A year after the debut of her eponymous news site and blog, political commentator Arianna Huffington was by most definitions an American success story—The Huffington Post was growing in readership and prestige, and its Greek-born founder was one of the world’s 100 Most Influential People, according to Time.
And then early on April 6, 2007, she suddenly felt not so powerful, as she found herself lying in a pool of blood on her home office floor.
So committed to growing her business was Huffington—working 18 hours a day—that she collapsed from exhaustion and lack of sleep and smashed her head against a desk on the way down. The painful wake-up call, and Huffington’s ardent response to it, is detailed in her new book, Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder.
She now sees the intangibles of life to be even more important than accumulating money and power. Though Huffington’s responsibility and influence have only grown since AOL bought HuffPost in 2011 (netting her company $315 million in the deal), she tells SUCCESS that it’s possible for anyone to balance work, health, personal growth and peace.
Q: Preventing burnout and exercising professional passions has been a philosophy for you since the accident in 2007. How do you approach these goals at The Huffington Post?
A: It’s really been part of the journey since my own wake-up call. In the same way that I was suffering from burnout, I could see it among my colleagues and friends; I read about it in terms of the cost of stress in the workplace. When you look at why people become burned out, it’s because of how they define success for themselves.
Three years ago, when we moved into our new offices after AOL bought HuffPost, we started two nap rooms and basically made it very clear to our employees that, if they were tired in the middle of the afternoon, they could have a nap rather than a third cinnamon bun or a fifth cup of coffee. At first people were reluctant to be seen going into a nap room, but now the rooms are so busy that we may have to open a third one.
We also introduced weekly yoga, meditation and breathing classes at the office, and there are healthy snacks free for everyone. It’s really a culture. We are trying to make sure that everyone knows that after work they’re not expected to answer email, for example. And unless they’re [scheduled to work evenings or weekends] everything can wait, they can unplug and recharge themselves…. All of that is tied into what we call the third metric. We really believe there is no tradeoff between what is good for the people who work at HuffPost and what is good for HuffPost.
Q: The war for online attention may be the most competitive industry in the world right now. How do you reconcile this ideal culture with the need for productivity?
A: There’s a lot of scientific data to prove it. Mark Bertolini, the CEO of Aetna, brought in Duke University [researchers] to measure this at Aetna, and the results are measurable and tangible. The old paradigm—that you work 24/7 and drive yourself into the ground to succeed and contribute to your company—is dying.
Right now, first of all, companies are competing for talent—people prefer to work in companies that value them. Also, what we need from everyone who works here is creativity and the ability to innovate. It’s not about stamina; it’s about judgment.
Q: What is your answer for keeping employees passionate about their work over the long haul?
A: That’s a big part of our DNA. People stay here for many years and move from job to job. We really want every person to be where their passion is, so we’re very open to people shifting to different jobs. There’s a lot of cross-pollination among different teams. For example, a lot of our editors also write about things that they care about. We find that’s one of the best ways.
Q: On a personal basis, what are some of the things you’ve learned about keeping yourself refreshed?
A: I had to change a lot of bad workaholic habits. What I learned is that if you change one habit first—what they call the keystone habit—it has a very positive impact on other habits. My keystone habit was sleep. When I went from four or five hours of sleep a night to seven or eight hours of sleep, everything changed. I approached each day really well-charged, which I think is the key.
Every day is going to bring problems and obstacles whether you’re a small business or a big business. The question is, how do you deal with them? Do you become reactive, or do you see beyond those problems to the opportunities? What is your level of resilience? Often perseverance and resilience are the difference between success and failure in business. When I’m in a centered, recharged place, it has positive effects on everything I do.
Q: How have you developed that appreciation for resiliency?
A: My mother was my first and biggest mentor. She taught me not to be afraid of failing and how I could move beyond my failures to succeed. She also taught me to have a sense of humor about everything that happened. She used to say, “Angels fly because they take themselves lightly.” Very often we take everything that happens too seriously, too much to heart. She helped me find perspective.