stay connected to the essence of who we are, to take care of ourselves, to reach out to others, to pause to wonder, and to connect to that place from which everything is possible. Mindfulness makes us aware of our lives as we’re living them. And the world is practically begging us to not be aware of living, to not see, to not connect, and to not engage.

For those who still think of meditation and mindfulness as exotic imports, Western traditions of prayer and contemplation, or philosophies like Stoicism, from my home country, fulfill many of the same purposes. I love Mark Williams’ definition of mindfulness, that it “cultivates our ability to do things knowing that we’re doing them.” In other words, it gives us a heightened sense of being alive, of living our lives. It’s like getting the premium tier on cable, or flying first class. By making you present to what’s going on, it gives you the VIP version of your own life.

We now know from many scientific studies that the reason why mindfulness and meditation have such profound effects on us is because they literally rewire our brains. And that means they can also be a powerful tool. For instance, one recent study out of Johns Hopkins showed that meditation’s effect on depression was essentially equal to antidepressants—and without all the unpleasant side-effects. The list of all the conditions that these practices improve—depression, anxiety, heart disease, memory, aging, creativity—sounds like a label on snake oil. Except this cure-all is real.

Another study found that meditation made people more willing to act virtuous. It literally makes us better versions of ourselves. It’s the Swiss army knife of medical tools.

 One change you made to your life was to start walking more, which seems pretty basic.

Walking is one easy way to tap into our creativity, wisdom, and wonder. Not only is it great for us, but there are a host of studies that show that sitting is as bad for us as walking is good for us.

We sit still and our minds want to ramble. Get up and start walking, and our minds can slow down and be more focused.

When I lived in LA, I did my best thinking while hiking. When I go back, I still have hiking meetings instead of sit-down meetings. In the regular group I hike with, our rule is that whomever is in the best shape does most of the talking on the way up, and the rest of us do the talking on the descent (I usually find myself talking more on the way down).
There are also some who have business meetings while hiking. It’s a great idea, as it’s not often that you’ll have epiphanies or breakthrough creative thoughts sitting in a conference room while everyone zones out and stares at whatever screens they brought with them.

Though your mind can still wander productively, walking requires some of your active attention and lifting our eyes off our screens. Sometimes the only way to connect with somebody face-to-face is to almost literally run, or walk, away from our devices.

Speaking of basic, another simple tweak is to bring a pet into your life. I like to think of them as our friends-with-benefits. Studies show that pets lower stress and increase feelings of happiness and well-being in the workplace (as of now, 17% of companies allow pets). One professor called pets “a low-cost wellness intervention” program.

Why the emphasis on giving?

Giving is so important in redefining success and allowing us to thrive because its power to change and transform flows as much to the giver as to the recipient. This isn’t just an aphorism—there’s been a ton of recent science proving that giving is like taking a miracle drug for our well-being, except with no nasty side-effects.

Throughout our history, the spirit of giving, of service, and of civic engagement helped bind a country of disparate parts and races and languages, and has continued to bring us closer to a more perfect union. The fading of that spirit is behind the feeling so many Americans have that the country is breaking apart, that we’re polarized and no longer indivisible.

One Harvard Business School working paper showed that donating to charity has a similar effect on our well-being as a doubling of household income. And last year a study showed that volunteering is associated with lower rates of depression, higher reports of well-being, and a big reduction in mortality risk.

And in the workplace, studies show that giving makes employees healthier, more creative and more collaborative

We know that collective, we’re-all-in-this-together spirit is there in America. We see it time and time again after natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy, or tragedies like the Newtown shooting. We hear again and again how the disaster brought out the best in us. But it shouldn’t take a disaster to make us tap into our natural humanity. We know there are people in need all the time, in every community. So the question is, how can we sustain that best-self spirit all year round? How can we make it a part of our lives so it becomes as natural as breathing?

I dream of a day when families look at their weekend plans and say, What are we going to do this weekend—are we going to shop, see a movie, volunteer?     

Imagine how our culture, how our lives, will change when we begin valuing go-givers as much as we value go-getters.

How can busy people find time to give?  

