An Affair with WORDS

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Much before I knew of Arianna Huffington, Huffington Post was a great point of conversation among my FB friends from across the world. Every other article put out there by Huff Post had the proverbial hook – that drew people to the wealth of words within it. Softly,unassumingly, the story would then stretch itself out and present itself for a compelling read. The cynics amongst us would try to find content that they wouldn’t want to like, while the romantics would go gushing about pieces neatly written. But both sets agreed that the posts were very interesting and engaging. Arianna’s book Thrive got us thinking about our journalistic careers and voluntary workaholism – that most of us wore with pride.Here was a writer who was telling us that it wasn’t cool to be working always.That it could actually back fire and lead to lesser productivity. Someone from the community of publishers who was advocating sleep. So when she accepted our request to interview her,there were many questions that lead to the questions you’ll see here. Arianna Huffington speaks to Manju Ramanan, Group Editor, Femina Middle East

Does success always come with a price? Or do you defy the stereotype?
For far too long, too many of us have bought into our 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 tradeoff between living a well-rounded life and high performance, performance is actually improved when our lives include time for renewal, wisdom, wonder and giving.

I personally learned this the hard way. In 2007, after many years of subscribing to a very flawed definition of success, I had a painful wakeup call – sleep deprived and exhausted, I fainted, hit my head on my desk, and broke my cheekbone. Since then, I’ve made many changes in the way I live my life and have arrived at a new phase that has breathing spaces, a deeper perspective and daily practices to keep me on track – and out of doctors’ waiting rooms.

Is there an essential difference between an achiever and a woman achiever?
There can be a difference, because women are uniquely equipped to making leadership and achievement more sustainable and fulfilling. That’s why, if we’re going to redefine what success means, if we are going to include a Third Metric to success, beyond money and power, it’s going to be women who will lead the way – and men, freed of the notion that the only road to success includes taking the Heart Attack Highway to Stress City, will gratefully join both at work and at home. And in fact we are already witnessing a global shift toward leadership values traditionally considered feminine: Flexibility,compassion, collaboration, empathy and nurturing.

How do we detox from social media or de-addict ourselves from its overuse?
We can all benefit from time away from our screens and devices – whether for a week, a day, or even a few minutes. One of the steps I recommend in Thrive is to have a specific time at night when you regularly turn off your devices— and gently escort them out of your bedroom. Disconnecting from the digital world will help you reconnect to your wisdom,intuition and creativity. And when you wake up in the morning, don’t start your day by looking at your smartphone. Take one minute—trust me, you do have one minute— to breathe deeply, or be grateful, or set your intention for the day.

Is a healthy lifestyle imperative to a star performer at work? Is stress then always a negative word?
There is growing evidence that the long-term health of a company’s bottom line and the health of its employees are, in fact, very much aligned, and that when we treat them as separate, we pay a heavy price,both personally and collectively.Individually, we compromise our health and happiness.For businesses, the costs will be exacted in dollars and cents, talent retention, and diminished productivity.

In the new definition of success, building and looking after our financial capital is not enough. We need to do
everything we can to protect and nurture our human capital.My mother was an expert at that. I still remember, when I was twelve-years-old, a very successful Greek businessman coming over to our home for dinner. He looked rundown and exhausted. But when we sat down to dinner, he told us how well things were going for him.He was thrilled about a contract he had just won to build a new museum. My mother was not impressed.“I don’t care how well your business is doing,” she told him bluntly, “you’re not taking care of you. Your business might have a great bottom line, but you are your most important capital. There are only so many withdrawals you can make from your health bank account, but you just keep on withdrawing.You could go bankrupt if you don’t make some deposits soon.” And indeed, not long after that, the man had to be rushed to the hospital for an emergency angioplasty.

Stress has become a worldwide epidemic. What produces stress in our bodies is deeply subjective. It’s as if stress is always floating around looking for something— or someone— to land on. And it often lands on completely trivial and insignificant things. We only realize how trivial and insignificant they are— and unworthy of our attention, let alone our stress over them— when something truly significant intrudes upon our routine: The loss of a loved one, sickness, a health scare.

How does a spirit of gratitude help us deal with life better?
Living in a state of gratitude is the gateway to grace. Gratitude has always been for me one of the most powerful emotions.Grace and gratitude have the same Latin root, gratus.Whenever we find ourselves in a stop-the-world-I-want-to-getoff mindset, we can remember that there is another way and open ourselves to grace. And it often starts with taking a moment to be grateful for this day, for being alive, for anything.

In your book Thrive, you have mentioned that your smart phone isn’t making you wiser. Can we reset this dependence on technology? How?
We can reset our dependence by bringing more mindfulness into our lives. As Professor Mark Williams has written, mindfulness “cultivates our ability to do things knowing that we’re doing them.” In other words, we become aware that we’re aware. It’s an incredibly important tool— and one that we can’t farm out to technology.

