Arianna Huffington, co-founder of Huffington Post, author of 15 books and now the founder of the behaviour change media and technology company, Thrive Global, was in Winnipeg to receive the 2018 International Distinguished Entrepreneur Award (IDEA) at a gala event on Tuesday evening.
Through sheer wit and wisdom, and an uncanny ability to tap into the zeitgeist, Huffington has been at the right place at the right time on a few occasions. She helped turn Huffington Post, now called HuffPost, which she founded in 2005, into one of the most popular go-to news sites of the digital era, even winning a Pulitzer Prize in 2012.
It was acquired by AOL in 2011 for US$315 million and Huffington continued on as editor-in-chief until the fall of 2016, when she left to start Thrive Global whose aim is to improve wellness worldwide.
With Thrive Global, she has become a champion of the benefits of sleep and meditation, and a crusader against burnout and addiction to digital devices, something even Apple Inc. recognizes as a new concern in the digital era. In its upcoming iOS 12, Apple will include a new "Digital Health" feature which will help people use their iPhones less.
After speaking to students at the Asper School of Business at the University of Manitoba — the Associates of the Asper School of Business organize the IDEA event — on Tuesday, she sat down for a chat with the Free Press, sharing her thoughts on all sorts of issues from U.S. President Donald Trump to the nuisance of incessant "breaking news" notifications, to the remaking of Uber, where she is on the board of directors.
Q: With Thrive Global, you share lots of good advice for people to cope with stress and burnout. How well are you doing yourself?
A: I practise what I preach. Not 100 per cent of the time — we are all works in progress — but I would say 95 per cent of the time. There are always things that happen... a flight is delayed, a deadline takes longer than you think. But in general, I prioritize it because I feel so much more effective, so much more productive and happier when I do these minimal things. They are not huge. I get enough sleep, I meditate, I work out, I try to avoid sugar and processed foods.
Q: As the founder of one of the first online news aggregators, some say you might have contributed to the decline in quality journalism. What do you think the state of journalism today?
A: First of all, one of the things that has happened is there has been a convergence. You can no longer automatically say which is the new media and which is the old media. Every traditional paper is also online, and has an online presence and associated media and video. And every new media company like the Huffington Post, say, also does traditional investigative journalism.
What has happened now is this complete emphasis on breaking news that is not really breaking news. Every tiny thing that happens becomes breaking news that’s tweeted and endless notifications about everything (are broadcasted). It is a very disruptive way to live. I have personally ended all my notifications and trust me, I don’t think I am uninformed about anything.
That is part of what we are advocating at Thrive — how we set boundaries in our own life to protect our attention and our time, the most significant assets we have. Now they are being continuously hijacked by endless notifications and by a false sense of urgency. It has led many people to live in a permanent state of outrage. And being in a permanent state of outrage is depleting.
Q: For all of Thrive’s messaging about de-stressing one’s life, it must have been stressful for you to go through all of the hectic business of a startup. Why did you do it?
A: The way I see it, I love my work. I can’t imagine not working. Thriving is not about slowing down. Thriving is about working smarter, working more effectively and making sure you have time to refuel and recharge and prioritize other important aspects of your life. I am not made to chill under a mango tree. Some people may enjoy that and they should do it. I think we are all different. For me, having a clear mission and having a clear purpose about my life is a very important part of a rich fulfilling life.
Q: I know that you and the Huffington Post have had a lot of issues back and forth over the years with Donald Trump. What are your personal thoughts on living in America in 2018 with that kind of presence as the political leader of the country?
A: It is obviously incredibly unfortunate that we are where we are with the president we have. It is important for all the American elites to recognize there are a lot of problems left unaddressed. I have been to so many conferences about growing inequalities and the need for inclusive capitalism, but no steps were really taken in a major way to address that.
So, a lot of people have been left out of the American Dream and are losing hope in the future. You see the results in the opioid crisis and increasing suicide rates. All that is connected. It is part of what got us to where we are.
Plus, of course, we now see what happened with the abuse of social media like Facebook to turn the election which was a huge wake-up call about the relationship of technology in our lives. Up until that moment, most people assumed every new technological advance was a good thing. There was a kind of triumphalism around technology. Now we have seen the political consequences. It has helped us focus on even bigger consequences — like the hijacking of our attention.
Q: Do you believe there is a disconnect or irony that you are creating digital products at the same time assisting people to break their addiction to digital devices?
A: We actually believe you have to use technology to help disconnect from technology. We launched the Thrive app so that when you are having dinner with friends or family, if I text you, I get a text back saying you are on Thrive mode until such and such time. It is bi-directional. It helps change the culture so we don’t expect people will be immediately responsive.
Q: You are on the board of Uber, a super-fast-growing company with a corporate culture that seemed somewhat self-destructive, maybe even contrary to a lot of what Thrive is trying to address. How does that work?
A: I was very sensitized to these issues. I joined the Uber board in the spring of 2016 and I left HuffPost in September 2016 to launch Thrive Global. My mind was thinking about Thrive.
The good news now is Uber is in a really great place with a massive new US$9-billion investment from SoftBank and a great emphasis on safety and inclusion and diversity.
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.