Arianna Huffington: ‘I have let myself fail many times’

The Huffington Post's Arianna Huffington on her introverted teens, her painful wake-up call - and the day her mother died

At 16 I was living in Athens, and I was really working hard at school. I was a very focused teenager, full of hope about going to Cambridge. I knew nothing about it except what I’d seen in a photograph in a magazine but from that I fell in love. I went off to the UK after taking my exams – it was a long journey and I was nervous, not knowing if I would be able to get into Cambridge. My mother was the only person who completely supported me. She always made me feel I could try, and if I didn’t get in, she wouldn’t love me any less. She always gave me that sense of being able to take a risk.

People find it hard to believe but I was an introvert when I was a teenager. There were lots of things that worried me. I had very frizzy, super curly hair, I was incredibly tall for a Greek girl – 5’10 when I was 13. Most of my classmates were about five foot nothing, so I was freakishly tall. I had acne to deal with. I had a lot of teenage problems, which may be why I chose to lose myself in books. If I could go back I’d tell that girl: “Arianna, you will be more productive and healthier and happier if you can commit to not only working hard but also unplugging, recharging and renewing yourself. This will save you a lot of unnecessary stress, burnout and exhaustion.” I would also reassure her that her skin would get better and she would learn to blow dry her hair.

When I got to Cambridge, I didn’t think about how I might have power or use power but I loved debating

I was always politically interested. I would watch any kind of election result, even in a country I knew nothing about. When I got to Cambridge, I didn’t think about how I might have power or use power but I loved debating. I was a terrible speaker when I started, I had to read everything. Then little by little I learned how to speak. That became my main passion at Cambridge. Obviously, I studied economics and that took a lot of time but the main chunk of my time was at the union.

Becoming the [third female] president of the Cambridge Union was a big turning point. That’s when an English publisher reached out to me and offered me a contract to write a book. It was never what I thought I’d do. I had applied to Harvard, and my plan was to go there after Cambridge. So it was really fate that made me become a writer. I wrote my first book, The Female Woman, about the changing role of women, when I was 23 years old and I immediately knew I had landed. Suddenly I wanted to be a writer.

If I could go back and rewrite The Female Woman I’m sure the writing itself would be unrecognisable. I hope so, I think I’ve learned a lot about writing since then. But I still agree with the message of that book, that we need to respect women whatever choices they make in their lives. At that time, women who did not have a career were scorned and devalued if they chose to be mothers and wives. I argued for equality for all women. So it was very hurtful, some of the ways the book was received, the way the media presented it [many criticised it as an attack on ’60s feminism]. I learned a lot then about how, when something is misrepresented, it’s much harder to speak the truth about it.

There were many pivotal moments in my young life. Some external – getting into Cambridge, being asked to write a book, the book becoming a bestseller, translated into multiple languages. But there were also crucial internal moments – a mid-life crisis at 23, when I asked myself, is this what my life will be like? Is this all there is? I think I realised during my first book tour that I wanted to have a deeper connection to myself and not just focus on my career. That began a quest for a deeper meaning in my life, which has lasted ever since. I was always drawn to the spiritual life. I spent a few months after high school in India studying comparative religion at Visva-Bharati University in Calcutta. It’s been a long journey for me.

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For many years, I subscribed to a very flawed definition of success, buying into our collective delusion that burnout is the necessary price we must pay for success. Then, in 2007, I had a painful wake-up call: I fainted from sleep deprivation and exhaustion, hit my head on my desk, and broke my cheekbone. From that point on, I knew I had to make sleep a priority.

I think the aspect of my life which would most impress my teenage self would be the combination of having two daughters I adore [pictured above] – I’ve wanted to be a mother from the time I was a child – and having a group of close friends, and creating a platform for millions of people around the world to write about anything that interests them. She would like the fact that I really put into practice what my mother kept telling my teenage self: that “failure is not the opposite of success, it’s a stepping stone to success”. I think she would really enjoy how many times I had let myself fail along the way. Because she was still more afraid of taking risks and risking failure.

DID YOU KNOW…

Last year, 27,000 people worldwide earned an income selling street papers, making a total of £23.4 million.

My mother died on August 24, 2000. The day of her passing was one I revisit frequently in my mind. That morning, she told my sister and me she wanted to go to the international food market in Santa Monica. That was like Disneyland for her. So we took her there, in her fragile little body, still filled with a zest for life. Deep down, we knew that we were shopping for the last supper but we were not admitting it, even to ourselves. Back at home, my mother spread out the most amazing feast, and my sister Agapi looked at me with renewed hope: “Look at her appetite for food and love and sharing! This is not a woman who is going to die!”
And then she fell. And she looked me in the eye and in a strong, authoritative voice that I had not heard for months, she said: “Do not call the paramedics. I’m fine.” Agapi and I felt completely torn. But we all sat on the floor with her, her granddaughters going in and out of her room on their scooters making happy noises. The nurse kept taking her pulse but her pulse was fine. My mother asked me to open a bottle of red wine and pour a glass for everyone. Later, after she’d gone, we installed a bench in our garden engraved with one of her favourite sayings that embodied the philosophy of her life: “Don’t Miss the Moment.”

The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time by Arianna Huffington is out now (Ebury)