Arianna Huffington Leads the Charge for Well-Being in the Workplace
To understand Arianna, you must first understand Elli.
Born to a family that escaped to Greece from Russia during the revolution of 1917, Elli met her husband, a World War II concentration camp survivor, while recovering from tuberculosis in a sanatorium outside Athens. Before she left him, fed up with his chronic philandering, she brought two daughters into the world. One would grow up to be an actress, author and motivational speaker. The other would run for governor of California and establish The Huffington Post.
Despite her limited means, Elli Stassinopoulos managed to give both girls the conviction to chase their dreams, teaching them the finer points of mythology, literature, history and religion. In 1966 she moved the family from a one-bedroom apartment in Athens to London so 16-year-old Arianna could study at Cambridge, while Agapi—younger by two years—attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. What the diminutive Elli lacked in stature, she more than made up for with spunk. As a Red Cross nurse, she once stood up to Nazi soldiers armed with machine guns, chasing them away from an infirmary that was harboring two Jews. She called it the day she found her “giant self.”
Needless to say, the sprightly matriarch was a towering presence in her daughters’ lives. “She gave me unconditional love and unconventional wisdom,” Huffington says from her window-lined office in New York City’s Greenwich Village.
Often Elli’s lessons were dispensed in the form of a colorful metaphor. If one of her daughters was wallowing in sorrow, she’d say, “Darling, just change the channel. You are in control of the clicker.”
If the child was struggling with a tough decision, she’d advise her to “let it marinate.” All who passed through Elli’s radiant life were subject to such counseling.
When a family friend, a successful builder, overweight and out of breath, lumbered up the stairs to her apartment for a dinner, she scolded him. “I don’t care how your business is going—you’re not taking care of you,” she said. “Your business might have a great bottom line, but you are your most important capital.”
It’s fitting, then, that Arianna Huffington’s latest book is a discourse on achievement and health. Newly available in paperback, Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder is dedicated to this luminous presence, the woman who showed Huffington the way to a meaningful life. Though the text hums with statistics and expert testimony, it’s Elli’s voice that animates it, infusing Huffington’s words with an Old World wisdom. Were Elli alive today, she’d no doubt be outraged by what has become of our human capital.
We are, as the now 64-year-old Huffington writes, a species hell-bent on working ourselves to death. We hustle out of bed in the morning to outrun the 9-to-5 slackers to the office, power through the day on a river of caffeine, then dash home for a quick dinner and a long night with our laptops. Surely, we think, there must be time for one last email, one last phone call, one last sales pitch. When all else fails, we turn to modern medicine to keep us going: blood pressure pills, antidepressants, prescription painkillers. No wonder 96 percent of leaders admit to feeling burned out, according to one Harvard Medical School study.
What we overlook is the staggering toll all that nonstop hustle takes on us. That commuter train derailment that killed four and injured more than 60 outside New York City in 2013? It was caused by an engineer who nodded off at the wheel. The Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Challenger space shuttle disaster, and the nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl? All fatigue-related.
In late 2008, even former president Bill Clinton, who famously ran on fewer than five hours of sleep a night while he was in office, told CNN anchor Anjali Rao, “In my long political career, most of the mistakes I made, I made when I was too tired.”
Huffington is not the only one to sound the alarm on this mounting epidemic. “We are what I’ve termed a nation of walking zombies,” says retired Cornell psychology professor James Maas, Ph.D., the author of Sleep for Success. “We’re going through life, a majority of us, half awake.” And, he argues, chronic fatigue leads to a whole bunch of problems: a significant increase in anxiety, irritability, depression, hypertension, obesity, type 2 diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer’s, plus deficiencies in reaction time, creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
According to Harvard Medical School, sleep deprivation costs U.S. companies $63.2 billion a year in lost productivity.
Without a full eight hours’ rest, it seems, it’s mighty hard to function, much less learn, communicate, decipher and, yes, thrive. That’s why Huffington finds herself returning to the topic of healthy sleep time and again in her public speeches. Thrive sprang from a commencement address she delivered at Smith College in 2013. Before that, she had raised the issue at the Massachusetts Conference for Women and Cleveland’s Female Entrepreneur Summit—often with a touch of Elli’s flair. “We are literally going to sleep our way to the top,” she said at a Washington, D.C., TED event in 2010.
