Fortune.com selects the most compelling short essays, anecdotes, and author interviews from “250 Words,” a site developed by Simon & Schuster to explore the best new business books—wherever they may be published.
For this installment, 250 Words’ Sam McNerney sits down with Arianna Huffington.
Arianna Huffington is the chair, president, and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post Media Group, a nationally syndicated columnist, and author of 14 books. In May 2005, she launched The Huffington Post, a news and blog site that quickly became one of the most widely-read, linked to, and frequently-cited media brands on the Internet. In 2012, the site won a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. She has been named to the Forbes Most Powerful Women list and the Time 100, Time Magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people. Originally from Greece, she moved to England when she was 16 and graduated from Cambridge University with an M.A. in economics. At 21, she became president of the famed debating society, the Cambridge Union. She serves on several boards, including EL PAÍS, PRISA, the Center for Public Integrity, and the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Her 14th book, Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder was published in late March by Crown. After less than one week on sale, it debuted at #1 on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list. Sam talks to Huffington about the rise of meditation, why you should “walk the talk,” the importance of wonder and giving, and why “going viral has gone viral.”
McNerney: Could you briefly explain what you mean by the “Third Metric” and what influenced you to write Thrive?
Huffington: Over time our society’s notion of success has been reduced to money and power. In fact, at this point, success, money, and power have practically become synonymous in the minds of many. This idea of success can work — or at least appear to work — in the short term. But over the long term, money and power by themselves are like a two-legged stool — you can balance on them for a while, but eventually you’re going to topple over. And more and more people — very successful people — are toppling over. To live the lives we truly want and deserve, and not just the lives we settle for, we need a Third Metric, a third measure of success that goes beyond the two metrics of money and power, and consists of four pillars: well-being, wisdom, wonder, and giving.
My own painful wakeup call influenced me to write Thrive. 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. I asked myself a lot of questions about the kind of life I was living — and indeed questions that we stop asking after college about “what is the good life”.
Is meditation “in?” I just finished Dan Harris’ 10 Percent Happier. Harris documents how he used the science of meditation to “tame his inner voice” and overcome substance abuse problems. In your chapter on well-being you list a number of public figures—Ford Chairman Bill Ford, Twitter cofounder Evan Williams, Oprah Winfrey—who meditate. Explain the connection between meditation and well-being.
Meditation is “in” because it works. We are living through an incredible time, when modern science is validating a lot of ancient wisdom. What study after study shows is that meditation profoundly affects every aspect of our lives — our bodies, our minds, our physical health, and our emotional and spiritual well-being. When you consider all the benefits of meditation — and more are being found every day — it’s not an exaggeration to call meditation a miracle drug!
2013 was the year when meditation finally stopped being seen as vaguely flaky, vaguely new age-y, and fully entered the mainstream. It was also the year of CEOs coming out. Not as being gay, but as being meditators. Marc Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce, told the world that he has been meditating for 25 years. Ray Dalio, the founder of Bridgewater, the biggest hedge fund in the world told us that he has been meditating for over 40 years. Mark Bertolini, the CEO of Aetna, talked about how a skiing accident that left him with a broken neck led him to the rejuvenating practices of yoga and meditation. And these are just three of many.
My best thinking occurs when I am walking. I was happy to read that one of your favorite phrases is solvitur ambulando— “It is solved by walking.” Could you talk about the connection between walking, creativity and clear thinking? How could someone who works in a busy office harness the benefits of walking?
There are many problems for which walking is the solution. In our culture of overwork, burnout, and exhaustion, how do we tap into our creativity, our wisdom, our capacity for wonder? Solvitur ambulando.
A study led by University of Illinois researchers shows that walking three times a week for forty minutes at one’s natural pace helps combat the effects of aging and increases brain connectivity and cognitive performance. So it’s not just ruminative, creative thinking that’s enhanced by walking — our focused, get-things-done type of thinking is improved as well. And though he didn’t have the science to back up his beliefs about the benefits of walking, Henry David Thoreau was onto this truth long ago. “Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.”
For those of us in busy offices, I highly recommend walking meetings. Silicon Valley executive Nilofer Merchant calls this the “walk the talk” method. If you’ve got to talk to someone in person, why not do it while walking? “What I love is that you’re literally facing your problem or situation together when you walk side by side with someone,” she said. “I love that people can’t be checking e- mail or Twitter during walking meetings. You’re awake to what’s happening around you, your senses are heightened and you walk away with something office meetings rarely give you — a sense of joy.” How many times have you experienced a sense of joy in a stale conference room while half listening to an endless PowerPoint presentation? Between our minds and our legs, one of them is going to wander. Sit still and our minds want to ramble. Get up and start walking, and our minds can slow down and be more focused.
