Change of Direction

WBF Sydney Live

10 minute read

A BLACKOUT PROVOKED BY A PANIC ATTACK LED ARIANNA HUFFINGTON TO RADICALLY CHANGE HER LIFESTYLE. HERE ARE THE SECRETS AND STRATEGIES FROM AN ENTREPRENEUR WHO PUTS HER WELL-BEING AT THE TOP OF HER PRIORITIES.

Huffington is far from being considered an unproductive person. After publishing a dozen of books, participating in radio and television programs in the United States and United Kingdom, heading public interest campaigns and even running as an independent candidate in the electoral campaign for governor of California in 2003, reached her greatest professional success two years after cofounding and directing The Huffington Post, a website that revolutionized the panorama of online media communications. "The Huffington Post was able to attract large amounts of readers with a low-cost news service generated by its own users," stated the European Commission, in an analysis of the current ecosystem of journalism. Today, the portal receives 200 million unique visitors every month.

Arianna's dedication to this project was not full-time, but full-life. "In April 2007, two years had past since I had launched The Huffington Post. I worked 18 hours a day developing the business, defining our editorial coverage, and taking care of my two daughters," she said in an interview published on her own site. "One day I returned to my house and simply collapsed. I hit my head on the way down, fractured my cheekbone, and they had to give me four stitches above my right eye," she remembered. After seeing various doctors, she concluded that the accident had not been due to a brain tumor as she assumed, but physical exhaustion. Nonetheless, she didn't see this as the end of her professional career, but a crossroads. "I asked myself what success really was and what a truly good life was like, just like Greek philosophers did. And I understood that I could not consider myself successful if I was lying in a puddle of blood on the floor of my office," she reasoned.

In Search of Well-Being

Executives aren't the only ones that suffer from fatigue. According to a report from the American Psychological Association, (APA), 78% of American adults have observed an increase in their levels of stress in the past five years. And 33% of those surveyed assured that this tension affected their mental health.

"Today, the idea of success is composed of two factors: money and power. In fact, those three words — success, money and power — have become synonyms," highlighted Huffington in a speech at Smith College in the state of Massachusetts. "On their own, power and money are like chairs with two legs. They can balance for a while, but sooner or later, they will collapse. More and more successful people are collapsing, which shows that our current definition of success isn't sustainable for people, or for society," she adds. "It's time that we consider a third metric beyond power and money: one based on well-being, wiseness, the ability to surprise ourselves and give to others. To live the life that we want, and not the one that society defines as successful, it is key to include that third indicator," she sustained, setting the stage for what she would later expand on in her book Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom and Wonder.

Her latest book, The Sleep Revolution, takes up the issue she presented in her TED talk: the consequences that lack of rest have on all aspects of our lives, from health to decision-making, in both the professional and personal realms. In the book, basketball player Andre "Iggy" Iguodala of the Golden State Warriors, an NBA team, tells that his performance increased greatly when he started to sleep at least eight hours a day. "We take better care of our smartphones than we do ourselves," assures Huffington. "We know how charged our cell phones are, but we don't always know how much internal battery we have."

In First Person

Talking to WOBI, Arianna Huffington remembers the change in mentality that she experienced after the accident, and explains the importance of rest in improving productivity and finding personal and professional success.

"TO MEASURE SUCCESS, HUFFINGTON BELIEVES THAT YOU SHOULD MEASURE NOT ONLY THE POWER OR MONEY THAT A PERSON HAS, BUT ALSO A ‘THIRD METRIC BASED ON WELL-BEING AND WISDOM.'"

Is it possible to combine professional success with personal well-being? What are the keys to amalgamating both conditions?

Yes, it is absolutely possible. For too long, many of us have acted under the collective illusion that excessive stress is the price that we pay for achieving success. Recent scientific studies have made it very clear that this could not be less true. Living a full life and achieving high professional performance are not contradictory. In fact, performance improves when our lives include time for renovation, surprising ourselves, helping and learning.

Executives tend to focus on what's urgent instead of what's important. How can you attack this problem?

The good news is that, in many cases, this problem is already being attacked. The change in the way that a growing number of businesses and leaders understand their roles in the world is one of the most exciting and promising phenomena in the recent years; something totally necessary. More and more companies are leaving their obsession with trimester reports and short term profits behind, and starting to adopt a very different vision. As CEO of Unilever Paul Polman explains, "Companies must utilize their size, scale, experience and resources to attack the current world's problems, and try to achieve truly transformational change in a systematic way." A sense of purpose has become, truly, a value that is not only just as important as business, but essential to long-term success.