None of that would have transpired, however, were it not for a humbling personal experience that left Huffington so dazed and confused, it changed the course of her life.
The wake-up call came on April 6, 2007, the day Huffington found herself sprawled on the floor of her home office with a broken cheekbone and a cut that required five stitches on her right eyelid. She had literally collapsed from exhaustion, smashing her face on the desk on the way to the ground. The Huffington Post was barely 2 years old, and she was working 18-hour days to expand the growing media site. Time magazine had just named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world, but she didn’t feel all that special, especially not after a battery of medical tests—MRIs, CAT scans and echocardiograms—revealed she was simply suffering from burnout. “I was not living a successful life,” Huffington writes in Thrive, “by any sane definition.”
Huffington had always been driven, a world-class overachiever. She served as the first foreign president of Cambridge’s legendary Debating Society in the early ’70s. She wrote her first best-seller, The Female Woman, at age 23 and then moved to New York in 1980, charming her way into relationships with the city’s power brokers—people like Ann Getty, Barbara Walters and Nora Ephron. Six years later, she married oil tycoon Michael Huffington—who worked as an arms control negotiator in the Reagan Administration—and quickly conquered the West Coast, eventually helping her husband win election to the House of Representatives while giving birth to two daughters. Before launching HuffPo 2005, she took a stab at elected office herself, running for governor of California in the recall race that launched Arnold Schwarzenegger’s political career.
But blacking out in 2007 convinced Huffington she had to make changes, to take a step back from her punishing schedule and her four BlackBerrys. She was no stranger to self-improvement. Over the years, she had explored everything from homeopathy to firewalking to a cabbage soup diet. “We all talk about outer space projects—going to the moon, going to Mars,” she says. “I’m much more interested in the inner space project—exploring the depths of who we are.”
For that, there was no better guide than Elli, who taught her daughter—much like the Greek philosophers of old—how to ask the right questions. What is a good life? How do you make that a goal? What must one do to achieve it? Huffington started with small steps, squeezing an extra half hour of shut-eye into her madcap routine. “I didn’t go directly from four hours to eight,” she says. “I did it incrementally. But every time I increased my sleep, I’d feel so much better that it would entice me to do more. Because I liked that feeling. I like that I can be here with you and fully present. I don’t ever want to be in that other place again.”
In time she arrived at a new set of priorities. These emphasized the importance of well-being, wisdom, wonder and a healthy work-life balance. She learned to disconnect from the bustle and to live more in the moment. She had long been a proponent of meditation, yoga and prayer. Now she made it a point to banish her cellphone and laptop from her bedroom well before she went to sleep. She cuddled up with a book instead—one that had nothing to do with work.
These days she encourages her employees to follow her lead. She advises them to leave their desks at lunchtime and use all 21 of their vacation days. She offers them meditation, yoga, and breathing classes. And she tells them not to worry about checking email after leaving the office.
HuffPo’s refrigerators are stocked with hummus, baby carrots, yogurt and fruit. Huffington has also installed two small nap rooms in the company’s New York offices. Each is outfitted with a reclining, space capsule-like EnergyPod that provides ambient noise to promote hibernation. To fight the stigma attached to such midday respites, she points to famous nappers such as Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison, Eleanor Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Kobe Bryant. For men, she concedes, going without sleep has sadly become a symbol of virility, a chance to impress colleagues with devotion to work. “I once had dinner with a man who bragged to me he’d only gotten four hours of sleep the previous night,” she recalled in a 2012 blog post. “It was not easy to resist the temptation to tell him that he might have been a lot more interesting if he’d gotten five.”
For women, such thinking is even more ominous. Those in stressful jobs are 40 percent more likely to contract heart disease than other women and 60 percent more likely to find themselves saddled with diabetes, Huffington notes in her book. So she challenges her peers to take a stand, to put a halt to the macho bravado that prompts sleep deprivation and view those hours of much-needed rest as “performance enhancement.”
