Q&A: Arianna Huffington’s ‘Third Women’s Revolution’

Photo: Desiree Navarro/Getty Images

First we asked whether working women could “Have It All,” then we told ourselves to “Lean In.” Next, if Arianna Huffington has her way, American women will be working on our “Third Metric,” a term she’s coined to describe “the measure of success that goes beyond the two metrics of money and power.”

Already the topic of Huffington-branded conferences and content, the Third Metric gets its clearest definition yet in Huffington’s forthcoming book, Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder (Crown Publishing, March 25). Not to be confused with the Fourth Instinct (her previous book about spiritual fulfillment), the Third Metric “consists of four pillars: well-being, wisdom, wonder, and giving,” which Huffington lays out using a mix of personal memoir, pop-sci aggregation, and literary and religious texts. “It ended up being 55 pages of science, so that even the most avid skeptic will see that slowing down, meditation, and sleep have a real impact on everything we do,” Huffington told the Cut over the phone last week. “I brought in literature and ancient wisdom so you can see how it is being validated by modern science.”

After collapsing from exhaustion in 2007 (breaking a cheekbone on the way down), Huffington became evangelical about sleep, famous for hiding her BlackBerrys in the bathroom at night and installing nap machines at the Huffington Post. The health scare bolstered her long-standing interest in spirituality, mindfulness, and meditation. Like Lean In, Thrive is more self-help than manifesto, heavy on personal advice (gratitude lists, internet-blocking apps, meditation) and light on structural critique. But Huffington’s insistence that we are working too hard, ought to turn off our phones, and deserve a quick nap is still refreshing to read.

When advocating for meditation and sleep with ancient wisdom, do you ever worry about coming off New Age–y?
No, not at all. For a long time, meditation was seen as vaguely flaky and Californian, but there’s something that happened specifically in 2013. There’s been a kind of tipping point. CEOs came out, not as being gay but as being meditators.

We’ve reached this tipping point partly because the value of the practice is pretty incontrovertible and partly because the old way of doing things has so demonstrably not worked for people. We are seeing the side effects of stress on our health-care system. When we have the CDC saying that 75 percent of health-care costs are for chronic, preventable diseases, and how many people on Wall Street and in finance committing suicide? There’s something wrong with our values if we are basing our entire life on these two metrics of money and power and success defined in those terms and we see the impact they’re having.

Why is Thrive directed at women?
Everything in the book is for women and men, but I think women will be leading the third women’s revolution. The first was getting us the vote; the second was getting us access to all fields and to the top of all fields, which is still an incomplete revolution. But I don’t think we’ll ever complete it without the third revolution, which is basically changing the world in which women are participating and competing. It’s not enough to just say, I want to be at the top of this world. The need is to change this world, which was created by men, and they’re going to love it when we change it. After all, they’ve paid a terrible price. Look at the number of successful men in their 50s who end up with heart attacks, ulcers, high blood pressure, the epidemic of depression. Surely that cannot be a good trade-off in one’s life.

I think women are going to be leading because women are paying an even bigger price, the way the world is designed at the moment. We have this stat, which I found so stunning that I repeat it twice in the book: Women in stressful jobs have a 40 percent greater threat of heart disease and a 60 percent greater threat of diabetes. So we basically cannot afford to let the world stay the way it is at the moment.

Are women catching up to men in stress-related illnesses or has work gotten more stressful for everyone?
The workplace has become more stressful for everyone because of technology. There’s no leaving the office, including on vacation, unless you make a conscious effort to disconnect. But I think we women internalize stress differently. We have a harder time just brushing it off, especially women who don’t feel they entirely belong in a man’s world and overcompensate. You know the phenomenon of staying longer, going the extra mile.

I love my work and I definitely work hard. It’s not about that. It’s about making sure there’s enough time to also nurture yourself and live your life. I love Padmasree Warrior, the chief technology officer of Cisco. She used to run over 20,000 engineers. She meditates every day, takes Saturday off completely from all her technology, she sleeps eight hours a night, and she writes haiku. She’s absolutely awesome. We need new role models for young women so you can be super-creative and effective and thriving without sacrificing.

