With a precise blend of topical matters and entertainment, the Huffington Post has become the most popular news website in the United States. After selling it for hundreds of millions of dollars and stepping down from running it, its founder Arianna Huffington has embarked on a new initiative aimed at reducing our dependence on technology. The change, she is convinced, starts with observing Shabbat.
From the distance of a 12-hour flight from the Ashdod shopping mall that has been the center of the conflict over the operation of businesses on Shabbat, Huffington enters the political fray. “The wisdom of the Shabbat is very important,” says one of America’s most powerful and influential women at the start of our telephone conversation. “You do something very profound by asking people to disconnect from all the work and reconnect with something deeper."
Huffington doesn’t stop there. With the zeal of a new believer who no longer has to rely on shared taxis on Friday nights, she says that “everybody should be in favor of keeping the Shabbat,” adding immediately: “not just religious people ... You should be grateful that you have this institution, they should teach it to their children, it’s a great gift, and I think that the world is moving towards similar practices.”
When I ask Huffington if she’d support closing shopping malls on Sundays in the U.S., she explains that those desolate concrete blocks that are stuck like a bone in America’s throat are not the main problem. “Closing the malls won’t help,” she sighs in desperation. “The majority of people in America don’t shop in the mall; they shop online. The world has changed, it’s not about how much time you spend at the mall, it’s about what you are doing when you are inside, at home.”
Huffington, it’s important to note, doesn’t light the Shabbat candles or break challah yet, nor does she visit Kabbalah Centres, in contrast to several American celebrities. On the other hand, as she takes pride in mentioning several times throughout our conversation, for several years now she’s been living by the light of the great illumination she experienced. It could be likened to a monk who’s sold his Ferrari. The sale was no small matter either – in 2011 she got no less than $315 million from internet giant AOL for handing over the ownership of Huffington Post, a news blog she had started six years earlier.
Huffington, whose name has become a trademark, succeeded with her website at a time when major newspapers were closing one after the other while others trying to keep their heads above water. To a large extent, Huffington reinvented the wheel. She created a website without generating news by rewrapping existing content. In a digital world where no one had the time or patience to scan large pages in The New York Times and The Washington Post, Huffington’s site collected stories and presented them to millions in a colorful, easy-to-read format.
Ant it wasn’t just news. Politics and gossip, business and relationships, culture and consumerism – there was room for everyone at the Huffington Post. In 2012 it became the most popular news website in the U.S. Politicians and intellectuals who in the past would have loathed the idea of publishing articles in a blog lined up in order to get some exposure. Barack Obama had a column on the site during his campaign to lead the Democratic Party in 2008, garnering an unprecedented 6,000 responses.
Science, Kobe Bryant and Buddhism
To a large degree, Huffington embodies the successful website she founded: She moves easily between lightweight interviews on morning shows and serious political discussions on CNN and MSNBC. She was born 67 years ago in Athens, Greece, as Arianna Stassinopoulos. She got her last name from her former husband, oil tycoon and retired Congressman Michael Huffington. In 2009 Forbes Magazine ranked her the 12th most influential woman in the media, and The Guardian listed her as the 42nd most influential global media personality.
For five years after selling her website she continued to serve as its president and chief editor. Since she retired in 2016, she’s been devoting her time to improving the lives of millions of young Americans through her Thrive Global initiative, a media platform and business start-up in one. Just like the Huffington Post, the new site is also a true reflection of the woman behind it: glittering, innovative, easy to digest and surrounded by stars; a bit of entertainment, a bit of science and lots of color.
A random search on Thrive reveals a piece concerning the importance of the mind in the struggle against Alzheimer’s disease, written by Maria Shriver, the niece of President John Kennedy and the former wife of Arnold Schwarzenegger – and a media star in her own right. Under that is an interview with Ann Romney, wife of the 2012 Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney, on love, stress and depression during the campaign. There is also a large photo of Huffington beside former NBA star Kobe Bryant, promoting a six-week online course called Thrive-e, in which Bryant is a guest lecturer. The site also has stories entitled, “Redesign Your Schedule to Create Your Perfect Day” and “How to Avoid Losing Your Mind While You're Changing the World,” as well as an item describing what every company should do to ensure women’s advancement in the workplace.
