Lessons from Arianna Huffington’s Success Story

Today, as the media mogul behind the wildly successful Huffington Post, Arianna Huffington is a household name. Just ten short years ago, though, Huffington was an also-ran former California gubernatorial candidate without much political future. The path to success isn’t always a straight one, and one might not expect to see a conservative pundit do a 180-degree turn and launch one of the best-known liberal news sites of our day – but it happened.

Huffington was born Arianna Stassinopoulou on July 15, 1950 in Athens, Greece. Her father, Konstantinos, was a journalist and consultant – and his career choice seems to have had a lasting effect on his daughter. As she told The Guardian in 2012, “He definitely influenced me in terms of my passion for journalism.” However, she also said that the fact that he wasn’t a very successful journalist is part of what has prompted her to stay away from print journalism.

At the age of 16, she moved to Great Britain to study economics at the University of Cambridge. There, she garnered her master’s degree and went on to become the first foreign female president of the debate group known as the Cambridge Union.

After her graduation in 1972 – yes, she had a master’s degree under her belt before her 22nd birthday – Huffington (then Stassinopoulou) moved an hour south to London, where she began pursuing a writing career. Around that time, she began dating Bernard Levin, a journalist she had met in 1971 when she’d appeared on episode of the weekly BBC classical music quiz show called Face the Music. Levin was twice her age and liberal at a time when Huffington was a conservative, but the relationship lasted for eight years before she left for the United States.

During her time with Levin in the 1970’s, Huffington began her career as an author. In 1973, she published The Female Woman, a book attacking the Women’s Liberation movement in general and Germaine Greer’s 1970 work, The Female Eunuch, in particular. Then, after moving to the United States in 1980, she published a biography of Greek opera singer Maria Callas and later a biography of Pablo Picasso. In 1993, she wrote a book about Greek myth called The Gods of Greece.

With her books and the additional magazine articles she wrote, Huffington could have been on the way to a solid career as a writer, but instead of settling for that, she took her life in a different direction. In 1985, she met Michael Huffington and the couple married a year later. Before long, the pair moved to California so that he could run for a Republican seat in the U.S. House of Congress. He won that election, but then lost the election for U.S. Senate two years later.

Although the couple divorced in 1997, Arianna caught the political bug. In an interesting twist, though, her politics began to change and by the time she ran for governor of California in 2003 in a recall vote, she was considerably less conservative and ran on an Independent ticket. She was only predicted to receive around 2 percent of the vote but ended up withdrawing to endorse Democratic Governor Gray Davis in his campaign against the recall. Her name remained on the ballot, though, and she garnered less than 1 percent of the vote. Her short-lived political career was essentially an abject failure, yet Huffington didn’t let that slow her down. In fact, that same year she released a New York Times bestseller titled Pigs at the Trough: How Corporate Greed and Political Corruption are Undermining America.

Just two years after her gubernatorial aspirations were dashed to pieces, Huffington launched The Huffington Post. The Huffington Post was launched as a more liberal alternative to right-wing online news sources and content aggregators like The Drudge Report. The site quickly became a smashing success and by the following year SoftBank Capital announced that it would invest $5 million in the company. Soon, the company began launching local HuffPo sites in major cities across the country. Eventually the company launched a UK version and other international sites. When AOL announced that it would be acquiring the company in 2011, it was for $315 million. Although AOL owns it now, Huffington is still the editor-in-chief and president.

With a dizzying list of achievements such as Huffington’s, it might be natural to assume that Huffington’s wildly successful 2014 book would be about pushing yourself to overachieve. In fact, the book – a titled Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder – focuses on the value of relaxation and taking a step back from your career in order to be more successful at it.

The inspiration for Huffington’s fourteenth book came from an incident in 2007. In March of that year, Huffington woke up on the floor of her office in a puddle of blood. She had pushed herself to the limit, working constantly and not getting enough sleep – and as a result she had passed out and hit the corner of her desk. She broke her cheekbone and needed five stitches on her left eye.

That moment was a wake-up call for the media mogul.

The fall proved to be a moment of clarity that caused Huffington to reevaluate her priorities in life. She told Bloomberg Businessweek, “I had to slow down and reevaluate the choices I was making. The reality was I couldn’t do it all.” Eventually, she came to the realization that one of the choices she needed to change was how she chose to define success. She had been focusing on the acquisition of money and power, but at a great personal cost. That fall caused her to realize that personal health and well-being needed to play a larger role in her understanding of success.

Huffington explained, “Over time our society’s notion of success has been reduced to money and power. In fact, at this point, success, money, and power have practically become synonymous in the minds of many. This idea of success can work – or at least appear to work – in the short term. But over the long term, money and power by themselves are like a two-legged stool – you can balance on them for a while, but eventually you’re going to topple over.”

That third leg – which Huffington calls the third metric of success – is something she defines as well-being, our ability to draw on our intuition and inner wisdom, our sense of wonder, and our capacity for compassion and giving. None of these are things that people traditionally think about in measuring success, but as Huffington sees it, we need to redefine success.

In Thrive, she writes, “It is very telling what we don’t hear in eulogies. We almost never hear things like: ‘The crowning achievement of his life was when he made senior vice president.’ Or: ‘He increased market share for his company multiple times during his tenure.’ Or: ‘She never stopped working. She ate lunch at her desk. Every day.’ Or: ‘He never made it to his kid’s Little League games because he always had to go over those figures one more time.’ Or: ‘While she didn’t have any real friends, she had six hundred Facebook friends, and she dealt with every email in her in-box every night.’ Or: ‘His PowerPoint slides were always meticulously prepared.’ Our eulogies are always about the other stuff: what we gave, how we connected, how much we meant to our family and friends, small kindnesses, lifelong passions, and the things that made us laugh.”

To achieve that third metric and create a better kind of success, Huffington advocates for meditation, completely unplugging from electronic devices, taking real vacations, and – most importantly – getting enough sleep. In fact, she has actually installed nap pods at the Huffington Post office. She doesn’t just write about her values – she actually implements them in her own life and the lives of others.

So what are the take away lessons from Arianna Huffington’s success story? Most importantly, make sure you are seeking the right kind of success. If you seek a version of success that will make you miserable, all your achievements will feel hollow.