Human beings learn by a combination of data and stories, so we try to bring together role models who are succeeding but also taking care of themselves. For example, Jeff Bezos wrote a piece for us titled,
Why Getting 8 Hours of Sleep Is Good for Amazon Shareholders. He made the connection between the amount of sleep he gets and the quality of his decisions.
It went crazy viral. Eric Schmidt wrote a similar piece, and then Selena Gomez wrote about why she does a regular digital detox. So whether it’s sleep, digital detox, meditation, nutrition, or movement, having people who write and talk about it, combined with the latest science on the subject, are the two major ingredients in creating a culture shift.
Michael: And you are one of those people as well. You had a mini-crisis where you said, “What am I doing with my life?” Is that where [this all] started from?
Arianna: Yes, it was ten years ago. I was two years into building the Huffington Post, and I was a single mom. I had two teenage daughters, with all the problems that go with teenage daughters. And I thought that the one thing that I would sacrifice was sleep and taking care of myself.
So one morning, my body literally gave up. I got up from my desk because I was called, and I collapsed. My head hit the desk, and I broke my cheekbone. I got four stitches on my right eye.
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After that, I really started looking at my life and saying, “Is this what success looks like? What am I doing wrong? What am I missing?” I started looking at the latest science and talking to people. And as I went around the world talking about the subject, one of the things people particularly wanted to talk about was sleep. Because even if people don’t want to meditate or work out or eat right, everybody has to sleep.
Michael: The brain will literally shut you down if you don’t.
Arianna: Exactly. People have more and more problems with sleep, either falling asleep or staying asleep. So I decided to write an entire book on that. And after The Sleep Revolution, I really felt that this is my mission. I consider burnout a global epidemic that has tremendous casualties, and I could really help change the way we work and live.
75 percent of health care costs and health care problems are stress-related and preventable. Think of how much suffering we can alleviate. So first of all, change people’s thinking. I love that you talk about mindset, because it starts with mindset.
Michael: I think you’re right. Thoughts drive emotions and behaviors and performance, so if we move up the chain, thoughts are the most significant lever that we can pull on.
I would also agree that it does begin with sleep. A predictable trend for organisms is that they go from fatigue to burnout to early death. In that fatigued state, we’re not as good a thinker or doer that we’d like to be. So it does start with getting this recovery system right.
Do you have a couple of influential ways that you’ve shifted your practice to value recovery?
Arianna: Absolutely. The most important thing is navigating my relationship with my devices, because the truth is that we are all wired 24/7, and we need to declare an artificial end to the day, because our day never ends.
“Life is a dance between making it happen and letting it happen.”
Michael: It used to end at sundown.
Arianna: Yes, or when we left the office. Now, none of that is true. I believe that we all learn and build habits through ritual, so I believe in building a transition to sleep the way we do with children. You know, you read them Goodnight Moon, you sing them a lullaby, you give them a bath. We need to create our own ritual.
Mine starts with picking a time, ideally 30 minutes before turning off the lights. I turn off my phones and charge them outside my bedroom. We’ve created a charging station that actually looks like a phone bed. We put them under the little blanket, and you tuck them in, and you say goodnight.
It’s a great ritual for me. This is the end of my day, and I know that I won’t see my phone until the morning, after I wake up, meditate, and set my intention for the day.
Michael: What does your meditation practice look like?
Arianna: My meditation practice is very much based on my breath. I am a big believer in meditation, and I feel that it makes a huge difference in our lives. [Due to] the cumulative nature of stress, even five minutes where we can pause and focus on the rising and falling of the breath makes such a difference to the day.
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Michael: You’ve disrupted the old model that we need to achieve more to be more. The new model seems to be that we need to be more present, more authentic, more grounded, and then let the flow of doing come from there.
Arianna: I love that. In fact, I have a little saying on my desk that says: “Life is a dance between making it happen and letting it happen.”
Michael: Some people have beautiful, game-changing ideas, but somehow they don’t get to the execution phase. You’ve got an amazing set of ideas, and you’ve figured out how to get to execution not only in a moderately successful way, but a world-class successful way. How have you done that?
Arianna: The basis is micro-steps. It’s not going from A to Z overnight. It’s the little steps that we take habitually, ideally every day, that begin to change our behavior.
And when their rewards are clear, we get reinforcement for change in our behavior. So I mentioned the transition to sleep, or waking up in the morning. I believe in starting really small, taking one minute before you go to your phone to get centered, to focus on what you’re grateful for, your intention for that day. I feel that it makes such a difference.
Michael: Yeah for sure.
“When you are looking at competitors, you’re not really innovating.”
How do you identify with the word “competition”?
Arianna: In my business, I identify with being consumer-obsessed and learning from our consumers, whether they’re corporations or individuals, learning what resonates with them and constantly improving our offerings. I’m much more oriented towards that than looking at my competitors.
I don’t really think of competitors, because I feel that when you are looking at competitors, you’re not really innovating. I believe in innovating and looking forward.
Michael: Listening to and knowing your potential is really hard for people. And so [people] say, “Well if Johnny or Jane can do 15 pirouettes, then maybe I could do 16.” But maybe you could do 22. Are you close to or far away from your potential?
Arianna: You know, I see myself and everyone else as a work in progress. While we’re on this earth, we are constantly evolving and improving, and I love that. So I never think of some kind of ultimate end goal, but more about incremental improvements, and that includes bringing more joy into my life. We talk about performance, but the other part we don’t often talk about is more joy. Ultimately, life is about bringing more loving, intangible qualities into everything we’re doing.
Michael: Do you have a philosophy that guides your life? Do you have a set of principles that shape your thoughts and decisions?
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Arianna: Yes. I really believe that in all of us, we have wisdom, love, strength, and peace. That is our destiny as human beings—to tap into it. Modern life makes it harder and harder to tap into it because we’re perpetually distracted. Our attention span is now shortened. As the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh said, it’s never been easier to run away from ourselves.
So I feel it’s an incredible aspiration to spend more time in that place of love, peace, strength, and wisdom, and it becomes particularly important at a time when we’re drowning in data and starved for wisdom.
[There’s] an incredible amount of comparison—people comparing their own lives to the way somebody else’s life looks on Instagram. And that has led to a lot of problems, a lot of mental health issues: depression, anxiety, fear.
Michael: When you notice depression, anxiety, and fear within yourself, how do you bring love, wisdom, joy, and peace back? What are the processes that bring you back to your best?
“Failure is not the opposite of success, it’s a stepping stone to success.”
Arianna: This has probably been the hardest thing for me—acceptance, instead of judging the hell out of myself, which is my tendency.
So the first thing is to overcome that [judging] voice in my head, and accept my fallibility. Accept the fact that I am out of that place, and now my goal is to get back there. The sooner I stop judging myself, the sooner I’ll be able to get back there.
And I have a toolbox. We all have a toolbox. Mine involves meditation, a hot bath, a walk in the park,
reading one of my favorite books. There’s a whole host of things I can do. In the end, it’s all about course correcting.
Michael: I love that thought. [Lastly], what has been one of the greatest challenges in your life?
Arianna: One of the greatest challenges for me has been accepting failure—accepting my own failings, learning from them, and moving on. As my mother used to say, “Failure is not the opposite of success, it’s a stepping stone to success.”
This conversation has been edited and condensed. To listen to the full version, click here.