On “living in the moment” with wonder—visiting Arianna Huffington’s business bio, _Thrive_ (2014)

Readers might be surprised to read that I didn’t enjoy the first half of the recent autobiography/business biography of Huffington Post’s editor-in-chief, Arianna Huffington.  She is a much lauded celebrity: she was named as one of “Time” Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People,” has written a syndicated column and many books. Huffington has also given prominent TEDtalks and hosted a radio program on business–she’s about as high profile as it gets.

In her latest book, Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom and Wonder (New York: Harmony, 2014), Huffington (like Sheryl Sandberg and Debora Spar before her) describes hitting bottom in exhaustion, from trying to “do it all,” at work and at home. Opening with a fall she suffered in her home office due to sleep deprivation, she spends the first half of the volume describing how the relentless pursuit of the “two traditional metrics of success – money and power” caused her  to sacrifice family, health and ultimately her career, from stress and burnout.

Thrive embodies her theory that we need a “Third Metric” for redefining success, besides the usual two, if we (women and also those men to whom the argument applies) are to live healthy, balanced and meaningful lives. This third set of values consists of our ability to draw on intuition, inner wisdom, our sense of wonder and our capacity for empathy and giving to others.

I found the first roughly 150 pages to be a familiar (pedestrian) review of recent theory on how wrong business-types have gotten their lives, whereby the rat race has caused them to abandon their well-being and wisdom. But what saved the volume for me was the final 100 or so pages where Huffington discusses “wonder,” which she says is “not just a product of what we see, of how beautiful or mysterious or incomprehensible something may be. Wonder is just as much a product of our state of mind, our being, the perspective from which we are looking at the world” (174). This is also the part of the book where she shares more of her life experiences, from her economically unprivileged Greek upbringing (albeit by a trail-blazing, no-nonsense and visionary mother) to her education,  motherhood, divorce and career in the U.S.

Huffington shares some mystical observations about wonder that are relevant to all professional people (in business, the arts or elsewhere). She does so more effectively than she discusses her earlier, foundational theory. Particularly poignant in the context of her own life “failures,” I found, were the last two of her three basic practices for living more in the moment, “the only place from which we can experience wonder” (221), amidst a world that has no time for it:

1. Focus on the rising and falling of your breath for 10 seconds, whenever you feel tense,  rushed or distracted. This allows you to become fully present in your life.

2. Pick an image that ignites the joy in you. It can be of your child, a pet, the ocean, a painting you love—something that inspires a sense of wonder.

3. Forgive yourself for any judgments you are holding against yourself and then forgive your judgments of others. (If Nelson Mandela can do it, you can, too.) Then look at your life and the day ahead with newness and wonder.  (221)

She argues that however stressful life can be, building this kind of awareness in the midst of stress can help put priority on your state of mind and on your health.

Of course, these injunctions are not original, either. They remind me of gratitude journals and meditations recommended by Peleg Top (and his followers) andof Deepak Chopra,  Pema Chodron (and theirs). But this discussion, set in the context of  Huffington’s own life felt more authentic than anything else in the book.

Closer to “home,” Saskatoon-based businesswoman, Lori Jestin-Knaus, recently noted that it’s easy for business biographers like Huffington (and others) to preach these “zen” kind of values, when they have already attained their millions and fame. It feels a lot harder to be slogging it out to start and develop a business while making enough money to feed one’s family and meet the ever-increasing cost of living.

But I believe that by doing what we love for our careers, alongside receiving mentoring and participating in our communities; and by acquiring and applying the necessary skills we need, we find the ideal environment for wonder and worthiness in our lives. And we can do so quite without Huffington’s fame or wealth. When we do so, the simpler things of putting food on the table and finding a good place to live follow. When we hear a calling, we also find ourselves equipped to act on it.

Numerous women freelancers, academics and business leaders whom I know are working and living for “wonder.” Those of us without fame and wealth could actually be the envy of rich and famous business gurus like Huffington, for living closer to the daily reality of what matters, and for doing it earlier in life than she did. (Note that luminaries like Pema Chodron eschew wealth and celebrity in their spiritual and emotional journeys.)

Nearly a century ago (1929), Virginia Woolf wrote, in A Room of One’s Own:

“. . . If we live another century or so . . . and have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think . . . Shakespeare’s sister will be born . . . . I maintain that she would come if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worthwhile.”

Since 1929, of course, the world has seen and sees many sisters of Shakespeare, not least Virginia Woolf herself. Huffington could be seen as a sister of Shakespeare in the world of contemporary media (“Huffington Post”). Her insights have drawn on early feminist sisters like Woolf, who have made possible the privilege that businesswomen like Huffington have achieved.

In my experience, and with the caveat of temporarily bracketing off scenarios of the world’s poverty, violence and deprivation, the everyday “poverty and obscurity” that working women experience (if we are doing what we most love among and supported by those whom we love), though not easy, do not define us. Our greater sense of wonder and gratitude, in and for life, do instead.

Take a good look at your daily life and work in business: where do you experience wonder and how does it enable you to pursue your calling?

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