NJPAC’s recurring conversation series, Trending with Scott Simon, hosted by the broadcaster behind NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday, welcomed media mogul Arianna Huffington for last night’s installment titled “Women Who Set the Agenda.”
Unsurprisingly, the Newark venue’s Chase Room was mostly filled with women. I was there with my mother, a Greek American who moved to the United States when she turned 18 for college. Huffington and my mother, Diana, have many similarities beyond their Greek heritage: one being a long history of being the only woman in the room. My mother has worked in technology her whole life, from helping launch voicemail with Octel Communications in the ’80s, to the director of Strategic Business and Sales Operations at Cisco Systems in the ’00s. Back then, technology firms were dominated by men and they still struggle to attract and retain top level female talent. My mother often had a different perspective on how to solve problems than many of her colleagues, and Huffington mirrored those sentiments.
Simon asked about how being the only woman in the room affects the end result. “There’s always exceptions, but skills like collaboration and teamwork are very natural to women,” she explained. “A 24-7 business, which all businesses are now, need teams. I call them tribes in my book, because I like the nurturing quality to the word, but operating in clusters like that, these are skills that come very naturally to women.”
She continued, “That’s why I’ve called for a third women’s revolution. The first was when we got the right to vote. The second was when jobs opened up to us, though that’s still incomplete. The third is not one where we should rule the world, but one where we should change the world.”
The idea of not striving to “rule the world” is central to her book Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder. In a world where success is now measured through money and power, Huffington calls for a balance of those three W’s as a new model for success. In 2007, two years after the launch of her media monster, Huffington collapsed from exhaustion and hit her face on the corner of her home office desk, breaking her cheekbone. She turned to the audience sitting in the Chase Room, “Is that what success should look like?”
Now, getting eight hours of sleep every night is what she describes as her “keystone habit change.” Her nightly ritual involves turning off all of her devices at least half an hour before she plans to hit the hay, followed by a hot bath with Epsom salt “to wash the day away.” Her bedside table only has real books, from fiction to philosophy and poetry. “My life has become so much more effective, efficient and joyful. It’s a priority now for me because I don’t like myself when I haven’t had enough sleep.” Throughout the hour, she drank at least three bottles of water.
While I was expecting a feminist manifesto, the evening was less about putting more powerful women in the workplace and more about putting happy, recharged people in the workplace.
“The theme of my book is how you respond to your life will depend a lot on your own resilience,” she said. “‘We are bigger than our circumstances.’ My mother taught me that. We were brought up in a one bedroom apartment with no money, and my father was a serial philanderer.”
“But if we failed she wouldn’t love us any less. ‘Failure is not the opposite of success, it’s a stepping stone to success,’ is something she would say.”
Simon opened questions to the audience.
An elderly man, who was there with his wife, asked Huffington if there was anything she would do differently, if she could, to handle the seeming onslaught of bad things happening in the world. While perhaps a more appropriate question for a presidential candidate, Huffington replied with grace.
“I think that those of us in the media have a much greater responsibility to put a spotlight on good things happening in the world. As they say, ‘If it bleeds, it leads.’ I’m not talking about sugar coating reality, but if you really watch the news and start counting stories, it’s almost 90% bad things. So we launched an initiative at the Huffington Post called ‘What’s Working,’ which is only positive news stories.” She hopes more positive news stories will inspire “copycat solutions,” a twist on the sociological phenomenon of “copycat violence.”
A 21-year-old recent journalism graduate asked advice on how to jump start her writing career. Huffington kindly offered her email, and suggested building a portfolio of writing on things she’s passionate about.
While I wasn’t planning on asking a question, the bright-eyed and bushy tailed 21-year-old was sitting right behind me, so I decided to follow up with a question of my own. As only five years her senior, I thought she could benefit from hearing my perspective. Once I got the microphone, Simon indicated this would be the last question of the evening. I shakily introduced myself as New Jersey Monthly‘s Assistant Editor and turned to acknowledge the young woman sitting behind me. (I later gave her my business card—we are all in this together, after all.) I faced Arianna with all the courage I could muster. I had a thousand questions. Here was a woman who epitomized success in my desired field, and while I have experience interviewing sources and celebrities, choosing one question to ask in a room full of curious people was intimidating.
So I decided to ask two questions.
“While I love my job, I need to freelance to supplement my income. In the freelancing world, there’s a constant struggle of choosing which platforms to write for: the publications that offer decent pay, and those that offer ‘exposure’ in favor of a paycheck—and while I don’t mean to call out the Huffington Post,”—I felt my face grow hot—”your company is one of those who offer little compensation for contributing writers.”
Huffington acknowledged, yes, it’s true we don’t pay our bloggers. She rattled off a statistic of how many thousands of people write for the website, all for free. But she said people tend to choose to write for free to get their opinion out there on her massively popular website. (Jason Linkins, a full-time reporter at the Huffington Post, broke down the difference between salaried employees and bloggers after the company was bought by AOL. He explains many of the bloggers “imagine the economy of the exchange [as…] donating something of value (their mind) to people (our audience) who wouldn’t be able to derive a benefit from it otherwise.”) She explained how back in 2005, when the Huffington Post launched, blogging and content aggregation was a very new, innovative idea, and a main reason for why the online newspaper became so successful. Now, ten years later, the market is over-saturated with free writing platforms.
She turned to Simon, referencing a piece he recently wrote for the New York Times about his mother’s passing, an adaptation from his bestselling book, Unforgettable: A Son, a Mother, and the Lessons of a Lifetime. “How much did they pay you?”
Simon paused, ruffling his white hair. “I think $150.” The audience seemed surprised.
“And I’m assuming you didn’t do it for the $150,” she concluded. Though relevant, it was a poor example: Simon is a successful broadcast journalist with his own show on NPR, and was promoting his book in writing the piece. They talked about how NPR pays its guests. Simon said when they invite journalists onto the show to talk about a recent news story, they are paid, but if it’s just to chat and share opinions (as in, for exposure), they are not.
It was time for my second question.
“I recently read a story about how when women writers are rejected, they tend to wait a few months before pitching the same publication again, or not at all, for fear of ‘being annoying’ or bothersome. On the other hand, when male freelance writers are rejected, they will immediately pitch again, perhaps with several ideas, the next day.” The audience laughed. “What do you think about this?”
Huffington said she knew this behavior well, and feels that many women have a constant, nagging sense of doubt. It may be the result of women’s long history of oppression, or being told they are second best, but men seem to lack this persistent doubt. She described the feeling as a mean, judgmental roommate living inside our heads, who mock every move we attempt to make. “Women need to evict that roommate,” she said.
The audience moved to queue for a signed copy of Thrive. My mother and I were one of the last people waiting on line, and when we finally reached the table, they bantered a bit in Greek. She complimented my mother on her beauty and her beautiful daughter, and signed our copies. I asked if I could take a picture, and she invited me to sit right next to her. It didn’t matter that moments before I had accused the Huffington Post of taking advantage of its writers. We were just three women bonding and sharing our stories of success.