“Going viral has gone viral.” That sentence resonated. We’ve become enamored with spreading ideas fast and effortlessly to the point where we equate the quality of an idea with its “viral potential.” You suggest that treating virality as a good in and of itself undermines the pursuit of creating quality content. As the founder of The Huffington Post, how do you balance the need for clicks and traffic with meaningful content that might not trend on Twitter or receive millions of view on YouTube?
Fetishizing “social” has become a major distraction. And we love to be distracted. I believe our job in the media is to use the social tools at our disposal to tell the stories that matter — as well as the stories that entertain — and to keep reminding ourselves that the tools are not the story. When we become too obsessed with our closed, circular Twitter or Facebook ecosystem, we can easily forget that poverty is on the rise, downward mobility is trending upward, millions of people in the United States and even more in Europe and around the world have fallen into chronic unemployment, and 400 million children around the world are living in extreme poverty. On the other side of the spectrum, too often we ignore the great instances of compassion, ingenuity, and innovation shown by people who are changing lives and communities by trying to address these problems.
Of course, our team at HuffPost is as aggressive as any media outlet in using social media. But maybe because we’ve been doing “social” well for a while, I hope we are also able and willing to see it for what it is — a tool, not a magical feat.
The feeling of wonder is a key component to human flourishing and creativity. Does technology deepen or diminish the feeling of wonder?
Unfortunately the ever-increasing creep of technology — into our lives, our families, our bedrooms, our brains — makes it much harder to renew ourselves and connect with our sense of wonder. The average smartphone user checks his or her device every six and a half minutes. That works out to around 150 times a day. Our brains are naturally wired to connect, so it’s not easy to turn away from these kinds of stimuli. But the connection that comes from technology is often an unfulfilling, ersatz version of connection. Its siren call (or beep, or blinking light) can crowd out the time and energy we have for real human connection.
Paradoxically, one of the biggest growth sectors for tools to help us deal with technology is . . . technology. The first stages of the Internet were about data and more data. But now we have plenty of data — indeed, we’re drowning in it — and all the distraction we could ever hope for. Technology has been very good at giving us what we want, but not always what we need. So now, many in the tech world have realized there’s a growth opportunity for applications and tools that help us focus and filter all that data and distraction. I have collected some of my favorites in an appendix at the end of Thrive. The less distracted we are, the more likely we are to tap into our sense of wonder and observe the world around us.
Tell us about the fourth element of the Third Metric: giving. What are the various benefits of being “a giver?”
So often we think of giving as donating time or money to relief efforts for catastrophes in faraway places, helping people who have nothing. That’s obviously critical to do when disaster strikes. But we forget that every day we are surrounded by opportunities to act on that same instinct for giving. These chances are always “under foot.” As the nineteenth-century naturalist John Burroughs put it, “The great opportunity is where you are. Do not despise your own place and hour. Every place is under the stars, every place is the center of the world.”
And every place is full of openings to make a real difference in the life of another human being. There are millions of small missed opportunities at home, in our offices, on the subway, on the street where we live, in the grocery store — what David Foster Wallace called “being able truly to care about other people . . . over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways, every day.” When we flex our giving muscles every day, the process begins to transform our own lives. Because however successful we are, when we go out in the world to “get things,” when we strive to achieve a goal, we are operating from a perceived deficit, focused on what we don’t have and are trying to obtain — until the goal is achieved. And then we go after the next goal. But when we give however little or much we have we are tapping into our sense of abundance and overflow.
I noticed that Thrive is filled with references to from a number of eminent intellectuals—Aurelius, Augustine, Goethe. What are some of your favorite books and who are some of your favorite intellectuals?
While writing Thrive I immersed myself in the writings of the Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome. Stoicism teaches that unhappiness, negative emotions, and what we would today call “stress” are the result of the judgments we make about external circumstances. To the Stoics, the most secure kind of happiness could be found in the only thing that we are in control of — our inner world. Everything outside us can be taken away, so how can we entrust our future happiness and well-being to it? These insights are hugely relevant to our time.
Some of my other favorite books, by some of my favorite thinkers, are Catching the Big Fish, by David Lynch; Memories, Dreams, Reflections, by Carl Jung; and Mindfulness: An-Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World, by Mark Williams and Danny Penman.