It isn’t easy to understand why someone would relinquish one of the most influential positions in American media to instead give tips on better sleep, but Huffington has her reasons. “Millions of people around the world suffer from wear and tear and stress. I love technology, I love what we do with online media, but this is about recognizing that we need break,” she explains. “As Thich Nhat Hanh, the renowned Vietnamese Buddhist monk, put it: ‘It has never been easier to run away from ourselves.’ It’s deeply sad, we are running away from the deeper part of ourselves and end up living in the shadows.”
Isn’t that a privilege reserved only for someone who’s sold her company for hundreds of millions of dollars? What about the young people who dream of success like yours and who are in an endless competition with the entire world?
“That’s not true, modern science contradicts that assumption. Our decision-making is impaired when we don’t give ourselves enough time to disconnect and recharge. You live in a country that is full of start-ups and three-quarters of start-ups fail, so I think that people should look at the data and learn that they may be better off if they took time to disconnect and recharge.”
In order to emphasize this point, she relates a personal story: “I achieved my big success only two years after founding the Huffington Post. My awakening was in 2007, when I collapsed from burnout. That was the beginning of me realizing that I was living in the same delusion that I had to be always ‘on’ in order to build the Huffington Post and be a good mother to my two daughters. And then, as I studied, I realized how modern science actually contradict this assumption. And then I decided that I want to do more and dedicate my life to changing the way we live our lives.”
And yet, the change you want to achieve is through the same technologies, whether it’s the Huffington Post or the new website.
“There is no contradiction in building a media company. I love technology, I love what we do with online media; this is about recognizing that we need breaks. When you honor the Shabbat you don’t say you shouldn’t do anything for seven days, you say that you need a break for one day. You realize that turning off the light helps you get a better sleep, that doesn’t make us anti-electricity.
“In my case, the biggest success of HuffPost happened after I learned the hard way that I need to take time to disconnect and recharge. Huffpost was only in the early stages and I collapsed. When we invented machines the goal was to minimize downtime, but the human operating system is different.
“On our Thrive Global platform we have extremely successful people like [Amazon CEO] Jeff Bezos, who wrote “Why Getting 8 Hours of Sleep Is Good for Amazon Shareholders.’ So we have a lot of new role models who live in this new way and do an incredibly good job.”
Changing the atmosphere
Talking to Huffington is a challenge. She is proud of having adopted the lifestyle she preaches: Her mobile phone stays out of the bedroom, every day starts with exercises and she makes sure she gets eight hours of sleep at night. However, the rest of the day is spent at a pace that most people would find dizzying. We repeatedly have to stop our interview due to meetings, calls she must answer or a taxi waiting for her outside the office.
From her current lofty position, she doesn’t forget the hurdles she had to jump on her way to the top. “I’ve never experienced sexual abuse of the kind that’s been on the front pages, but like most women I’ve been on the receiving end of behaviors that contribute to an atmosphere that makes it more difficult for women to be heard and to thrive in many workplaces around the world.”
Were you surprised by the many revelations that came out recently by women in the media who experienced sexual abuse by men?
“Appalled is more accurate. This is a conversation that’s been needed for a long time. For the first time we’re demanding that men take responsibility for their actions, which were considered acceptable for many years. For the first time we’re getting rid of these phenomena from the root.”
You tweeted that “3x as many male managers are now uncomfortable mentoring women in the wake of #MeToo. This is a huge step in the wrong direction.” Can you elaborate on that? Do you think some women took it too far?
“No I don’t. The step in the wrong direction I was referring to isn’t about women, but about men reacting to the #MeToo movement by refusing to mentor women. The tweet was sent in support of a LeanIn initiative designed to encourage more men to mentor women. Women need and deserve as much support and mentoring as men. So my point was that men reacting to #MeToo by decreasing mentorship and networking opportunities for women are going in the wrong direction and are taking the wrong lesson. The right direction is for us to come to a place where men and women work together in a better way that’s fair for everybody and leads to more opportunities for women, not fewer.”
You’ve recently launched a campaign aimed at getting women to buy fewer clothes. Is this another expression of the problematic attitude towards women in our society, especially in the workplace?
“There is something problematic in women feeling the constant need to wear something new all the time. It’s not just a question of money, but of consciousness, stress and time. That’s why I launched the #Repeat campaign in which I show myself in different situations wearing the same clothes, whether it’s in public appearances or for interviews. Happily, many women have joined me and I hope to generate a cultural change through this. It’s OK to want to look good and wear clothes you like but it doesn’t mean you have to change clothes every day.”
You once tried to get into politics in California. Do you ever think of trying again?
“Definitely not. I absolutely love what I’m doing now and the opportunity to have an impact around the world on the way we work and live.”