The thing about meeting Arianna Huffington is that it’s kind of magical: coconut water appears in your hand, books alight upon your lap, and nestled amid the tension of the Huffington Post newsroom, her office is a pocket of tranquillity, even with the muted big screen of cable news and assistants darting in and out with this or that beverage.
The other thing is that it’s enchanting. Though she is queenly, you don’t get the feeling that she’s deigning to talk to you, what with her upright carriage, continuous eye contact, and the way she maps her thoughts in the air with her hands while she’s speaking and perhaps touches you on the wrist as she makes a point about how the larger questions of life are revealed in the mundane details—like what distracts people from conversation.
"What preoccupies us is the way we define success," she says. "If you see your life purely in terms of money and power, then everything in your life becomes about 'Am I getting ahead?' and that is truly a barbaric way to live, because it eliminates huge chunks of our humanity."
Those other chunks of humanity have become Huffington—and the Post’s—modus operandi this year, under the umbrella of what Huffington calls the "Third Metric." The first two metrics are money and power, and the third one something more like fulfillment, as she said in her commencement address at Smith College last May.
In a way, the Third Metric is a demonstration in how much Huffington, one of Fast Company's Most Creative People, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Huffington Post—which is now expanding into Germany, India, Brazil, and South Korea—have the capacity to shape a conversation.
This public philosophizing has long been a part of Huffington’s dialogue with the world: She authored a book about the search for meaning back in 1994: The Fourth Instinct. It was a "complete flop," she says, because there was no one listening for it. Now there is: The top five pieces of Third Metric-related content on HuffPost have brought in 12.6 million pageviews alone.
This response, she says, is part of a larger conversation about the way we work. Because when we're talking about productivity—as we at Fast Company tend to do—we’re really talking about our interior lives, in a way that’s cool with the buttoned-up working world.
"It's really a split screen," she says, referring to the way she views society's dichotomous viewpoints on burnout. On one side is long hours, sleep deprivation, and Mayor Bloomberg saying that if you want to succeed, you should take fewer bathroom breaks than everybody else. On the other side, companies are beginning to realize the advantages of studying productivity, she says, where stress monitoring and mindfulness are becoming part of the norm, and success isn’t so much about "getting ahead" of everybody else but forming connections with them.
Which brings us back to our present conversation: How does Arianna Huffington, a living definition of the superconnector, connect with people?
"The most important quality is attention—like are you really present, fully present?" she says. "I think you can be fully present even at a cocktail party when you're standing and there's noise. Even if you have a two-minute conversation, if you are not looking over to see if there's somebody more interesting to talk to, or you're not preoccupied with something else—I know there's this incredibly overused and abused word, networking."
The networker only gets part of the story, she says, since searching out the way that the person you’re talking to can help you advance means missing out on an actual connection. And as we’ve noted before, it’s these actual connections that make your career, sooner or later.
That’s another practice that goes way back: Huffington talks of her "more social period," the heady days and nights that followed her move to New York back in 1980, when she was going to dinner parties night after night after night. She decided that you could have an interesting conversation with anybody sitting next to you, if you only found what their interests were.
But that was then, and there are new distractions now. Which, as Huffington tells Fast Company, are what gets in the way of her human interactions.
"Gadgets and busyness, which are strongly connected," she says. "It's very easy for our gadgets to get in the way of conversation. And the really insidious thing about them is that, even when they're not in front of us, they can condition our minds to be constantly looking elsewhere for the next connection and the next connection, which can prevent us from ever connecting with what's present right now. That conditioning effect is why it's so important to give our minds time away from our devices, to recover our ability to really connect."
And since we’re all so starved for attention, that connection—whether it's with a new coworker or neighbor or Arianna Huffington herself—is pretty magical.
[Image: Flickr user SalRang Thaeu]