She runs a media empire that sold for US$315 million, but Arianna Huffington says health is the only currency that matters. But how do you find peace and profit? Meditation, silk pyjamas and a lot of self-compassion make for a good start, according to Arianna.
Today, The Huffington Post is more successful than ever – bought by AOL in 2013 – with Arianna staying on board as editor-in-chief as part of the deal. The website now has a UK portal and recently confirmed plans to introduce an Arabic-language edition, after already launching local services in Brazil, South Korea and Germany.
Despite still being as heavily involved in the day-to-day running of the website as ever, Arianna’s health has not suffered since a bout of exhaustion led to a dangerous fall in 2007. We sat down with the woman of the moment to ask how she has found the holy grail of business – balance.
You speak about the importance of the three-legged stool: can you pinpoint a time in your life when you were the most off balance?
Yes, I was dangerously off balance in the run-up to my painful wakeup call. On the morning of April 6, 2007, I was lying on the floor of my home office in a pool of blood. On my way down, my head had hit the corner of my desk, cutting my eye and breaking my cheekbone. I had collapsed from exhaustion and lack of sleep. In the wake of my collapse, I found myself going from doctor to doctor, from brain MRI to CAT scan to echocardiogram, to find out if there was any underlying medical problem beyond exhaustion. There wasn’t, but doctors’ waiting rooms, it turns out, were good places for me to ask myself a lot of questions about the kind of life I was living.
What were the consequences on your happiness, health and personal relationships?
We founded The Huffington Post in 2005, and two years in we were growing at an incredible pace. I was on the cover of magazines and had been chosen by Time as one of the world’s 100 Most Influential People. But after my fall, I had to ask myself, Was this what success looked like? Was this the life I wanted? I was working eighteen hours a day, seven days a week, trying to build a business, expand our coverage, and bring in investors. But my life, I realized, was out of control. In terms of the traditional measures of success, which focus on money and power, I was very successful. But I was not living a successful life by any sane definition of success. My happiness, health and personal relationships all suffered, in ways I wasn’t willing to admit. And I knew something had to radically change. I could not go on that way.
Would you say you were burnt out at that point in your career?
Burnout certainly led to my collapse from exhaustion, but there were many other less dramatic instances, too. For far too long, I operated under the collective delusion that burning out is the necessary price for accomplishment and success. Recent scientific findings make it clear that this couldn’t be less true.
Not only is there no trade-off between living a well-rounded life and high performance, performance is actually improved when our lives include time for renewal, wisdom, wonder and giving.
Do you think self-compassion is a quality missing in many ambitious creatives and entrepreneurs, to our detriment?
Yes, and the lack of self-compassion is often connected to what I call the obnoxious roommate living in our head. It feeds on putting us down and strengthening our insecurities and doubts. I wish someone would invent a tape recorder that we could attach to our brains to record everything we tell ourselves. We would realise how important it is to stop this negative self- talk. It means pushing back against our obnoxious roommate with a dose of wisdom.
Your career is now based online, but you speak about the dangers of becoming addicted to technology. Do you set any rules or guidelines in your life to ensure technology doesn’t get in the way of your real-world relationships?
Yes! I have a specific time at night when I regularly turn off my devices— and gently escort them out of my bedroom. Disconnecting from the digital world helps me reconnect to my wisdom, intuition, and creativity. And when I wake up in the morning, I don’t start my day by looking at my smartphone. I take a minute to breathe deeply, be grateful, and set my intention for the day.
Last December, I decided to do something radical and take a weeklong unplugging challenge, which meant no social media, and limiting myself to two email check-ins a day with our HuffPost editors. Instead of being constantly connected, I spent Christmas in Hawaii with my daughters, my sister and my ex-husband, not photographing beautiful sunsets, not tweeting pictures of my dinner, and skipping Throwback Thursday on Instagram in favour of being immersed in the things happening right now.
You’ve said you see The Huffington Post as a constant work in progress. Do you think a certain level of self-criticism is important in order to keep improving and not become complacent?
I don’t see it as self-criticism, but as seeing our work and our lives as constantly evolving works in progress. At HuffPost, we strive every day to grow and seize new opportunities, but at the same time stay true to our DNA. We are rooted in our core values of engagement, starting conversations, and helping people live the lives they want, not the lives they settle for.
Can you describe your first experience of meditating? What made you begin and, like many of us, did you struggle at first to quiet the to-do lists in your mind?
My mother taught my younger sister, Agapi, and me how to meditate when I was thirteen years old, and I now start every morning with 20 to 30 minutes of meditation. Through mindfulness and meditation, I’ve found a practice that helps bring me fully present and in the moment, even in the most hectic of circumstances.
What is the most important piece of advice you pass to your daughters in regards to keeping their sense of wonder, even when work is pulling them in all directions?
“Don’t miss the moment.” This was one of my mother’s favourite sayings, which embodied the philosophy of her life.
If you had written a book in your twenties, would your advice and outlook have been very different?
The books I wrote in my twenties were more about ideas and less about advice, which is a good thing because I’m not sure if the advice I’d have given back then would have been very good! Still, I wish I had known then that there would be no trade-off between living a well-rounded life and my ability to do good work. I wish I could go back and tell myself, “Arianna, your performance will actually improve if you can commit to not only working hard, but also unplugging, recharging and renewing yourself.” That would have saved me a lot of unnecessary stress, burnout and exhaustion.
A lot of us particularly struggle to find balance when travelling for work, but do you have any rituals to ensure you nurture your wellbeing even on the road?
I have several rituals that help me de-stress and unwind while traveling. My morning ritual of 20 to 30 minutes of meditation becomes especially important when I’m on the road. And the connection that conscious breathing gives me is something I can return to hundreds of times during the day in an instant, no matter where I am. A conscious focus on breathing helps me introduce pauses into my daily life, brings me back into the moment, and helps me transcend upsets and setbacks.
From Issue 15 of The Collective on sale now.
Photography: Art Streiber, courtesy of Random House