In a business world dominated by men, the pressure on when tends to be much greater, particularly as they reach high-ranking positions. Why do you think it is so difficult to achieve a balance between work and family, and what can human resources departments do to reduce this gap?

One of the greatest obstacles has to do with the way that work environments are structured. Many women don't reach their peak and stay in lower-ranking positions if reaching it implies sacrificing their health, well-being, relationships and happiness. Women that have highly stressful jobs have a 40% higher chance of suffering from a heart attack or Type 2 diabetes. But this connection between the two illnesses does not exist in men. And it is a clear symptom of the professional "burnout" culture and chauvinist notion of sleep deprival being synonymous with dedication. It is a culture that was developed by men, but that affects both sexes.

"I WORKED 18 HOURS A DAY, SEVEN DAYS A WEEK, TRYING TO BUILD THE BUSINESS AND LOOKING FOR INVESTORS, BUT MY LIFE WAS OUT OF CONTROL."

Before the "wake up call" that you had in 2007, did you have any idea that your lifestyle could be damaging to your health?

Yes, I had an idea, but I wasn't able to recognize its magnitude. Two years after founding the site, we were growing at an incredible rate. I was on all the magazine covers and was chosen by Time as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. I worked 18 hours a day, seven days a week, trying to build the business, expanding our coverage and looking for investors. But I discovered that my life was out of control, and that something had to change radically. I couldn't keep living that way.

How is it possible to avoid stress and maintain productivity in a time in which smartphones oblige us to be constantly connected?

We all use technological devices. The question is how to use them healthily. In my case, I am a specialist in a method of disconnecting. I have a specific time at night during which I turn off my devices and nicely check them at the door. Disconnecting from the digital world helps us reconnect with our internal wisdom — with our ambition and creativity. Later, waking up the next day, I don't start the day looking at my phone. I take a minute — truly, and if possible, a minute more — to breathe deeply, be grateful and define my intentions for the day that is beginning.

Why do you believe that people under-appreciate the importance of sleep? What changes have you made to attack this problem in your life?

I think it is part of that cultural trick that I was talking about before. Sleep, or lack or rest, has become a symbol of strength, a type of medal of honor. We have made it into a fetish, even as a symbol of manliness. Once, I had dinner with a man that was so proud of only sleeping four hours the night before. I resisted the temptation to tell him that the dinner would have been much more interesting if he had slept five. In my case, after that painful wakeup call, I made the decision to turn rest not only into a priority in my life, but to transform myself into a sleep evangelist. 95% of my nights, I sleep eight hours. Once I was able to improve my periods of rest, other habits, like meditation and exercise, became simpler.

"MORE AND MORE COMPANIES ARE LEAVING THEIR OBSESSION WITH SHORT TERM PROFITS BEHIND AND BEGINNING TO IMPLEMENT A DIFFERENT VISION."

In your 1994 book, The Fourth Instinct, you described that "those that have matured spiritually find their lives' centers in helping others." 20 years later, do you still hold that opinion? What can people do to meet this objective?

Yes, of course! An essential element of success is willingness to give the best of yourself to others, motivated by empathy and compassion. We can all begin to work on meeting that objective through forming a part of something much larger than ourselves.

What do you understand complete well-being to be?

The first time that I heard the word "mindfulness," I felt confused. The literal translation of the term is "a full mind." I believed that my mind was already full of things, and that what I needed was to liberate it, to not focus on what was already there. In my head, the mind was like a closet of old things in a house: a place that you continuously place things, hoping that nothing will fall out. Later I started to interiorize these concepts more, reading work by specialists like John Kabat-Zinn and Mark Williams, a psychology professor at Oxford, and everything started to make sense. Just like our world is constantly giving us shining signals that encourage us to make more money and reach the top of the professional latter, we practically receive messages that remind us of the importance of being connected with the essence of who we are, to take care of ourselves, to get closer to one another and help each other, to take a minute to pause and surprise ourselves by what surrounds us, to connect with that place where anything is possible. Fulfillment allows us to be conscious of our lives as we live them.