APR 11, 2018

Thrive Global’s Arianna Huffington: Prioritize Downtime

Arianna Huffington needs little introduction. The author of 15 books, including best-sellers Thrive and The Sleep Revolution, Arianna has been named to Time magazine’s list of 100 Most Influential People and Forbes’ Most Powerful Women list. In 2016, she stepped down from her namesake Huffington Post (now HuffPost) to launch Thrive Global, which aims to eliminate the stress and burnout that leave so many of us in survival mode. Arianna also joined Uber as its first woman board member, advocating for a culture where “brilliant jerks” aren’t tolerated. In this episode, Arianna joins Spencer at Zillow Group’s New York City office to discuss her newest venture, why leaders need to model balance for their employees and why we all need to prioritize downtime.
 
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Spencer Rascoff: Thank you Arianna for being here. Let’s give a warm welcome to Arianna Huffington.

Arianna Huffington: Thank you so much. It’s great to be here. I love what you are doing and your offices look fantastic.

Rascoff: Thank you. So a lot’s changed since you were in my office in Seattle a couple of years ago. I guess it was three-and-a-half years ago, summer of 2014, we were still a relatively small company, about 1,000 employees, now we have 3,000.

Huffington: It was all entirely because I was there, right? [Laughter]

Rascoff: Yes all of the growth is attributed to the advice that you gave us at the time, which was impactful though and we’re going to revisit some of those pieces of advice in a moment. Of course the parent company of Huffington Post has changed since then and now it’s AOL has now become part of Verizon which is of course also owns Yahoo, so your namesake has moved on and even been rebranded.

But most interestingly and what I want to talk to you about is the media landscape has changed dramatically in those three years, right? So we’ve had the rise of Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter all really in the last couple of years and a number of other HuffPost look-a-likes have also come onto the scene.

So as we sit here today, what is your view of the future of journalism? You know when you look out how will journalism change over the next year or two?

Huffington: Well I think the biggest change is the fact that we’re now living in the attention economy and everybody is competing for our attention whether you are HuffPost or the New York Times or Facebook or Snap. What’s happening with companies which are platforms like Facebook is that they have thousands of engineers who are really good at capturing your attention. Because the game is getting you to click and to share unfortunately we have the problem of confirmation bias and we have the problem of feeding you what is more likely to enrage you so that you can share it. That as we know was very problematic during the election, it continues to be problematic in terms of bringing us together as a nation.

But for me the biggest problem is the fact that our attention is being constantly hijacked and that’s taking us away from ourselves, it’s taking us away from our ability to reconnect with ourselves, with our loved ones. I think it’s a real existential threat to our humanity. That’s one of the big reasons why I wanted to leave HuffPost and launch a new company that’s partly focusing on that.

I mean you have a 12-year-old daughter you know how addictive her phone can become.

Rascoff: Yes.

Huffington: [Laughter] We see how addictive it becomes for us, much worse for her generation. So we need to have that have debate. We need to find solutions to it. If we don’t I’m very worried about what’s going to happen to our humanity, our ability to empathize, our ability to care, our ability to be truly creative which requires us not to be so distracted and perpetually multitasking, which we think makes us productive but in fact it just makes us stressed.

Rascoff: So I mean you’ve focused on this topic with what started as a book, became a movement and is now a company. So let’s jump into Thrive and then we can come back to the discussion about journalism.

I mean why do you think wellness, why are you so passionate about this topic? You know where does this passion come from?

Huffington: So the passion comes partly from my own experience. You know ten years ago as we discussed when we were together in Seattle I collapsed from exhaustion, burnout, and sleep depreciation and smashed my cheek bone. That lead to my studying what was happening and looking at the data and seeing that burnout had become civilization’s disease and the causalities that were proliferating. Now stress and burnout have become global epidemics wherever you are in the world.

I just came back from Riyadh in Saudi Arabia and you know mental health problems are skyrocketing because stress leads to a lot of these problems. You know diabetes, obesity we see all these problems everywhere. What is really amazing and the reason I’m so passionate about it is that it is unnecessary suffering.

You know there is a lot of suffering in the world that it’s very hard to alleviate. But there is something we can do right away right now to alleviate suffering around our health, our mental health, and our happiness and this is stop believing something false. Stop believing that in order to succeed at Zillow or anywhere else you have to burnout.

You may think, “Oh I don’t believe that,” but if you scratch beneath the surface you do, because most of us do. Most of us think that in order to really succeed, “I have to be always on. I have to forgo sleeping, I have to forgo doing things for myself, because I need to be a go-getter, I need to be constantly getting stuff done.” And yet all the data and all the science shows unequivocally that refueling, renewing ourselves, recharging makes us more productive. I mean look at world-class athletes what do they do? They prioritize their wellbeing, their sleep, their nutrition, their ways of recharging, because it makes them better on the court or on the field.

