Arianna Huffington: 'Why we should all sleep our way to the top'
After 11 years at the helm of her global media empire, Arianna Huffington is launching a new venture to help execs avoid burnout. James Ashton finds out more
Arianna Huffington recalls the response Hillary Clinton gave to a New York Times writer when asked what she wanted to do next after quitting as US Secretary of State in 2013.
"She said she wanted to get untired - and sleep," Huffington says. "Then she basically went on very quickly building her presidential campaign."
So Clinton's failure at the ballot box last month is down to an acute lack of shut-eye? Certainly Donald Trump tried to capitalise on his rival's stamina levels, at one point tweeting: "Hillary Clinton is taking the day off again, she needs the rest."
But Huffington thinks the US President-elect is possibly more sleep-deprived, hence all those late-night tweets that risk causing diplomatic incidents. "Convincing Donald Trump that he has to sleep at night is going to be an essential part of our national security."
You might have guessed that author-turned-entrepreneur Huffington (66) championed Clinton during the campaign, for which Trump labelled her a "dummy" and a "liberal clown" in his never-ending Twitter stream. But she is not losing sleep over the verdict of the American people. Rather, she is trying to help them rest easier at night. In the summer she left the Huffington Post news website she set up 11 years ago to launch Thrive Global, a venture designed to help companies and individuals avoid burnout, boost wellbeing and improve productivity by unplugging themselves from the technology that has taken over modern lives.
We meet in Thrive's pop-up store in New York's SoHo district. I'm in agreement with Henry Blodget, editor-in-chief of the Business Insider website, who later the same day puts Huffington on the spot during a conference session, saying: "You've always been an inspiration as a media mogul - now I understand you're trying to sell me pillows."
It is true, there are pillows - emblazoned with the mantra "sleep your way to the top" - scattered on a giant bed, plus a meditation room full of fluffy rugs and a display of mobile apps that help weight loss, manage cravings and collect "gratitude videos" - 80% of recipients of the videos report having cried "tears of joy".
I am encouraged to take a 20-minute nap in a gently vibrating $10,000 sleep pod as the sound of waves crash in my ears. But the biggest draw is the $100 "phone bed" which users are encouraged to tuck their mobiles into for the night - preferably not in the bedroom - before tucking themselves in.
"There is a new urgency around this topic because technology has so accelerated the speed of life beyond our capacity to cope," says Huffington, an unlikely shopkeeper perched on a stool in a delicately-embroidered frock coat. "We are actually much less productive when we are always on.
"Often it is not about overworking. You can finish work and still be on - social media or texting or emailing." So the super-quick message response for which advertising tycoon Sir Martin Sorrell has long been a proponent "should no longer be a badge of honour". Huffington is proud of her out-of-office system that deletes incoming mail and asks people to contact a colleague or try again when she is back.
Retail is the least important element of Thrive, named after her 2014 book on redefining workplace success. The most lucrative appears to be the corporate work, helping clients such as JPMorgan Chase and Accenture change their culture to improve emotional wellbeing. There is also a website and app that gathers the best science writing on the subject of wellness and sleep.
Thrive's initial funding round gives clues to Huffington's voluminous contacts book. Backers include leading economist Mohamed El-Erian, Nicolas Berggruen, also known as "the homeless billionaire", former Facebook president Sean Parker and Joanna Coles, the chief content officer at Hearst Magazines who was once Cosmopolitan's editor-in-chief. Incidentally, Huffington reports that Coles's advice for anyone waking up in the middle of the night "is you have to wake up your partner and have sex. Very good for putting you back to sleep".
It's a case of getting the band back together because many of the investors and staff were with her at HuffPo. She has even taken the same office space to launch from. Dismissed as a vanity project for her rich and famous friends such as Nora Ephron and Walter Cronkite to exchange political views, the HuffPo silenced critics as it grew into one of the most successful online news brands. In 2011, it was sold for $315m to AOL. Its success might explain why critics are careful not to write off Thrive.
"It is not just the fact that I have proven I can build a company. I think it is more important that we are tapping into something important in the zeitgeist," she says.
"I will always love the Huffington Post but I had zero mixed feelings (about leaving). I am so excited about what I am doing now. If I had stayed, sure I could make incremental improvements and a small difference but I have a great team that I left behind. Here I can build something that can make a real difference to lives around the world."
Athens-born, Cambridge-educated Arianna Stassinopoulos moved to New York from London in 1980 after her relationship with journalist Bernard Levin broke down. She wrote and broadcast widely, producing biographies of opera singer Maria Callas and artist Pablo Picasso and married Michael Huffington, a wealthy Republican congressman. As an independent candidate she was defeated by Arnold Schwarzenegger when California elected a new governor in 2003.
In all that time away from Greece the only thing that hasn't changed is the way she speaks. "My only problem with Alexa (Amazon's voice-activated personal assistant) is she doesn't understand my accent."
Huffington reports she slept well the night before we meet. "Ninety to 95% of the time, I get eight hours sleep because I prioritise it." Her routine begins 30 minutes before bedtime by turning off all her devices, putting them in their phone beds to charge "and then I like to have a hot bath that washes away the day". She reads real books, not an e-reader - "nothing to do with work" - and finally she makes a list of three things to be grateful for "because I think so often we end our days thinking of all the things that didn't go well and that wakes us up often in middle of the night regurgitating them". On the days when she is busy, such as when Thrive launched the other week, she juggles her schedule to rest up. "I knew I had a launch party so when I got really tired I cancelled three interviews and went to have a long meditation."
Her evangelism stems from personal experience. Huffington collapsed from exhaustion in 2007 and her eldest daughter Christina ended up in hospital with breathing difficulties after taking drugs, "a total product of stress". They are a close family. She will spend Christmas on the Hawaiian island of Lanai with her sister Agapi, her two daughters and ex-husband. "We always have vacations together - we believe in good divorces."
Will a truce break out with Trump? HuffPo began covering his presidential campaign in its entertainment section rather than politics, carrying a disclaimer under its stories that "Donald Trump is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, birther and bully".
She adds: "I feel once the die is cast the goal of the media is to cover what he does and says now, not to continue covering the campaign." Huffington concedes that the rise of alternative leaders can be linked to the collective anxiety of those people who are struggling, burnt out and feel failed by the ruling elites. Trump could claim some success in the White House if he is able to "get serious about inequalities and to get serious about the fact that many people have lost any hope that the American dream is for them". He should sleep on it.