July 13, 2015

Arianna Huffington: Redefining Success

When she lost her health, she lost her way – then found both again.

Throughout Discover Your True North, successful individuals discuss how they became authentic leaders. This forum is a chance to delve deeper into the thoughts and journeys of these influential leaders. In this profile, we will talk about self-awareness with Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington.

Thank you for joining us, Arianna. You were raised in a small apartment in Athens, Greece, with your mother and sister. You also mention in Discover Your True North that your father founded a number of unsuccessful newspapers. Did your childhood define your entrepreneurial spirit?

It did. I grew up in a modest, loving setting. My mother reassured us that it was OK to fail as we pursued our dreams, always ensuring us that we were not bound to our circumstances. And my father was a wonderful journalist. He was arrested and sent to concentration camp for the duration of World War II when an underground paper he published spoke out against the German occupation of Greece. This sticks out in my mind as an early example of how impactful media can be.

How did your experiences at a young age help influence the culture you’ve helped establish at the Huffington Post?

We wanted to create a place where people could come together and talk about life, politics, art or food—really anything important to the individual—and we wanted the website to have a human quality, a distinctive voice. Of course, there are challenges any time you try to fit a number of pieces together, including different opinions, life experiences and attitudes. But my mother convinced me that failure was a stepping stone to success.

The Huffington Post experienced early success. By 2007 Time had named you one of the 100 Most Influential People in the world.

Yes. Like we discuss in the book, while I was doing great by traditional measures of success, I lost track of myself in the grind. I was working 18 hours a day every day to build the business.

Is this when you had your “aha” moment?

It was. In 2007, I collapsed in my home office and hit my head on the corner of my desk. I had broken my cheekbone and cut my eye. I had pushed myself so hard I collapsed from exhaustion.

What did this fall teach you about yourself as a leader?

Well, simply, I can’t lead if I’m not around. You have to take care of you before you can care for your business or the people who depend on you. When I fell I realized I needed to make some changes. I needed to be more grounded. Having a successful company is wonderful, but at what cost? I had been pushing myself hard for a very long time and it took its toll.

How does this relate to what you call the “Third Metric”?

There’s money and power, the first two measures of success we all know. Now we are focusing on the third. The third is really you. You have to ask yourself why am I doing this? How am I doing? You have to focus on yourself as an individual.

What did you learn from eulogies that you mention in your book Thrive?

Rarely do eulogies mention the first two metrics of success when an influential person passes away. They talk about the impact of the person’s character. This tells us that it’s a person’s capacity to touch people and live a good life, rather than a successful life, that shines through.

We are trying to start a new conversation about success. We want to redefine success as the quality of one’s life rather than as a measure of the first two metrics. Discover Your True North really carries this torch. Often, it is about how and why a person leads, more than that a person once led. It takes self-awareness to answer this call.

It all comes back to self-awareness. Before people can lead effectively and authentically, they must evaluate who they are and what type of success they want. Is that right?

Precisely. Becoming self-aware is a long journey. Life informs us as to who we are and how we are perceived in the world. I think it is really important to focus on self-awareness and stay grounded in your values. It’s the best way to build the life you are capable of living. We believe that if people can focus on being self-aware, if they try to live a good life or try to live in a good way, the other two metrics will work out. This is one of the keys to finding your True North.

Thank you for your time, Arianna. We appreciate hearing your story. I know others who are pursuing their own True North can pick up something from your experience.

Thank you for having me. And I hope my experiences are helpful. The success we experienced at the Huffington Post early on was wonderful, but I’ve learned firsthand how success can pull you off course if you’re not careful. I tell my story because I want to encourage other people to focus on their own self-awareness as they grow into authentic leaders.