Rascoff: What’s the role of leadership in terms of being a role model in this regard?

Huffington: Oh incredibly important, because first of just looking at you right now I mean let’s just analyze you’re habits. [Laughter]

Rascoff: Well I took a redeye here from the West Coast so I am a little tired, but I have followed the advice in Thrive I prioritize sleep. I do turn off when I get home from work in the 5:00 hour I typically turn my phone off for two or three hours until my kids are asleep. I then get back online for about half-an-hour or an hour and then I don’t sleep with my phone next to my bed. I turn my phone completely off.

Huffington: Fantastic.

Rascoff: I have found and part of this came from your book, but part of it just came from my own learning I found that even if my phone was in a different room if it was turned on I knew information was coming into it. I just knew subconsciously I was getting push notifications, I was getting e-mails, I was getting referenced in Tweets, whatever, and turning it literally off is really important to me. So no screens in the bedroom, turning phones off. I mean these are things that are well documented.

Huffington: Yep, but they are fantastic. I think that’s – did everybody here know that you are doing these things?

Rascoff: I think, I hope, I hope so.

Huffington: No some people here are saying, “No.”

Rascoff: No? Okay.

Huffington: Yeah.

Rascoff: So I’ll give you another one thing that I do to try to set a good example. I try to offline on Saturdays. I try to take a digital Sabbath and I put an “out of office” on my inbox on Friday night and it says, “I am not checking e-mail again until Sunday morning.” I do that very deliberately so that employees and partners and others that e-mail me know that I’m doing that. I’m trying to give permission to others to do the same.

Huffington: I think first of all this is absolutely fantastic. I think this is – [laughter], no this is really essential for the culture shift that we are working towards at Thrive.

Rascoff: Yes.

Huffington: One of the things we’re doing and I hope you are going to write about it is collecting what we call “new role models.” For example we had Jeff Bezos write on Thrive a piece which went very viral and the title was Why Am I Getting 8 Hours of Sleep is Good for Amazon Shareholders? He analyzed his decision making and he said, “I’ve looked at my decision making and even if I’ve had six hours of sleep my decision making,” he said, “is 5 to 20 percent less good and I’m being judged by the quality of my decisions, not the quantity of my decisions.”

We had Eric Schmidt write something similar; Mark Cuban writes about his digital detox. We hope you’re going to write about exactly what you said, because we need to collect more role models, people who are in the arena like you are who are very successful like you are, who are proving that you don’t have to be always on and burnout in order to succeed, so that’s fantastic.

Rascoff: It didn’t always used to be this way. I mean the culture in the I don’t know ’50s and ’60s was not like this, the work culture at least as I understand it. Is it all because of the rise of the smartphone or what changed in society to lionize being “hardcore” and working all the time?

Huffington: I think the rise of the smartphone has definitely dramatically exacerbated the problem. But it actually goes back to the industrial revolution. When we became enthralled with machines and the goal of a machine and the goal of software is to minimize downtime. But the goal of a human being is different because the human – for the human operating system downtime is a feature, it’s not a bug. [Laughter] Like we actually need downtime.

Rascoff: Right.

Huffington: And even if you go back to the myth of the creation you know God created heaven and earth in six days and then she took the seventh day off. [Laughter] And you know really if you think that God is an omnipotent, omnipresent, omni everything she really didn’t need too, she was sending us a message and we have ignored it. I mean your digital Sabbath is incredibly profoundly important. I bet if you did an analysis of your best ideas they probably come when you’re not answering e-mails or handling things.

Rascoff: Well yeah, so that is a really interesting point and I have blogged a little bit about this on LinkedIn and other places where I write. It’s not that I’m not working on those days, it’s actually that I’m working differently. Because I’m not being interrupted by the steady of stream of information I’m actually having creative thoughts and able to be more present with my family, yes, but also be more thoughtful about work because I’m not being interrupted.

The other thing that you should all do is remove the popup notification thing that when you get new e-mail. I mean that is, I don’t know how anyone gets anything done with that thing on.

Huffington: Yeah and also I have turned off all public notifications. I only get notifications from people I know. Of course please don’t get notifications every time somebody likes your Instagram photo of your lunch. [Laughter] I really think this is totally absurd. [Laughter] Yet there are millions of people who do.

So I think what you said about being interrupted is like a critical problem, because you can’t really do deep work, you can’t really have your best thoughts or your best ideas if you’re constantly interrupted and constantly distracted.

