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Arianna Huffington on Redefining Success: 2013 Smith College Commencement Address

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“Money and power by themselves are a two-legged stool — you can balance on them for a while, but eventually you’re going to topple over.”

At the zenith of commencement season and its treasure trove of timeless advice — including Debbie Millman on courage and the creative life, Greil Marcus on “high” and “low” culture, Neil Gaiman on making good art, and Bill Watterson on creative integrityArianna Huffington shares her wisdom with the young women of the 2013 Smith College graduating class, expounding on the message of her 2007 semi-memoir, On Becoming Fearless…in Love, Work, and Life (public library). Like some of history’s most memorable commencement addresses, the import at the heart of hers calls for redefining our notion of success by doing away with the treacherous idols of money and power, and instead focusing on the three W’s — well-being, wonder, and wisdom — with an eye toward the next wave of feminism. Transcript highlights and discussion below.

At the center of her argument is a call to challenge our fetishism of money and instead focus on meaning:

Commencement speakers are traditionally expected to tell graduates how to go out there and climb the ladder of success, but I want to ask you, instead, to redefine success.

[…]

At the moment, our society’s notion of success is largely composed of two parts: money and power. In fact, success, money and power have practically become synonymous.

But it’s time for a third metric, beyond money and power — one founded on well-being, wisdom, our ability to wonder, and to give back. Money and power by themselves are a two-legged stool — you can balance on them for a while, but eventually you’re going to topple over. And more and more people, very successful people, are toppling over. Basically, success the way we’ve defined it is no longer sustainable. It’s no longer sustainable for human beings or for societies. To live the lives we want, and not just the ones we settle for, the ones society defines as successful, we need to include the third metric.

Irreverently riffing off 1954 Smith graduation speaker Alistair Cooke’s notorious counsel that women’s way to the top would be determined by whom they marry, Huffington advises graduates to “sleep their way to the top” — in the literal sense. Like another wise woman, who knows that sleep is “the greatest creative aphrodisiac,” Huffington emphasizes how profoundly sleep impacts your every waking moment, from your creativity to your mood to your risk of obesity, smoking, and heart disease:

In 2007, sleep deprived and exhausted, I fainted, hit my head on my desk, broke my cheekbone and got four stitches on my right eye. And even as it’s affecting our health, sleep deprivation will also profoundly affect your creativity, your productivity, and your decision-making. The Exxon Valdez wreck, the explosion of the Challenger Space Shuttle, and the nuclear accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island — all were at least partially the result of decisions made on too little sleep.

[…]

We have to change workplace culture so that it’s walking around drained and exhausted that’s stigmatized. … What adding well-being to our definition of success means is that, in addition to looking after our financial capital, we need to do everything we can to protect and nurture our human capital.

Huffington goes on to note that the Huffington Post newsroom, like in Thomas Edison’s lab and library, is equipped with nap rooms to boost productivity. Echoing Bertrand Russell’s timeless meditation on education and the good life, in which he rhetorically asked, “What will be the good of the conquest of leisure and health, if no one remembers how to use them?,” she points to the essential gift of which the money-mill robs us:

The problem is that as long as success is defined by just money and power, climbing and burnout, we are never going to be able to enjoy that other aspect of the third metric: wonder.

I was blessed with a mother who was in a constant state of wonder. Whether she was washing dishes or feeding seagulls at the beach or reprimanding overworking businessmen, she maintained her sense of wonder, delighted at both the mysteries of the universe and the everyday little things that fill our lives.

Huffington adds to other cultural icons’ collected wisdom on the meaning of life:

I’m convinced about two fundamental truths about human beings. The first truth is that we all have within us a centered place of wisdom, harmony, and strength. This is a truth that all the world’s religions — whether Christianity, Islam, Judaism, or Buddhism — and many of its philosophies, hold true in one form or another. . . . The second truth is that we’re all going to veer away from that place again and again and again. That’s the nature of life. In fact, we may be off-course more often than we are on-course. . . . When we’re in that centered place of wisdom, harmony and strength, life is transformed from struggle to grace and we are suddenly filled with trust — no matter the obstacles, challenges and disappointments. Because there is a purpose to our lives, even if it is sometimes hidden from us, and even if the biggest turning points and heartbreaks only make sense as we look back, not as we are experiencing them. So we might as well live life as if, as the poet Rumi put it, “Everything is rigged in our favor.”

She concludes by asking this next generation of reconstructionists to conceive of a new way to think about success, particularly in the context of the question of how to be a woman in the world today, by seeking greater access to ourselves first and foremost, rather than greater access to power and its proxies:

So please don’t settle for just breaking through glass ceilings in a broken corporate system or in a broken political system, where so many leaders are so disconnected from their own wisdom that we are careening from one self-inflicted crisis to another. Change much more than the M to a W at the top of the corporate flowchart. Change it by going to the root of what’s wrong and redefining what we value and what we consider success.

And remember that while there will be plenty of signposts along your path directing you to make money and climb up the ladder, there will be almost no signposts reminding you to stay connected to the essence of who you are, to take care of yourself along the way, to reach out to others, to pause to wonder, and to connect to that place from which everything is possible. “Give me a place to stand,” my Greek compatriot Archimedes said, “and I will move the world.”

So find your place to stand — your place of wisdom and peace and strength. And from that place, lead the third women’s revolution and remake the world in your own image, according to your own definition of success, so that all of us — women and men — can live our lives with more grace, more joy, more empathy, more gratitude and, yes, more love.

Pair with Huffington’s On Becoming Fearless…in Love, Work, and Life, then complement with other fantastic commencement addresses by Bill Watterson, Debbie Millman, Neil Gaiman, Greil Marcus, David Foster Wallace, Jacqueline Novogratz, Ellen DeGeneres, Aaron Sorkin, Barack Obama, Ray Bradbury, J. K. Rowling, Steve Jobs, Robert Krulwich, Meryl Streep, and Jeff Bezos.

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