Her office looks more like a sitting room, equipped with two reading chairs, a pillow-laden sofa, decorative lamps, framed photos and books lining the shelves and end tables. In fact, the conference-call phone that sits on the glass table she uses as a desk is the lone giveaway that this is indeed a workspace. In typical Greek fashion, Huffington showers visitors with offerings—shelled walnuts, green tea and grapefruit—before settling into a chair to chat.
“We now have so many examples of super-successful people who are not fulfilled, who have sacrificed their health on the altar of success, who somehow are filled with anxiety or depression or can’t sleep,” she says, pointing to recent fiascos in finance and politics, the many wise leaders who have imperiled the public with their dumb decisions.
To solve the larger problems confronting the nation, Huffington believes, it’s not enough to simply prescribe more bed rest. We must change the very definition of success.
“If you think about it, success in the beginning was really about having a good life,” she says. “‘What is a good life?’ the philosophers would ask. And then we shrunk it down to these two metrics—money and power. And that’s really shrinking the definition of what it means to be human. It means we go through life in a place of lack.”
That only works if we also acknowledge the abundance in our lives—the clean sheets, the water pressure in the shower, the airplane that touches down safely, the awesome treasure of good health. In the age of technology, of 24/7 information flow, we often find ourselves with very little time to appreciate this bounty, to express our gratitude for the things that go right. “Everybody’s afraid of missing out on the action,” Huffington says. “We’re missing out on life.”
Her own trajectory is by no means perfect. She divorced in 1997. Her younger daughter, Isabella, and her older daughter, Christina, each wrestled with eating disorders. But those setbacks did not divert Huffington from championing her vision of life. She forged a cordial relationship with her ex-husband, rallied to her daughters’ sides, and looked inward for the wisdom and strength to continue speaking out about the pitfalls of modern culture. “My mother used to say failure is not the opposite of success,” she says. “It’s a stepping-stone to success.”
Huffington has a reputation for being opportunistic. The first of her 14 books was a highly charged rebuttal to the revolutionary rhetoric of the early ’70s feminist movement. And her political alliances have shifted with the times. Once a close pal of Newt Gingrich, she launched The Huffington Post as a voice for the generation that elected Barack Obama. “To me,” she once told New York magazine, “the issues are more important than the party.”
And despite the uplifting office culture she champions, Huffington is a notoriously demanding boss. “To me, there’s no conflict there,” she says. “A nurturing environment doesn’t mean lower standards or lower ambition. It’s about setting up conditions to allow everyone to be their best selves.”
In fact, since selling The Huffington Post to AOL in 2011 for $315 million, she has not lowered her expectations one bit. She still runs the show as editor in chief, and she still has four assistants to help her stay abreast of her day. Instead of sitting back and counting her blessings, she wants to go head-to-head with The New York Times. (In that regard, she follows in the footsteps of her journalist father, Konstantinos.) When she spoke to SUCCESS in November, The Huffington Post had offices in 11 countries and new outposts opening in Greece, India and Saudi Arabia. Huffington talked of the site’s new mobile strategy and the new newsroom on the fourth floor, filled with bays for editing video. In 2012 the website even won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for a series of stories by David Wood that explored the challenges faced by soldiers injured in Iraq and Afghanistan.
While the front-page headlines often reflect the news from Washington and Wall Street, the website also devotes a great deal of coverage to healthy living, including a section on the tenets of Thrive. Huffington is the first to admit, however, that her faith in the digital world only stretches so far. “Ours is a generation bloated with information and starved for wisdom,” she writes.
So she makes it a point to unplug at regular intervals throughout the day. She works out, she meditates, she strives to get those eight hours of sleep as often as she can. But she also pauses to appreciate the glory of her life—the two flourishing daughters; the sweet tang of a fresh-cut grapefruit; the opportunity to share a meal with good friends. Life is so much more rewarding since she expanded her definition of success that Huffington wants to see others do the same. The only people who truly benefit from the old workplace standards, she argues, are those who work for pharmaceutical companies.
Maybe, as Elli once said, it is indeed time to change the channel.
“The way the world is designed is not working,” Huffington says. “It’s not working for men. It’s not working for women. It’s not working for polar bears.” Those last two words roll off her Greek-inflected tongue with a little extra bite. “So let’s reshape it. Let’s redesign it.”