Rascoff: It’s interesting that so much of the big stories from the Old Testament are still accepted today. I mean the Ten Commandments and I mean yet not working one day a week somehow that got lost somewhere. I mean we can agree that you shouldn’t kill, you shouldn’t commit adultery, et cetera, but like what about that other piece from the Genesis story we just ignore.

Huffington: Let’s putting it back, lets all of us here vouch to bring it back.

Rascoff: So I mean describe Thrive. So you wrote this book which came from your incredible story that you told. I mean you woke up in a pool of your blood as I recall, right, from having passed out from exhaustion, you wrote this book, you launched a movement and now it’s a company. So what is Thrive Global? What are you hoping to achieve and how are productizing this movement as a startup?

Huffington: So Thrive is three things. The first is B2B. We go into companies whether it’s big multinationals like Accenture or J.P Morgan or smaller companies like Uber. [Laughter]

Rascoff: We’re going to get to that.

Huffington: Or Snap. We work with their employees and their leadership to help create a more thriving culture, where employees understand this connection between wellbeing and productivity. We do it in different ways, through workshops, through online courses, through challenges.

One of the things we did with J.P. Morgan for example was a 28-day challenge that was issued by a lot of executives in the C-Suite, their CMO, their CEO of the private bank, inviting all their 200,000 employees to participate in one of four challenges, improve their sleep, improve the way they unplug from technology, practice mindfulness, and practice gratitude. I mean you know how amazing that is, right?

Rascoff: And the data is unequivocal that that leads to better longevity, better decision making, better happiness.

Huffington: And also better bottom-line results.

Rascoff: Or company outcomes yes.

Huffington: Better company outcomes because employees who are happier and healthier are more likely to stay. You know attrition increases by 35 percent if employees are burnt out. It improves recruitment. I mean J.P. Morgan won a big HR award because of the things we did together. So people hear that they think it’s a good company to work in and it improves performance. So anyway that’s the first part of the company.

The second is a media platform. I mentioned the fact that we do everything I did at the Huffington Post except just about this one topic and we go deep and we go wide and we bring together the latest science, new role models. And I want to invite all of to write your stories. You know if you have a life hack, something you do that works for you share it. You have no idea how powerful it is and you don’t know who may actually make some important changes in their lives because of reading your piece. People resonate to different stories.

The third part of the company is exactly what you alluded to which is we are productizing our IP. So we’re taking everything we’ve learned over the last ten years and specifically over the last year of working with companies and consumers and we are turning it into a product suite.

Here’s how the Thrive app works. It turns your smartphone into a dumb phone for specified periods of time and you can’t override it. So let’s say you’re having dinner with your family and you want to be uninterrupted you put your phone in Thrive mode. If I text you I get a text back telling me that you are in Thrive mode until what time. The goal of that is also to accelerate the culture shift. So it begins to value the fact that you are able to disconnect.

Rascoff: I remember when I had a Blackberry I used to have a dump phone and on weekends I would take the SIM card out of the Blackberry and put it into the flip phone so I could still use it to make and receive phone calls, but I couldn’t get any e-mails or text or anything else. So I guess that’s a much better version of that.

Huffington: You know that’s fantastic, you’re kind of an early pioneer.

Rascoff: I care about this stuff. I think it’s really important I really do.

Huffington: No I think it’s amazing.

Rascoff: It’s a marathon, not a spring and if people – you know if our employees burnout they’re no good to us so there’s a business goal here in addition to a happiness goal.

Huffington: It is totally a business goal. The other thing this app will do is it will give you a mirror of your social media consumption. So it will tell you for example, “You spent seven hours on Instagram last week. Would you like to reduce it?” If you say “No” it’s no, if you say “Yes” and let’s say you set a limit of six hours it will give you notifications and when you get to six hours it will cut you out. So it’s basically like a coach.

Rascoff: Right.

Huffington: You know you may say, “I don’t need that,” you do. [Laughter] Because trust me I talk about these things every day and I do, because we are all addicted to some extent or other and we need help. What is a paradoxical is that we can have technology help us navigate our relationship with technology.

Rascoff: Is this something that J.P. Morgan cares about you know when the Dow is at a record high and when the economy is really good, but when we hit tough times I don’t know we kind of need everybody to be hardcore and work all the time? Or do you think this is just an immutable trend towards health and wellness that is going to swamp any economic cycle?

Huffington: I think it’s an immutable trend because of the connection between health and wellness and performance. So we are realizing that in fact when let’s say for example these are always on because you think that’s going to improve outcomes, it doesn’t. That it increase health care costs because when we are exhausted that immune system is suppressed we are more likely to get sick. Seventy-five percent of health care costs are because of stress related preventable diseases. So just think of it 75 percent. Then as we said because it improve productivity, retention, and a lot of business metrics that are hardcore. So that’s really the key new understanding that we need to spread.

