Scholars' Association News
Issue 32
November 2014


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Redefining success: a discussion with Arianna Huffington
Translation-adaptation: Leda Bouzali

Our relentless pursuit of the two traditional metrics of success -money and power- has led to an epidemic of burnout and stress-related illnesses and to an erosion in the quality of our relationships, family life, and, ironically, our careers. This is the conclusion reached by Arianna Huffington née Stassinopoulou, the Greek-American author and syndicated columnist, President and Editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post Media Group. A victim herself of this epidemic, she included the lessons learned from this experience, together with a series of simple, concrete tips for changes in everyday life, in her latest book entitled Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder that was published in March 2014 by Crown editions.

Arianna Huffington was invited by the affiliate Onassis Foundation USA to participate in Portraits, a series of conversations organized by the Onassis Cultural Center, at Allen Hall, Lincoln Center NY. She held a discussion with Paul Holdengräber, director and founder of ‘LIVE from the New York Public Library’.

A.H.: I wrote Thrive as a result of a personal call. I have the sense that our whole culture is going through this awakening. My personal wake up call was on April 6th, 2007, when I fainted after my exhaustion, burnout and sleep deprivation. As I came to in a pool of blood on the floor of my office I asked myself the question: ‘is this success?’ That is how this journey begun.

I realized that, although by the conventional definitions of success, (which are two: money and power) I was successful, by any ‘sane’ definition of success if you are lying in the middle of your office in a pool of blood you are not successful. I realized that this is also a collective journey; that millions of people are burned out; that millions of people have defined themselves as their jobs, as I had done, and shrunk the incredible possibilities of what it is to be alive and to be human.

And so I started asking all those great questions that the famous Greek philosophers asked: what is a ‘good life’? I feel now an incredible longing from millions of people to stop living in the shallow and to reopen up this conversation.

Archimedes said ‘Give me a place to stand and I will move the world’. This place is within all of us, we all have this place of strength, wisdom and peace inside, but most of the time we do not live there. What I write in Thrive and what I discovered is that life is a process of course correcting.

P.H.: In Thrive you speak about the journey and the act of walking. You write ‘problems will be solved by walking’. You refer to Diogenes. Why do you think walking is a cure for our ills?

A.H.: Of course there was a whole peripatetic school of philosophy. When we walk we are completely present, while when we are at meetings, lunches or dinners we are often distracted by phones. There is something really powerful in being fully present in movement, taking in nature. I think this is something we have lost here in NY. You walk down the street and everybody is texting, or talking on their phone, or listening to music.

P.H.: Everybody is so focused on this little machine. Are you not?

A.H.: I was, but that is one of the changes I brought into my life; to put technology into its proper place. I think this is one of the big changes we need to bring into our lives. At the end of the day, before you go to sleep, gently escort all your devices out of your bedroom. I think sleeping with your smartphone next to your bed is barbaric. I did this for years; I am not judging anybody. It means that when you wake up in the middle of the night, as we often do, you will be tempted to look into your data. We need to disconnect with technology in order to reconnect with ourselves.

P.H.: A part of your book that strikes me very strongly is your real wish that we learn how to sleep again. It touched me; I do not particularly sleep well. An important part of the book deals with how much harm we do to ourselves by not sleeping.

A.H.: The science now is so conclusive! For the first time we actually have scientific studies by major universities around the world that validate spiritual teachings. I remember visiting the Luxor temple in Egypt. Going through the sleeping chambers was an incredible ritualistic experience, because in Ancient Egypt people prepared themselves for sleep in a sacred way, they felt that intuition and dreams came to them during sleep that helped them deepen their experience of life. In our modern times we consider sleep as a terrible necessity; we just crush and then wake up.

P.H.: I have been in this country for three decades and when you ask people how they are they will tell you they are busy. Which is really not an answer.

A.H.: We identify being busy with being important. We have no time; we are perpetually breathless, because there is so much to do. T.S. Eliot writes in The endless cycle of ideas:

“The endless cycle of idea and action,

Endless invention, endless experiment,

Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;

Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;

Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.

All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,

All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,

But nearness to death no nearer to God.

Where is the Life we have lost in living?

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries

Bring us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.”

A.H.: So, we are drowned in data, starved of wisdom...

P.H.: So much of people’s ambitions in America, especially young students', is set not by themselves, but by their parents. They are functioning so as to fulfill goals that were not necessarily their own.

A.H.: We need to change culture and culture is changing, but also we need to realize that we need to define our own journey, not accept whatever culture assumes, our parents or a magazine we read. We need to be connected with ourselves to find out what it is. I am amazed at how many people are making this change. People are just giving up jobs, the very successful jobs, because they want to find another way to live and get connected with themselves in a deeper way. The general counsel of Linked In, Erika Rottenburg, resigned in April 2014, as she wanted to bring more space into her life. This is happening everywhere. In the past people would say ‘I have this fantastic job, I cannot leave it, because I am my job’. People are now realizing they are not their job.

P.H.: It is so fascinating to me in this country that the very first thing that you say when you meet someone new is ‘What do you do?’

A.H.: People that we admire are often people who did not let their jobs define them. Charlie Rose was working at FOX, doing interviews, and then one day he said ‘I don’t want to do this anymore, I don’t care what these starlets are saying’! He gave up a lot of money, he went to his farm in North Carolina and spent time thinking of what he wanted to do. If you are defined by a job and its money you do not make the changes that lead you to what actually fulfills you and what your destiny is meant to be.

P.H.: Many passages in your book refer to the stoics.

A.H.: They are my favorite; so much about them is misunderstood; they are not about indifference or resignation; they are about the ultimate truth. There is only one thing that is the ultimate freedom of any human being, whatever the circumstances: the freedom to chose our own attitude, to share our own thoughts.

P.H.: The book is dedicated to your mother. She is glorified in the book, but I wonder how much you learned from her.

A.H.: I have learned everything from her unconsciously and then more and more consciously. My mother lived a third metric life before I knew what a third metric life was, even though she lived with me all my life. She was the ‘yiayia’, always in the kitchen, the centre of the house. She believed profoundly that if you did not eat every twenty minutes something terrible would happen to you. She had no sense of hierarchy, because, as far as she was concerned, we are all human beings. She did not care about material possessions; all that mattered was her children’s education. She made us feel that we could do anything. I have learned from her to give my daughters unconditional love and the knowledge that they can aim for the stars; if they do not succeed I am here and I love them.

P.H.: Many will ask why did it take you to collapse before you realized what your mother was doing and breathing everyday.

A.H.: I think we all know deep down what we should do differently but we do not change. My book is focused on microscopic changes, which, at the beginning, are big changes that may seem overwhelming, such as to abandon multi-tasking; for instance not to talk to our children and send emails at the same time. With these changes I feel I am honoring the lessons I have been given by my mother that I was too busy to apply.

P.H.: In a previous book you also speak about Icarus: “The Greek gods can guide us to forgotten dimensions of our lives and of our own selves.”

A.H.: The Greek gods are metaphors, archetypes and aspects of ourselves. There are many interpretations of the Icarus story but my interpretation is that we keep going higher and higher, forgetting the depths. Icarus burned out. His myth is a metaphor for burn out for the modern man. We burn out and we are not aware of it until often it is too late. I hope that the book’s message will accelerate the much-needed changes in our mentality, changes that are already happening.

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