If women are to achieve success—in higher education, politics, business or just plain life—we need to become fearless. That’s the message from Arianna Huffington , the media and political dynamo who just published her 11th book, On Becoming Fearless . . . in Love, Work and Life. While her other books have ranged from politics to history to art, this one is personal, detailing her life path and offering guidelines for achieving fearlessness in all aspects of life.
As co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post, a widely-read news and blog site, Huffington is also a nationally syndicated columnist and a co-host of public radio’s popular political roundtable “Left, Right & Center.” She regularly appears on talk TV, has been on Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world and made headlines running for governor of California in 2004.
Huffington keynoted the ACE women’s leadership dinner in San Diego in February sponsored by the American Council on Education’s Office of Women in Higher Education (OWHE), which is celebrating its 35th year.
The early years
A native of Greece, Huffington moved to England at age 16, where she attended Cambridge University and earned a master’s degree in economics. She also studied rhetoric and became president of the Cambridge Union, the famed debating society. People joked that to give herself an air and an edge, she deliberately emphasized the Greek accent that she retains today.
“Women have a different relationship with power than men do,” she said. “Marlo Thomas said that for a man to be called ruthless, you have to be Joe McCarthy. For a woman, you just have to put someone on hold.”
She started thinking about fear when she noticed her daughters turning from fearless girls into fearful teenagers, worrying “Am I pretty? Am I smart? Do people like me?” Their constant need for approval alarmed her.
“Why are girls losing their voices when they become teenage girls?” she wondered. “It started because I was a mother, looking for answers,” she said. “But then I noticed it was happening to women of all ages.”
It’s not just having fear that’s debilitating, she realized. It’s letting it stop us. “We have to tell our daughters and other women not to let their fears stop them,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to fail. No one has succeeded who hasn’t failed along the way.”
Her mother, whom she named as her main role model, always said that failures are just stepping stones. She’s taken that message to heart, noting that our tribes will always be a part of our own souls.
Two realms of fear
Women experience two spheres of fear: the personal and the cultural. The personal begins with the “obnoxious roommate” that we allow to live, rent-free, in our head—whom we allow to remind us of our failures and shortcomings in a continuous loop. “I hope that someday someone will make an electronic device to record us over a 24-hour period so that we can play it back and recognize how ridiculous we sound,” she said. “Our own enemies don’t talk about us the way we talk about ourselves.”
When she was a guest on his show, Steven Colbert joked that her “roommate” was like him. There’s nothing more draining, she said. For men, it makes only guest appearances, so they can turn it off and go watch a football game. But women can’t turn it off and must wrestle it to the ground.
Just think of how productive we could be if we could rid ourselves of the voices. “If we keep regurgitating them, it keeps us from being in the present,” Huffington said. “The present is when we can do our best work, be more engaged, be more loving and be fully effective to do what we all need to do.”
Nothing comes easy, she noted. We have to learn to deal with rejection. Her first book got 37 rejections before she found a publisher. Practicing debate in college taught her that most people don’t know how to speak. “It’s like leading,” she said. “Most people have to learn how to lead.”
“The higher the problems we’re facing, the more we have to tap into the leadership potential of each of us,” she said. Rory Kennedy, who volunteers on behalf of AIDS patients and others, once said, “My work is for people without a voice. I have a voice, so why should I feel afraid?”
Huffington’s daughter was able to overcome an eating disorder through volunteer work, which helped her to put her own problems into perspective.
Executive women all share a longing for balance in their lives, she said, whether they work at a software company like Google or in higher education. “Even the most politically obsessive people have another part of their lives.”
The less stress we have, the more productive we can be. The single most important thing we can do to improve our quality of life, Huffington said, is to get more sleep. She noted that we might scoff at the idea, but she argued that it’s the best way to improve ourselves.
“Men have made sleep deprivation a virility symbol,” she said. “I was talking to a man at a dinner party, and he bragged that he only got four hours of sleep the night before. I thought, ‘If you’d gotten five, this dinner might be a lot more interesting.’”
She’s learned a lesson about sleep deprivation the hard way. When she took her daughter on her college tour, they made a deal: She wouldn’t check her BlackBerry™ during the day, so she could be fully present during the trip.
Instead she’d check it at the end of the day back at the hotel—often staying up late to answer messages. When they returned to Los Angeles, she fainted in her office, gashing her face on her desk and breaking her cheekbone, leading to a trip to the emergency room.
The more centered we are, the more effective we can be. And yet so much of our culture drains us. “The media suffers from ADD,” she said. Some stories get endless coverage—the Natalee Holloway case, the Michael Jackson molestation trial. America is obsessed with whatever the media play up—like polling, which she sees as similar to astrology. “I call it poll-strology,” she said. “You can get all the polls you want—but don’t take them seriously.”
Women are socialized to give. But Huffington advised approaching giving from the perspective of “What does it do for us?” and living from the perspective of “What you give is what you get.”
She’s working on a new reality/documentary series called Spirit in the City (a play on Sex and the City), in which a female Columbia graduate—who is an agnostic—travels around looking for experiences of the soul in New York City.
Huffington recently interviewed candidates for CEO of her company and was thrilled to hire a woman. “I wanted to have a CEO that I can go to the ladies’ room with,” she said. “Men have been doing business in the restroom for years, so why not the women’s room?”
Recognizing our blessings
Even with the many distractions, women today have reason to stay positive. “From the personal to the cultural, it’s a great time to be alive,” said Huffington. “Many older women that I encounter tell me ‘I have many wonderful things in my life—I just wish I’d realized that sooner.’”
She pointed to Molly Broad, recently chosen as the first female to lead the prestigious American Council on Education. “She broke the glass ceiling. Each woman who breaks a ceiling is a triumph for all of us. We are all connected.”
After her talk, she was asked how she dealt with so many book rejections at the start of her career. She explained that when she ran low on funds, she convinced a banker at Barclays in London to give her an “overdraft,” which is basically a loan. “Emotionally, knowing that someone believed in me and my work—even if it was a banker—kept me going. It was the greatest gift, one we should give to younger women and to each other: the belief.” She still sends the banker a Christmas gift every year.
Another woman asked how she kept her cool while in the hot seat. “Women get the message that you’re not good when you’re angry,” she said. “Women don’t like being angry. Our first reaction is to retreat. The second, the one we have to listen to, is to say, ‘You bet I’m angry.’” We don’t want to admit our feathers are ruffled, or be accused of not playing well with each other.
We’re afraid of being criticized or told we’re not up to the job. “That’s a big deal for women,” she said. “But we are full human beings. And the media value authenticity.”
After Huffington’s address, OWHE President Donna Burns Phillips presented her with a unique gift of appreciation. As a part of the yearlong celebration of OWHE’s 35th anniversary, its Web site home page will feature strong women who have made a difference, one woman per week who usually flies under the radar.
The first woman honored will be Huffington’s mother.
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