It’s really easy to bring the benefits of giving into your everyday life. Here are a few tips:

•Start by making even small gestures of kindness and giving a habit, and pay attention to how this affects your mind, your emotions, and your body.

•During your day make a personal connection with people you might normally tend to pass by and take for granted: the checkout clerk, the cleaning crew at your office or hotel, the barista in the coffee shop. See how this helps you feel more alive and reconnected to the moment.

•Use a skill or talent you have—cooking, accounting, decorating—to help someone who could benefit from it. It’ll jumpstart your transition from a go-getter to a go-giver, and reconnect you to the world and to the natural abundance in your own life.

Another important aspect of giving is giving thanks. Living in a state of gratitude is the gateway to grace. In fact, grace and gratitude have the same Latin root, gratus. Whenever we find ourselves in a stop-the-world-I-want-to-get-off mindset, we can remember that there is another way, and open ourselves to grace. And it’s as easy as taking a moment to be grateful for this day, for being alive, for anything. 

Gratitude works its magic by serving as an antidote to negative emotions. It’s like white blood cells for the soul, protecting us from cynicism, entitlement, anger, and resignation.

You say that eulogies are very Third Metric.

We all have to face death at some point. As the Onion headline put it, “Death rate holds steady at 100%.” Yet have you noticed that when we die, our eulogies celebrate our lives very differently from the way society defines success?

A eulogy is the first formal marking down of what was special about our lives. It’s how people remember us and how we live on in the minds and hearts of others, so it’s very Third Metric. It’s very telling what we don’t hear in eulogies—things like:

“The crowning achievement of his life was becoming  senior vice president.”

Or:  “He increased market share for his company.”

Or:  “She ate lunch at her desk every day.”

Or:  “She had 600 Facebook friends.”

Or:  “His PowerPoint slides were always meticulously prepared.”

Or: “She was never offline. Until now.”
Our eulogies are always about the other stuff: what we gave, how we connected, how much we meant to our family and friends, small kindnesses, lifelong passions, and the things that made us laugh. So why do we spend so much of our limited time focusing on all the things our eulogy will never cover?

We may not be able to witness our own eulogy, but we’re actually writing it all the time, everyday. The question is how much material we’re giving the eulogizer to work with.

Whether you believe in an afterlife or not, by being fully present in our lives and in the lives of those we love, we’re not just writing our own eulogies; we’re creating a very real version of our afterlives. It’s an invaluable lesson—but one that has much more value if we learn it while we still have the good fortune of being healthy and energetic enough to put it into action.

We are not on this earth to accumulate victories, or trophies, or experiences, or even to avoid failures, but to become who we truly are. This is the only way we can find purpose in pain and loss, and the only way to keep returning to gratitude and grace.

Now that we know what the solution is, how do we put that knowledge into action?

Turning our knowledge and wisdom into action doesn’t require much. It doesn’t matter what your entry point is; Eastern traditions don’t have a monopoly on tapping into our wisdom. In fact, you don't have to use any spiritual tradition at all to enjoy the benefits of mindfulness. If you don’t want to start with meditation, or prayer, or contemplation, go fly fishing. In fact, I have friends who have said to me, ‘my meditation is running,’ or skydiving or gardening. The question is, can you create that state of mind at will, without having to put on your running shoes, or get out your trowel or fishing rod? The point is to find some regular activity that trains your mind to be still, fully present, and connected with yourself. And to introduce regular pauses in the course of your day—just to breathe and notice the connection with our breath, with our inhaling and exhaling.

We know we thrive when we keep in mind that life is shaped from the inside out—a truth celebrated by spiritual teachers, poets, and philosophers throughout the ages, and now validated by science.

Whatever your entry point is, embrace it. You’ll have the wind at your back, because that’s what our times are calling for, that’s where we’re headed. I love this line from Rumi: “Live life as if everything is rigged in your favor.”

I’ve been closing some of my talks by saying, “Upward, onward and inward.” But Americans like to go forward—it’s a land of doers—and so a lot of us have an easier time with “upward and onward” than “inward.” But it’s going in—the inward—that makes upward and onward possible. So, yes, go upward and onward, but don’t forget inward.

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