Rascoff: I will share a life hack that you share with me last time I interviewed you and I use it all the time. My wife and I call it “The Arianna Huffington rule” and we just used it the other day. You said something like sometimes when you feel inundated and overwhelmed with all the things you have to do in your life the best thing to do is just cross something off the list.

I think the example you used was skiing if I remember correctly.

Huffington: Yes.

Rascoff: You said you always kind of always wanted to ski, it was always on the back, it was always on the list of things to do and then one day you woke up a couple of years ago and said, “You know what forget it I’m just never going to learn to ski.” [Laughter] And you just crossed it off the list and all of a sudden you had all this time back. You know all that time that you would have otherwise had to learn to ski you didn’t have to spend on that. I think that was brilliant and I do that all the time.

Huffington: We call it, “You can complete a project by dropping it.”

Rascoff: I love it, I love it. [Laughter] I think that’s great, I think it’s great. All right so a lot of the initiatives around Thrive are about improving people, but also improving people for the purpose of improving company culture and business results. Of course you’ve been in the news a lot lately because of your role as a director at Uber.

In this podcast I explore the topic of company culture a lot. I just had Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft on and he talked in his book about Microsoft’s culture, his book Hit Refresh, about how he’s rebooting the Microsoft culture.

So the question that I would ask to you is: Can cultures actually be changed at companies, more than a couple of thousand employees or are they just is it like you know quick-drying cement once cultures are set they are what they are?

Huffington: Absolutely cultures can be changed. I mean we are seeing it changing at Uber. I learned a lot from my involvement over the past I don’t know however many months since last February. I feel that one of the key things we are learning is to know what the company stands for beyond growth and profits and how critical that is. If you worship on the altar of hyper-growth a lot of problems occur which in the end have an impact on the business.

Rascoff: So I call this “HR debt.” You know we talk a lot at startups about tech debt and how you have to pay down tech debt along the way or else someday you have a reckoning where you have to freeze product development in order to re-architect the site. A lot of companies buildup HR debt along the way. It seems like Uber did.

If you then recognize it and pay it down quickly and are serious about it and there’s actual change at the top I think it’s possible but it’s hard. I think now we see Uber going through that right now in public view and it’s always hard to do these things under the scrutiny that they’re under.

Huffington: But I think the fact that it is in public view it has also something cathartic about it. It means you know there is light in every dark corner and I feel we’re in a place where everything has come up to the surface. There was a months-long investigation. People were fired. There was a tremendous emphasis on cultural values that for example we took out words like “being always on” or working harder, smarter, longer, we took out the word “longer.”

So from more intangible things like the cultural values of the company to very tangible things like what you value and what your priorities are; a lot of changes are happening. I feel extremely optimistic about where Uber is and where it’s going.

Rascoff: So are we at a seminal moment in companies’ and institutions’ recognition of the importance of culture particularly diversity?

Are we at a point of change – will my 12-year-old and 6-year-old girls still by talking about this when they are in the workplace or will we finally reach the point in time where you know this is all repaired?

Huffington: Well I don’t think anything will be a thousand percent repaired because that means that we will have changed human nature. So I don’t think that we’re going to completely transform human nature by the time your 6-year-old is working at Zillow, which I’m sure she’s going to be running one day.

Rascoff: Hopefully.

Huffington: But I think what’s changing is the tolerance towards that behavior. Also in a healthy culture that behavior is very quickly brought to the surface. Like I don’t think anybody can claim that you can have a culture in a company which does not allow this behavior to ever exist, right? But if that behavior can be surfaced very quickly and dealt with then this is almost like what I call “the immune system” of the company. The culture is your immune system. So if you think of it we are constantly exposed to viruses. Whether we get sick or not depends on how strong our immune system is, so I think the same applies to a company.

The problem in Silicon Valley and elsewhere has been that there has been such protective feeling towards high performers. You know if you deliver results and you are a jerk hey you know we’ll forgive you because you are delivering results. That’s changing. I call it “No brilliant jerks allowed.” It doesn’t matter how brilliant you are if you are a jerk I don’t want you in my company.

I have a very strict policy about that at Thrive. I had a strict policy about that at HuffPost. I believe it makes an incredible difference to the culture and to the business outcomes when people know that they don’t have to tolerate somebody toxic because she or he delivers results.

Something fundamentally is changing. This sort of catharsis that’s going on is unbelievably healthy. The fact that that behavior will not be tolerated even if you are a high performer is so significant.

Rascoff: All right Arianna Huffington thank you for sharing your wisdom with us, always a pleasure, thank you.