Arianna Huffington is good at a lot of things, from launching media empires to getting a solid night’s sleep. But the Greek mogul’s biggest talent may be her knack for reinvention.
Huffington’s political evolution has fueled the progress of her career. For much of the 1990s, Huffington was a prominent member of the Republican party, even launching the website resignation.com, which called for then-US president Bill Clinton to step down from office. But she grew disillusioned with the GOP, realizing that “the role of government had to be a lot more activist than I thought it had to be in order to solve major social problems,” she recalled to BBC. By 2003, she was an independent running against Arnold Schwarzenegger in the California gubernatorial race. By 2005, she had co-founded a left-leaning site that would prove to be a defining force in digital media, the Huffington Post.
At a time when the digital-native media landscape was largely composed of tiny, independent blogs, the Huffington Post model was unique. Conceived as an opinion site, Huffington built the brand’s reputation by recruiting celebrities and other big names from her personal network to write for free. The publication quickly attracted a devoted audience and became one of the internet’s biggest news sites, also expanding into verticals dedicated to everything from parenting to divorce.
Huffington is not without her critics. The site’s business model, which long relied on unpaid contributors, was a source of controversy for changing compensation norms in the media industry. (Under new editorial leadership, Huffington Post began paying its writers in 2018—and also shortened its name to HuffPost.) Huffington’s close relationship with celebrities has also come under fire for interfering with the journalistic integrity of the site. Still, there’s no denying Huffington’s legacy.
Since leaving the Huffington Post in 2016, Huffington has moved into the next stage of her transformation: growing her new venture, Thrive Global, a wellness business that emphasizes the importance of work/life balance. After having her own wake-up call in 2007 when she fainted from exhaustion after a long streak of working 18-hour days, Huffington wanted to help people learn to prioritize their health and wellbeing. “My passion is to help people live lives with less stress,” she told CNBC.
In an interview with Quartz, Huffington spoke about why she wants to end “the macho culture of burnout,” the difference between making it happen and letting it happen, and the 37 rejection letters she received when trying to sell her second book.
1. What’s your big idea that other people aren’t thinking about or wouldn’t agree with? Why is it so important?
It’s that the way we’re working isn’t working. Too much of the world still believes that burnout is just the price we have to pay for success. But all the recent science shows that when we prioritize our well-being, our productivity actually goes up. Our world is increasingly data-driven, but our work culture is lagging behind the clear data on what really makes us productive, healthy, and happy.
2. What behavior or personality trait do you most attribute to your success?
Not being afraid to fail. One of my mother’s favorite sayings was that failure isn’t the opposite of success, but a stepping stone to success. And failure is so important to success, both because it’s inevitable and because if we accept that, we can learn the right lessons quickly and course correct.
3. If you could make one change to help women at work, what would it be?
To end the macho culture of burnout and “being always on,” in which long hours and overwork are taken as proxies for commitment and dedication. Despite all the stay-at-home dads and the advances in shared parenting, working women are still doing the lion’s share of the work of keeping up the household. This becomes a backdoor way of excluding women—or at least making it harder for them to advance, especially because women internalize stress more. In fact, women in stressful jobs have a 40% higher risk of heart disease.
4. At the start of your career, what do you wish you had known? What, if anything, do you wish you had not believed?
I wish I had known what I learned much later in life: that life is a dance between making it happen and letting it happen.
5. When in your career did you feel most despondent, and what did you do to turn it around?
I wouldn’t call it despondent, but one of the low points in my life was when I was shopping my second book around. It ended up being rejected by, yes, 37 publishers. After the 25th rejection, I remember running out of money and walking, depressed, down St James Street in London, where I was living at the time, and seeing a Barclays Bank. I’m not sure why, but I walked in and asked to speak to the manager. And I asked him for a loan. Even though I didn’t have any assets, the banker—whose name was Ian Bell—gave it to me. It wasn’t much, but it changed my life, because it meant I could keep things together for another 12 rejections, and finally an acceptance!
6. A key part of success is building strong professional relationships. What practice do you use to cultivate them with your colleagues?
Building strong relationships with anybody, including with colleagues, is of course about connection. But in our always-on, hyper-connected digital world, it’s easy to be connected to everybody and everything, and yet not be truly connected to the people we’re actually sitting in a room with.
So to cultivate strong relationships, we need to take control of our relationship with technology. That means making time to put down our screens and truly connect with colleagues. It means having device-free meetings, going out to lunch with no phones, and having experiences with each other that build trust and empathy. And we also need to remember that in order to be able to have the empathy required to connect with others, we need to make time to unplug and recharge so we can connect with ourselves.
7. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
It’s from my mother: that angels fly because they take themselves lightly. I love that, because it’s about having perspective and not taking yourself so seriously.
8. If there’s one thing men can do to improve women’s life at work, it would be…
To stop bragging about being Superman, working 24/7, and not needing to unplug or recharge. Because it’s not true!
The mountain I’m willing to die on… is that high heels are the worst.
I wish people would… stop bragging that they are always “on” and just got four hours’ of sleep last night.
This interview is part of How We’ll Win, a project exploring the fight for gender equality at work. Read more interviews with industry-leading women here.