Real Leaders

Arianna Huffington or Sheryl Sandberg – Which Coach Would You Choose?

Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash

Arianna Huffington woke up in a pool of blood after hitting her head on her desk when she collapsed from overwork. Arianna has had a big life.

She’s been a journalist, political commentator, candidate for U.S. Senate and is the founder of the Huffington Post. She knows what it is to achieve high status and big bucks at the sacrifice of her personal health and happiness. When she awoke from her life altering head-banging, she saw the water she was swimming in for the first time. It was polluted…polluted by the wrongheaded idea that happiness is mostly achieved from being successful. In her book Thrive she makes it clear that sacrificing your enjoyment of life, your health and your relationships on the altar of success is a huge, and in her case, nearly fatal mistake.

Her coaching message is that your personal goals should be to enjoy each day, give loving attention to your loved ones, make constant investments in your personal health and well-being, and develop your talents through meaningful work. She claims that if you’re wise you will discover that the pursuit of happiness contains success, but the pursuit of success alone may destroy your happiness. You see your personal happiness as a bigger idea than success.

I think we all feel great compassion for Sheryl Sandberg who tragically lost her husband a few months ago. In her best-selling book, Lean In, she rather clearly says that business success requires shifting priorities to do whatever it takes to be successful. She painfully speaks of the personal and family trade-offs that are necessary to be successful in a business career. She even encourages women to be proudly bossy so they can compete with men on a level playing field. I’ve spoken to many audiences of women about leadership and I find very few women embrace her written philosophy. To many women it seems that ‘leaning in’ to a toxic ‘success’ system is a physically and emotionally unhealthy path.

Sandberg has recently written that when the choice arises she wants “to choose life and meaning” over any other values. She also writes that she has a more profound understanding of what it means to be a mother.

Yet strangely, in a commencement address just a few days ago her major message to the women graduates was to ‘lean in’ to their work. If this indeed is her coaching I feel great compassion for her because it just doesn’t seem that she clearly understands that the water we are swimming is polluted.

My conviction is that Arianna has better advice…which is to get out of the water, dig your own pool, and swim in the waters of your own happiness.

So what actually creates happiness? I wanted to know the answer to that question too. And that led me to a great adventure I embarked on over 10 years ago.

I learned directly what practical happiness is from the hundreds of people I met and interviewed during the American Dream Project. This was an initiative started with a small expert team to find out what the American Dream means to the generations coming into adulthood in the 21st-century. What I found shifted my worldview and re-focused my purpose.

In the real world, the world largely undocumented by media, some people are very savvy about how to pursue happiness in the way Thomas Jefferson proposed in the Declaration of Independence. The big idea of the American Revolution was to create a society in which the circumstances under which you were born did not determine the outcome of your life. This was a radical idea at the time because for the most part nobles controlled all the financial assets that determined the lifestyles of peasants. Until America was colonized no one thought the rules of life could be much different. Everyone swam in the same polluted water of economic and social assumptions that froze everyone in their place.

Today, it seems to me, that we are mostly all swimming in polluted water again.  Its assertions about our life–what is desirable, what is possible, and what is achievable are all twisted by the assumptions of Darwinian-materialist economists who measure our individual and societal well-being primarily through GDP. Their wicked story, that the monetization of everything is good for everybody, is absurd on its face. (Sandberg’s Facebook is a great example of an admired company that cleverly monetizes social relationships.)

This is what’s crazy. All the money that is legally spent in our economy makes up the GDP. And economists, politicians and business leaders all insist that the GDP is the primary measure of our society’s well-being. So supposedly, we are all better off when more cigarettes are sold, more divorce lawyers are retained, more prescription drugs are sold and college education gets more expensive. That is a very stupid and counterproductive way to measure our pursuit of happiness or even success.

As sustainability economist David Korten points out, if we measured the well-being, health and prosperity of households instead of aggregate consumption spending and stock prices driven by high-speed trading we might have a much more positive way of investing our personal time and our collective tax dollar. Now that’s something to think about.

The good news is that many, many people have discovered the water we are swimming in is polluted and have gotten out of the pool. They do not allow media, advertising or politics to be the blueprint of their choices. They invest most of their time and attention in creating their own economy, investing in their own lifestyles, friendships, experiences, and personal health and vitality.

The American Dream Project enabled me to survey over 26,000 Americans and produce the television learning documentary aired on PBS stations across the country for two years. In this award-winning show I tell the stories of real people who have built extraordinary lives of both success and happiness in unconventional and audacious ways. But it’s more than a documentary of people’s stories.  My research team and I pulled out the common threads of these uncommon lives. We learned how people made decisions at moments of truth. We discovered how they framed choices and creative possibilities out of the thinnest of air. The Americans I came to know during the American Dream Project had no formal power, position or advantage. What they had was a clear vision of what their well-lived life needed to focus on. One thing that was crystal clear was that they shared a common belief with our pioneering ancestors. They simply would not allow the condition of their present life to limit the possibilities for happiness in their future life.

Sometime during this week I would encourage you to watch the learning documentary we produced. It’s called “Reclaiming Your American Dream.” I think it’s more relevant today than ever. It will give you some specific tools and ways of thinking that just might help you clean up the water that we swim in. My conviction is that if you mindfully and wisely pursue your happiness your will find your greatest success.

If you were going to lean in to something… lean in to your life. Your real one.


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