Success Isn't all Huff and Puff
AS one of the world's most powerful women, Huff Post founder Arianna Huffington has spent a lifetime achieving success.
Now in her sixties, she's slowing down (a little bit) and wants the world to do the same, she tells Abi Jackson
"Success is meaningless if you've destroyed your health, and success is pretty meaningless if you've destroyed your relationships.’’
Arianna Huffington has been busy discussing this topic, and it's something she knows a thing or two about.
A best-selling author of 12 books - the first of which she wrote aged 23 while studying at Cambridge - she is best-known for launching The Huffington Post in 2005.
This revolutionised the media not only for being the first ever solely online newspaper, but for its core intention of giving a voice to people who may not have had one before, inviting them to blog on the site.
Arianna later sold Huff Post to AOL in a £200 million deal, but remains as editor-in-chief.
She is also currently ranked 56th in Forbes' list of the world's most powerful women, and has the luxury homes, global kudos and personal wealth to prove it.
Today though, she is talking about the importance of smaller blessings.
"There's so much beauty around us, even in the most desolate urban areas, you know? You can see a flower growing, or a sunset, or a beautiful kitten going down the street - whatever it is that gives you a lift,’’ she says.
These weren't words I'd expected to hear from somebody of such status.
Until last week, my impressions of Arianna were based entirely on things I'd read, and I imagined in person I'd find her slightly removed and intimidating.
In fact, she's warm and friendly, listening intently and making you feel she talks to everybody she meets with this same respect and interest.
Whether this was always the case, who knows, but it certainly sits well with her new project - The Third Metric.
In a nutshell, it's about redefining success to include personal wellbeing.
She came up with the Third Metric moniker as, historically, the two key metrics of success were based on money and power.
She'd like to see that change.
Instead of "running on burn-out’’ constantly chasing every deadline and target, being hooked on smartphones 24/7 and sleeping shorter as our hours in the office get longer, we remember how to switch off from work and make time to look after the really important things in life - our health and relationships.
Alongside countless Huff Post articles, she introduced the campaign in a series of speeches in the US, where she lives, last month, and has now brought it to the UK.
But surely Arianna didn't end up the 56th most powerful woman in the world by gazing at flowers and kittens?
No, she didn't. A lot of graft went into her success.
Born in Greece, her parents, who divorced when she was 11, were both influential in her drive.
Her father inspired her love of journalism (before she was born, he'd started an underground newspaper during the German occupation of Greece and was eventually caught and spent the rest of the war in a concentration camp), and her mother instilled the resilience no doubt fundamental to her later accomplishments.
"My mother taught me that failure is not the opposite of success; it's a stepping stone to success.’’
It's this that gave her the courage to apply to Cambridge, after arriving in the UK aged 16 with her mother and sister, barely able to speak English.
She got in, and rapidly made an impression as a plucky speaker on the debating scene - something she continued to do throughout her career, demonstrating time and time again that you can be a woman with a foreign accent, sporting make-up and a hairsprayed do, and still out-quip leading politicians.
When her long-term relationship with Times columnist Bernard Eunuch ended (he didn't want marriage and kids, she did) she decamped to New York, mother and sister in tow, where she married.
Divorce followed 11 years on but Arianna had two daughters, now 22 and 24, whom she describes as "the biggest blessing in her life’’.
Her mother's positive view of failure remains in Arianna today: "If Bernard hadn't refused to marry me I wouldn't have my daughters, I wouldn't have started the Huffington Post and I wouldn't be here speaking to you now,’’ she says, with a playful smile.
Of course, along the way, work dominated, until 2007, when it caught up with her.
Her body's exhaustion tolerance reached breaking point and she collapsed, smashing her face on her desk and breaking her cheekbone.
She needed five stitches - and a serious rethink of how she was living her life.
"It was a shock, a wake-up call,’’ she says, and one which she, naturally, now counts as a blessing.
"I was lucky I wasn't affected by high blood pressure or anything like that, but I'm sure that had I continued working as I was I would have ended up with serious long-term health consequences.’’
Thus began her lifestyle overhaul, which grew into the philosophy she's now determined to share with the world.
"It horrifies me when I hear of people who actually sleep with their phones next to them, and wake up and check their email when it blinks - that's insanity! It's like drinking little drops of arsenic,’’ she says.
She knows a lot of people dismiss wellbeing talk as New Age waffle.
She sees no need to preach at them, however, as the scientific research speaks for itself.
"Stress and lifestyle related illnesses are on the rise,’’ she says.
"Heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, and the number of people on antidepressants are skyrocketing.’’
Around one in five UK adults suffer anxiety or depression, NHS spending on sleeping pills has also been on the rise and stress accounted for over 10 million lost workdays last year, and 40% of all work-related illnesses.
"These are very dramatic numbers and we can not just sit back and allow the situation to continue,’’ she adds.
Not just because it's a crying shame, but because it's unsustainable.
Sooner or later, running on empty catches up with us - on the smaller scale this means personal crisis, and on a wider scale it impacts the economy and the planet.
She explains how she's introduced sleep pods at the Huff Post's New York offices so that staff can have naps ("I didn't think they'd catch on but they're constantly booked out’’) and made it a rule that nobody's expected to answer work emails out of hours or at weekends.
As for herself: "I meditate every morning and do yoga - even if I just do ten minutes of yoga postures when I wake up - then at least three of four times a week I do real workouts at the gym and I try to walk as much as possible.’’
Embracing the good life is all fine and dandy though, when you're a millionaire.
But what about the regular folk, who are also stretched and overworked - does the Third Metric apply to the 'non-successful' too?
"Absolutely, I honestly think this is not just about high achievers, but about people from all walks of life."
You might be struggling to make ends meet, struggling to find a job, whatever is happening in your life.
"But for me, it's just bringing more joy into relationships and more gratitude. So often we're going down the street, buried in our latest crisis, worrying about what might happen, or dealing with recriminations about the past - and we're missing so much.’’
Her other "little joys’’ she says are "listening to the country music I love, having a great cheddar cheese, you know, looking at a gorgeous bouquet of flowers’’.
So far, it certainly seems Arianna's message is striking chords.
She's already had a number of big company leaders, telling her they're taking steps to incorporate wellbeing into their workplaces ("I love getting their emails.’’).
But, at 63, is she ready to start thinking about the ultimate 'up yours' to work - retirement?
"No!’’ she exclaims, laughing. "No, I love too much what I'm doing. I've never thought of retiring.’’
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