I first learned the word “burnout” in connection with starting up, when I heard about an entrepreneur who was experiencing it. But I only had a theoretical understanding of burnout until one day last month. A combination of sleep deficit, jet lag from Hong Kong, the marathon that is SXSW, and an oncoming cold left me feeling just plain sad, and unmotivated to do anything.
Thank goodness, my burnout only lasted for a day – I can’t even imagine the kind of burnout that entrepreneurs experience. But the Huffington Post’s Arianna Huffington can. In her new book Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder, she describes how the culture of “work ‘til you drop” is making us unhappy and literally killing us. In her eyes, we’ve pursued money and power for too long, and we need a “third metric” to help us define a successful life. It’s a realization she came to after a fall that broke her cheekbone, and led to doctors testing and testing until they discovered the cause: exhaustion.
For Huffington, that third metric is thriving: a combination of well-being, wisdom, wonder, and giving. We thrive when we are getting enough sleep, being active, and slowing down. We thrive when we learn to ride the waves of life’s misfortunes, seeing them as a learning experience and an opportunity to emerge stronger. We thrive when we can delight in little beauties, marvel at coincidences, and live in the present. And we thrive when we practice kindness, truly connect with those around us, and cultivate global community.
Huffington’s goal in the book is to help us move from knowing these things to actually living that way. And she shares many specific tips and technologies to help us get there. For example, you can schedule your sleep, start a gratitude journal, or use your breath to center you in moments of stress. To start living more in the present, you can pick a little habit – like brushing your teeth – and try to do it mindfully, without letting your thoughts wander.
So Thrive isn’t an abstract vision for the ideal life, nor is it an impersonal one. Huffington shares her most personal of experiences, from the birth of her stillborn child to her daughter’s struggle with drug addiction to her aging father’s blindness. The story of the death of her mother – a mother who truly “thrived,” and inspired the book – brought tears to my eyes.
Huffington also gives us a peek into life at the Huffington Post, and how her wake-up call led to new policies there. Employees are discouraged from checking email on nights and weekends, for example, and they get three weeks of paid vacation (and three paid volunteer days). The Huffington Post offices feature nap rooms, standing desks, and yoga and meditation classes. The company also matches up to $250 in donations employees make to charity.
If we’re going to redefine what success means, Huffington believes, women will be the ones leading the way. Many of the health effects of burnout and stress are worse for women, who often feel pressure to work even harder to compensate for their status as mothers. Luckily, many women have already started – leaving their high-powered jobs because they don’t want the crippling lifestyle that comes with them, or cultivating a new culture at their own companies.
In all of this, technology is a big part of the problem – and the solution. Email, smartphones, and 3G have allowed us to bring our work home, all the way into our beds at night. The constant bleeping and pinging means it’s harder to focus on the present, our attention is scattered, and we feel pressure coming in from all directions. The friend I learned the word “burnout” from is still hyper sensitive to iPhone alarms, the legacy of a time when a 3 am ring meant a server had gone down. But there are many apps that can help us disconnect from technology, meditate, and find that place of peace, wisdom, and strength that Huffington says we all have within us.
In times of danger or risk, we are told to “stop, look, and listen.” According to Huffington, now is one of those times. We need to stop, pause, or at least slow down our needlessly hectic pace. We need to look at the life we've created for ourselves and the markers of success we're pursuing. And we need to listen to our inner voice, our mood, our soul even, to see if we're thriving – and how to move forward.