You describe motherhood as a priorities-shifting Third Metric moment that makes women drop out of work. Can work get them back?
I was lucky in many ways. I worked very hard, but also in the beginning of my career I worked from home, I wrote books. Also, I was lucky for the first ten years of my children’s life to live with my mother. I mean, I’m a big believer in extended families and that made a huge difference. But that’s why we need the third revolution. If the workplace changes and we make work much more project-based rather than 9 to 5, I think a lot more women would come back to work. Thrive is also about our personal lives and how we prioritize that. After all, we only have one life. It’s not about work-life balance; it’s about how present we are throughout our life.

You write that our overemphasis on money and power goes all the way to the top. In the U.S., the GNP and GDP are more important than the general well-being, which is most highly rated in Scandinavian countries. Is there an implied case for socialism there?
Oh no, not at all. In fact, David Cameron, who is a Tory, is one of the biggest proponents of the measure wider than the GNP to measure to happiness. I think this is a growing sort of international movement. It’s not easy to measure, but there’s a greater and greater recognition that we are not measuring all the right things. The problems we are facing have more to do with the emphasis on short-term growth and quarterly earnings — fixing the system. There is no better system that’s been invented than private enterprise.

Is there a legislative solution to America’s Third Metric–averse culture?
Obviously there is legislation that helps, like the Family Leave Act, more time for parents to have maternity and paternity leave, holidays. But I think more companies are doing that now by themselves because they are seeing the impact on attracting and retaining talent. We now actually see 35 percent of large- and medium-size corporations who are offering some kind of stress-related program, who are offering time for employees to volunteer, and all around the world we’re having innovative companies trying to help employees deal with managing their email and the expectation that they are supposed to be on that all the time. At HuffPost, we’ve made it a clear: Unless you’re on a night or a weekend shift, you’re not expected to answer emails or be on for work.

Was it hard to implement Third Metric policies at AOL? How are they working?
When we first moved into the AOL offices, we instituted two nap rooms on the fifth floor. At first, people were kind of reluctant to be seen going into the nap room. Now they are perpetually full because they see the value; even getting 20 minutes can make a big difference. There was never any problem instituting meditating classes, or the breathing classes every Monday and our healthy snacks. AOL was very supportive. Not only are morale and retention great, but we are actually seeing people leave for another job and then come back — two more this week, actually.

What, then, did you make of AOL’s move to decrease its contribution to employee 401(k)s, citing two complicated pregnancies?
I thought it was great that CEO Tim Armstrong reversed his decision. We talked about it, especially because one of the babies was the child of a HuffPost employee.

If you’re a young or low-level employee, can you afford to turn off at the end of the day? How can you then compete with all the other workaholics?
What you’re seeing now is overwhelming evidence that you’re going to be more effective, more productive, more creative if you get enough sleep, take care of yourself, and don’t see life simply in terms of the first two metrics. I think that’s an incontrovertible conclusion, especially as more and more industries enter a second machine age, human activity is the most valuable resource that you can bring to work. There’s no question that when you’re operating on fumes and burned out that’s the first thing to go. And you have some of the most iconic figures of our culture, including Steve Jobs, talking about it, saying that it was after Zen meditation that he came up with some of the best ideas that led to the most iconic products.

Do you think you would be where you are today if you had gotten eight hours of sleep a night throughout your 20s and 30s?
I think I would be further ahead. I definitely would have had a life with less stress, anxiety, and unnecessary fears and all the other prices that I paid and that we pay when we don’t prioritize our well-being and our wisdom and the other pillars of the Third Metric that I write about. I have no doubt about that. As Bill Clinton put it, “All the mistakes I made when I was exhausted.”

Arianna Huffington’s ‘Third Women’s Revolution’