Last December, I decided to do something radical and take a weeklong unplugging challenge with Cindi Leive and Mika Brzezinski, 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 favor of, you know, just talking about things that happened in the past, and being immersed in things happening right now.

You mention that ‘in our culture of constant connectivity – a three-hour response is a slight’.How do we rework this equation?
We need to redefine what we value, and change workplace culture so that responding immediately to emails at all hours of the day and night becomes stigmatized instead of lauded!

A woman and ambition is seen as negative in certain societies. How would you address it?
There’s no question that, in some societies, women are held back by power structures that view female ambition as negative, or even a threat. This is a problem that may require political action and the opening up of the conversation around women’s rights and potential. And I’d add, at work and in general, we need to live our lives as women, in our own unique way, not as carbon copies of men– briefcase-carrying, pinstripe-wearing career machines. Because our current notion of success, in which we drive ourselves into the ground, if not the grave— in which working to the point of exhaustion and burnout is considered a badge of honour— was put in place by men, in a workplace culture dominated by men.

Do you have any favourite stories from your own writings? If yes, why?
Most of my favorite stories are about my mother! Her attitude to life gave her the ability to cut through hierarchies. One night, when I was in my twenties and still living in London, a Tory member of Parliament I was
dating at the time had brought the Prime Minister Edward Heath to dinner. My mother was in the kitchen, where she could be found most of the time, talking to the plumber, who had come to fix a last-minute problem. She asked the plumber what he thought of the prime minister. “Not much,” he said, “he hasn’t been good for working people.” “Let me go bring him here so you can tell him directly,” my mother replied. And that’s how the prime minister ended up in the kitchen talking to the plumber.

How do you choose your staff at Huff Post and what is the direction you give them?
When hiring, we look for people with boundless curiosity, a willingness to experiment and take risks, and a passion for the hybrid future of media, continuing the best practices of traditional journalism – fairness, accuracy, storytelling, deep investigations – with the best tools available to the digital world: Speed, transparency, and above all, engagement.

In terms of direction,at the Huffington Post, unlike in some workplaces, we don’t celebrate working around the clock – and we certainly don’t tolerate bragging about it! There’s a desperate need to change our workplace culture so that working till all hours and walking around like zombies become stigmatized instead of lauded.

What is your vision with Huff Post for the future?
I’m really determined to continue to open up the conversation on all the ways we can thrive, and our international expansion is a big part of that, in terms of bringing more and more voices to the conversation. Huff Post is currently in 11 countries – with Greece, India, Morocco and our Arabic edition coming next – and nearly 50 percent of our traffic comes from outside the United States.

As a mother, which were the stories from your culture that you narrated to your children?
Growing up in Athens, I was brought up on the classics and the Greek myths. They were taught to me not as ancient history, as my children learned them in their American classrooms, but as my personal roots and the source of my identity. Athena was the goddess of wisdom, and, for me, the idea of wisdom is forever identified with her— weaving together strength and vulnerability, creativity and nurturing, passion and discipline, pragmatism and intuition, intellect and imagination, claiming them all, the masculine and the feminine, as part of our essence and expression. I made sure these stories were a part of my own daughters’ upbringing too.

How do children contribute to a working mother’s life?
Children can actually be a great thing for your career, by giving us perspective and the ability to be more detached from our working lives’ daily ups and downs. Because,hey,we have something better waiting for us at home.Just knowing I’m going to see my daughters at the end of the day puts my whole workday in a different light.Even a phone call from one of my daughters during the day can center me like nothing else. I’m far less likely to get stressed over a setback — and have you ever had a day without setbacks?

How important is it for children to also have woman-heroes to emulate?
Incredibly important. Again, so many of our most damaging practices have been put into place by men, so there’s such a need for young women – and young men too – to have women role models who can lead by example.

Name the women you admire and why?
One leader I really admire is Padmasree Warrior. In her previous role as Cisco’s head of engineering, she oversaw twenty-two thousand employees, drawing on her meditation practice to improve her abilities as a manager. Now, as the company’s chief technology officer, she calls meditation “a reboot for your brain and your soul.” She meditates every night, vows to get seven hours of sleep each night and spends her Saturdays doing a digital detox.And of course, my mother. One of her favorite sayings was, “Don’t miss the moment.” This embodied the philosophy of her life.

The Huffington Post is a leading global source of breaking news, opinion,entertainment and community with 92 million monthly global visitors on desktop (comScore, August 2014).Huff Post is the #1 news site in the US and will have sites in 14 markets by the end of January 2015.

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