If you don’t know who Arianna Huffington is, I’m not sure what rock you’ve been living under. She founded The Huffington Post, where she served as editor-in-chief until August 2016 when she stepped down from the news outlet to devote her full attention to Thrive Global, the American company she founded in November 2016 and currently serves as CEO.
Headquartered in New York City—with offices in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Athens, Mumbai and Melbourne—Thrive Global was named one of The Top 10 New York City Startups to Watch in 2017, and LinkedIn listed it in 2018 as one of “The 50 most sought-after startups in the United States.” Valued at $120 million in 2017, the company provides behavior change technology and media to individuals and organizations worldwide with the mission of ending the stress and burnout epidemic. It provides companies and employees with the latest science-backed micro-steps that help build habits to reduce stress, improve well-being and maximize productivity.
Huffington has been named to Time Magazine‘s list of the world’s 100 most influential people and the Forbes Most Powerful Women list. Originally from Greece, she moved to England when she was 16 and graduated from Cambridge University with an M.A. in economics. At 21, she became president of the famed debating society, the Cambridge Union. She serves on numerous boards, including Onex and The B Team. Her last two books, Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder and The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night At A Time, both became instant international bestsellers. Huffington has dedicated her professional career to burnout prevention. She credits a 2007 incident in which she collapsed at her desk from exhaustion and awoke in a pool of blood with a broken cheekbone as the wake-up call that eventually led her to start Thrive Global. Under her leadership the organization is creating innovative practices that have huge implications for companies worldwide.
According to Huffington, Thrive Global was born, “in response to the need to take control of our lives, offering new strategies and tools, based on the latest science, to address the unintended consequences of technology,” and to end the global epidemic of stress and burnout. In October of 2019, Thrive Global acquired Boundless Mind, a neuroscience-based artificial intelligence company to advance its core mission to help employees and corporations unlock human potential and shape technology for health, well-being and productivity behavior change.
I met with Arianna Huffington in her New York City office where we sat down, and I teased her that, “I think we were separated at birth.” Over the years we have shared parallel tracks with concerns of overworking, toxic workplace cultures, mindful productivity, mental health wellness and stress and burnout prevention. We chatted about where Thrive Global is headed, its goal to improve workplace environments and how it can benefit corporations and employees, especially readers of Forbes.com.
Bryan Robinson: After visiting your incredible workplace, I believe you’re implementing cutting-edge practices of corporate wellness. Describe some of the ideas you’re implementing at Thrive Global.
Arianna Huffington: Thrive Global is redefining the wellness category. We recognize that in order to achieve behavior change, we need both mind shifts and Microsteps. The first mind shift is to end the collective delusion that in order to succeed, you have to burn out. That collective delusion is at the heart of the hustle culture and emphasis on burning out as a badge of honor to the point of emotional bankruptcy. The habit of overextending yourself has diminishing returns. So what we show is that it doesn’t actually improve your performance; it’s damaging to your performance. That’s a central part of the mind shift. And then on the Microstep front, we help people to go from knowing what to do, to doing it by giving them small, incremental daily steps.
Robinson: And I will add that the studies coming out support exactly what you just said. It’s a paradox. There’s this myth that if you burn yourself out and work your behind off, you’ll get ahead. But the science shows the opposite, that it circumvents the trajectory of your career. Can you speak to how the research supports your mission?
Huffington: Absolutely. The research is unequivocal that sleep and time to recharge along with good nutrition and movement improve both our cognitive and physical performance. Of course, we see that with athletes. You wouldn’t have Kobe Bryant, Tom Brady or Simone Biles forego sleep, eat junk and then show up to perform or play a big game. It’s the same for all of us in any area of life. That’s why at Thrive we have a lot of interviews from elite athletes like Andre Iguodala, Kevin Durant and the 49ers who recognize how important it is to move what they’ve learned in the sports world to the rest of the world.
Robinson: That’s right. When you’re performing in front of millions of people, you have to be prepared. You don’t just show up. You must keep your mind centered and clear, and this is important for all of us regardless of our challenges or careers.
Huffington: Absolutely. Mental resilience becomes all the more important as we’re all living in a world where the pace of change has accelerated beyond human capacity to deal with it. So it’s all the more important to prioritize the time we spend basically recovering, recharging and refueling—or whatever word you want to use.
Robinson: Would you agree that a lot of people are harming themselves trying to keep up with technology’s speed of light?
