Arianna Huffington, probably the most successful Greek American woman living in the US, graced us with a talk to promote her latest book Thrive at the headquarters of AHEPA and the greater Hellenic Federation in the heart of Astoria on the night of June 12th.
True to Greek style, she was fashionably late by a half an hour, as her chauffeur was having trouble navigating the streets of the Greek enclave. She was speaking by invitation of the Stathakion Center and by Sam Chekwas, a Nigerian-born philhellene known on both sides of the Atlantic for his outspoken love of Hellenism. It was in the context of the Greek spirit that Sam introduced her and what she stood for in the time it took for her to arrive. Sam Chekwas, once the sole proprietor and publisher of the only Greek bookstore in Astoria, entertained a diverse crowd with stories of “the Greek Spirit.” Having spent eight years in Greece, with degrees in Greek philology and dentistry, Sam spoke in Greek and English, albeit with a slight Nigerian slant, about his recent travels to Greece, specifically to Kalavrita and the small village of Aronania. “Hellenism is light,” he defined. He introduced her with the anecdote of how one night, as a recently arrived immigrant to the US, he had heard her speak on Late Night with Bill Maher. “Hey, this woman speaks with an accent,” he thought to himself, “her Greek was worse than her English.” Her presence as an immigrant on the show gave him the courage to believe that he too despite an accent in English could be successful. Many years later he recounted how he had invited her sister, Agape Sassinopoulos, to his book shop in Astoria to publicize her book. “C’mon Sam, you got to be what you want to be,” was Ariana’s words of advice to him in her characteristic optimistic spirit back when he had first reached out to her.
Ariana recounted the impetus for her book. Seven years prior, after working hectic days and nights, getting by on less than five hours of sleep, burnt out and exhausted, she collapsed at her desk. She broke her cheek bone, and woke up in a pool of her own blood. This pivotal event served as a wake up call that led her on the quest for asking the big philosophical questions about life just like the ancients had done. It was not enough to have a successful life, without asking “what makes a good life.” As she stated, “If you find yourself in a pool of your own blook you are clearly not successful.” She explained that the modern American definition of success is comprised of the two metrics: money and power. She became acutely aware after this crisis in health that this was not enough. “ It is like sitting on a two-legged stool, eventually you will fall off,” she described in a metaphor. The third leg of the stool, Ariana went on to explain, is the concept behind the title of her book. In Greek, it is known as “eudemonia”, the idea of not just succeeding but thriving or flourishing. In our modern, go-get-‘em drive to success, we forget the third metric that is crucial for “a good life.” This idea of “thriving” she divides into four pillars: well-being and health, wisdom, wonder, and giving. These four pillars create the fulfillment that is missing in the modern definition of success. It is about these four pillars that her book goes into detail to explain. She includes a 12-step plan for infusing life with these four elements critical to success. She urged the audience to pick just one and work at it. She purposely picked a 12 step program because “we are addicted to this modern sleep-deprived exhausted burnt-out way of living.”
Her step of choice was sleep. So adamant was she about the importance of sleep as a wonder drug that increased mental clarity, boosts immunity, enhances mood, and recharges the body, that in a recent commencement ceremony for Smith College she advised the graduates to “sleep your way to the top.” A serious proponent of the benefits of sleep, she started with herself; she now sleeps from 7 to 8 hours a night. She especially drove the point to women, who in their role as care takers and professionals tend to put themselves last, that it was mandatory to recharge and take care of themselves just like the injunction during the emergency instructions before every flight to secure your own oxygen mask before In this way they will attend to their duties with joy and not with the resentment of a martyr.
She spoke of the boogeyman of technology, even while admitting that her success has been driven by the digital revolution. (She has built a media empire that runs 24/7 after all thanks to the Internet and new digital media.) She pointed to the paradox of the need to disconnect in order to reconnect with ourselves and how we have created a culture of addiction to burn out as a way of living. She urged us to go to pick a time to turn off our digital devices and take them out of the bedroom in order to secure an uninterrupted restful sleep. She noted how our leaders make terrible decisions not because they are not smart but because they are not wise. Wisdom she cited as the necessary pillar to a good life.
She spoke of the “obnoxious roommate” that barrage of incessant negative thoughts that constantly plays in our mind which robs us of the joy of living and the wonder of life. “The essence of Greek culture is being in the moment,” she reminded us. “So often what happens in our lives depends on our own approach and attitude and what is happening in our thoughts.”
She spoke about the essentiality of giving which is what takes us beyond our narcissism. She made the observation that our society celebrates “go-getters” yet it is just as important we celebrate “go-givers” . This last part of her talk waxed poetically philosophical as she quoted several ancients such as Socrates and Archimedes. “Practice death daily,” Socrates noted, not in a morbid kind of way but with the sense that the memory of death imbues the trivialities of our ephemeral existence. Death puts things in perspective and she jokingly referred to a recent Onion headline: “Death Rate Holds Steady at 100%”.
Arianna rounded off her talk with anecdotes about her mother and father, a journalist in Athens who had published an underground paper during the German occupation of Greece that landed him in jail and later in a concentration camp. She used her father’s loss of sight due to diabetes as an example of how we should never lose ourselves in the externals to the detriment of not knowing our inner selves. “Give me a place to stand on,” the great Archimedes said, “and I can move the world.” That place is available to all of us through the practice of self-knowledge, prayer and meditation. Ironically she noted that “we know more about Miley Cyrus than about our selves” as we are in a constant state of distraction. When she collapsed she was at below 0% and didn’t even realize it, in contrast to the constant updates of the charge left in our SmartPhones.
She dedicated her book to her mother, a strong giagia who abhorred multi-tasking. She remembered the last time her mother became angry with her when she was emailing at the same time she was talking to her daughters. And modern science has validated her mother’s critique: multi-tasking is only task-switching, an incredibly stress-inducing unproductive behavior. In another anecdote she recounted how when living in a one-bedroom apartment in Athens without money, she chanced across a picture of the campus of Cambridge. It was her mother who dreamed about the possibility of her attending. She credits her mother with the greatest gift: to support our dreams even if they don’t come true. Even if her dream of going to Cambridge did not pan out, (it did), she knew her mother would not love her the less.
In her final words: “It is imperative to find that place within us that can move our world. In this way we can lead our life with more gratitude, more joy, and yes, more sleep.”
Her book is currently a New York Times best seller and easily purchased through Amazon.