Huffington: Yes, and this is at the expense of their own well-being and creativity, too.
Robinson: I love your work space. And I see some of the innovative things you’re doing at Thrive. Can you name just some of the ways you’re implementing these ideas on a daily basis with employees?
Huffington: As you see, we have a wellness room with a “nap pod” because we want everyone who works here to get enough sleep. But if they don’t for whatever reason—if they’re up at night with a sick child, for example—we highly recommend they have a 20-minute nap because that’s the fastest way to recharge. And then we have once-a-week chair massages so people can relax and unwind, and we serve occasional nutritious lunches and healthy snacks at all times. Our conference rooms are named after philosophers whose work we integrate into our own work like Marcus Aurelius or Lao Tzu or Rikyu, the inventor of the tea ceremony, which is another example of bringing recharging into your day. And then we have a micro-step wall that has a few hundred of our seven hundred Microsteps, which we call “too small to fail steps,” broken down in daily, tiny incremental steps that build up to behavior change.
Robinson: From your own perspective, could you describe what “Thrive Time” is? I love that innovative concept.
Huffington: “Thrive Time” is one of our cultural values, based on the clarification that we’re not a 9 to 5 workplace. We don’t believe that any high-growth, ambitious company, as we are, can be 9 to 5. But we believe if somebody has worked extended hours over the weekend or pulled an all-nighter to ship a product, it’s important to take Thrive Time immediately afterwards to fully recharge before returning to work. The data shows when people go to work before they fully recharge and their immune system is suppressed, they are more likely to get sick and make bad decisions. They’re not as creative or productive, not as empathetic, not as good colleagues and so forth. It’s like an athlete taking a break after a big game.
Robinson: How do you personally practice self-care? In a nutshell, what is your regimen?
Huffington: The most important thing for me is how I start and end my day. These are also principles we bring to our offerings to corporations that are included in our behavior change app. The way we describe it is at the end of the day, you pick a time—whatever time that is—that you declare the end of your working day because the truth is, there is no end to the workday. So we need to arbitrarily declare the end of the day, so we can fully recharge and return to work. I mark this transition by having a hot bath that I prolong if I’ve had a stressful day, like a ritual to wash the day away. But before I take my bath, I mark the end of the day by turning off my phone and recharging it outside my room. As you know, we have created a little phone bed that I have outside my bedroom. I put my phone under the blanket, tuck it in and say good night. Then when I’m in bed, I never look at screens. I have a lot of books by my bed—poetry, novels, philosophy and things that have nothing to do with work.
Robinson: What do you say to the skeptic who says, “I don’t have time to soak in a bath or meditate; I’m too busy; my work is too consuming?”
Huffington: This is a big pattern of the times we live in because of time famine, feeling breathless, living our lives perpetually feeling we’re running out of time. This is a function of living from fight or flight. When we’re fully recharged and have moved to our parasympathetic nervous system away, from the fight or flight part of our nervous system, we actually recognize that when we prioritize and are clear about what matters, we have all the time we need. But when you’re running on empty, everything seems like a mountain.
Robinson: What do you envision the typical workplace will look like in 2030?
Huffington: It’s going to be so different from where we are now that we’re going to look back in 2030 at where we are today in the same way we look at television ads for cigarettes in the 1960s. When we read about the corporate hustle culture and wearing burnout like a badge of honor, we will see how important it was that we made all these changes that we’re making right now which I hope will be widespread in 2030. And what is inevitable is that we’re going to see better decisions from leaders, better and sustainable results and happier lives. What is absolutely critical at this moment is a reduction in the mental health crisis and chronic diseases because these are symptoms of the burnout culture we’re living in.
Robinson: So it’s going to be like looking back at the dark ages?
Huffington: Yes, exactly (laughs).
Robinson: If some young woman were to ask you what is your secret to success, what would you say to her?
Huffington: I would say, what I tell my two millennial daughters. When they prioritize their well-being, they will be more creative, more productive and more effective in whatever career path they choose. They also will realize that success is not just defined by career but by living a full life outside work and nurturing your body, mind and soul.
Robinson: What advice do you have for those in the workplace in terms of burnout prevention, work/life integration and workplace wellness?
Huffington: The way the new changes are going to spread faster is by recognizing that they’re not warm and fuzzy and nice to have, but they are directly connected to business metrics and to the bottom line.