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Redefining the Meaning of Success: Hillary Clinton's Next Great Challenge?

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We don't yet know what big challenge Hillary Clinton will take on next, but that she will bring her considerable talents to something big and worthwhile is not in question. Whether or not that challenge is trying to become the first woman president, she's in a unique position to help redefine success by using her experience to address the issue of stress in the workplace. Lack of sleep, overwork, and burnout are defining features of America's business and political culture. They're not just endemic in corporate suites and the corridors of power -- they're often the standard on which professional advancement is based. This has enormous consequences for our health, on our health care system, on our families and our children, and on our economy. And it makes it much harder to produce leaders capable of making good decisions. Having accomplished so much, and having done it in such a way that causes nobody to question her work ethic, her ability, her drive, her willingness to burn the candle at both ends, Hillary Clinton is in a singular position to change this. She's proven that women can do anything, and now she can prove that women can do anything differently -- and better.

Certainly, she's well acquainted with the problem -- perhaps more so than anybody on earth -- having flown more than 900,000 miles to 112 different countries and, possibly even more taxing, having sat in 1,700 meetings with world leaders during her tenure as Secretary of State.

"I hope I get to sleep in," she told ABC's Cynthia McFadden about her upcoming plans. "It will be the first time in many years. I have no office to go to, no schedule to keep, no work to do."

And here's how she put it to Andrea Mitchell:

I don't have any real plans to make any decisions. I'm looking forward to some very quiet time catching up on everything from sleep, to reading, to walking with my family. I think it's hard to imagine for me what it will be like next week when I wake and have nowhere to go. Maybe I'll go back to sleep for a change!

And to NPR's Michele Kelemen:

I am really looking forward to stepping off the fast track that I've been on... I don't quite know how I'm going to adjust to not having a schedule and a lot of work that is in front of me that is expecting me to respond to minute by minute. But I'm looking forward to that and I have no other plans besides that.

And to Gail Collins:

I just want to sleep and exercise and travel for fun. And relax. It sounds so ordinary, but I haven't done it for 20 years. I would like to see whether I can get untired.

Then there was the incident in December in which she fainted, suffering a concussion. Reading about this was particularly poignant for me, as it brought up memories from four and a half years ago, when I received my own wakeup call about exhaustion, in the form of passing out and hitting my head on my desk. There were of course many differences -- I was not the Secretary of State, just two and a half years after the launch of HuffPost; Hillary fell backward, I fell forward; she got a concussion, I broke my cheekbone and got stitches over my right eye -- but whatever the specific circumstances, this is the lesson for all women burning the candle at both ends.

And maybe I'm dreaming, but the world needs Hillary not only to get herself "untired," but in the next chapter of her life to become a role model for the idea that one can both be untired and successful.

Who better to lead the redefining success charge? "She's the most important woman in America," writes Michael Tomasky. "More: she is almost certainly the most important woman in all of our political history." For an entire generation, she' s been the foremost example of the successful woman. Here's what Salon's Rebecca Traister said about Hillary:

I was 17 when Bill Clinton won the presidency. My entire adult political consciousness has had Hillary Clinton, even more than Bill, in a position of public power in one way or another. It's been twenty years, and that twenty years for me has been my adulthood, and I have felt not warmly towards her for a lot of those years and then very warmly towards her in other years but the idea that she was going to leave, I did wake up on Friday morning thinking, hey, it's the end of an era.

And, let's hope, the beginning of another. "In the 20 years she's been on the stage," writes Tomasky, "the country has gone from wondering whether women could handle the toughest jobs to knowing they can."

The question that remains is: what is the price we pay for handling the toughest jobs? In an interview with Marie Claire, Clinton spoke about at least one part of the problem. "It's important for our workplaces ... to be more flexible and creative in enabling women to continue to do high-stress jobs while caring for not only children, but [also] aging parents."

But the problem goes way beyond just how the workplace is formally structured. It's about how we structure our lives, formally and informally -- both inner and outer. According to the World Health Organization, stress costs American businesses an estimated $300 billion a year. And the costs to our health care system might be even higher, given the role stress plays in conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. More than 25 million Americans have diabetes, and nearly 70 million have had high blood pressure, which makes them four times as likely to die from strokes and three times as likely to contract heart disease.

And being "overtired" doesn't just affect our health, but our decisions (and thus the health of others). The Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School concluded that lack of sleep was a "significant factor" or played a "critical role" in the Exxon Valdez accident, the Challenger space shuttle explosion, and the nuclear accidents at both Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. "Sleep deprivation negatively impacts our mood, our ability to focus, and our ability to access higher-level cognitive functions," report the Harvard sleep doctors. "The combination of these factors is what we generally refer to as mental performance."

Last week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, I was struck that the topic that seemed to be on everybody's mind was mindfulness. One of the most talked about sessions was called "The Mindful Leader." One of the participants was Janice Marturano, who instituted a mindfulness and meditation program at General Mills and now runs the Institute for Mindful Leadership, a non-profit she founded to train corporate professionals in the practice. And among the stars of this year's forum weren't just heads of state, foreign ministers, central bankers, billionaire investors, or rock star activists, there were also Oxford's Dr. Mark Williams, co-author of Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World, and the Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, author of The Quantum and the Lotus.

"The science has now caught up to what has been around in many many cultures." Marturano said. In a Huffington Post blog she wrote,

Leading today is an incredibly complex responsibility and it can easily become so busy and overscheduled that leaders find themselves lacking in the very skills we most need them to have, the very skills that mindfulness can strengthen -- focus, clarity, creativity and compassion. Simply put, the training of mindfulness in the context of leadership excellence invites leaders to be more of who they are, more in touch with their personal principles and values, and more guided by their inner wisdom.

Those attributes are hard to put into practice when suffering from stress and exhaustion. Having mastered the push-yourself-to-the-limit path to success, she now, in a Nixon-going-to-China way, has the power to change the mostly-male-created stressed out, dysfunctional mess that is the modern American workplace. With smart leaders making terrible decisions, with multiple health care crises, with millions who can't get through the day, or the night, without the aid of a psychotropic drug, we are in desperate need of leaders with the status and experience to bring some sanity and balance to our work culture.

In a farewell speech at the Council on Foreign Relations last week, the outgoing Secretary of State said:

We need a new architecture for this new world; more Frank Gehry than formal Greek. Think of it. Now, some of his work at first might appear haphazard, but in fact, it's highly intentional and sophisticated. Where once a few strong columns could hold up the weight of the world, today we need a dynamic mix of materials and structures.

As a Greek, I should take offense. But it's actually an inspired thought. We do need a new architecture. The old ways of doing things have broken down. Hillary Clinton was talking about foreign policy, but the architecture of how we live our lives is also badly in need of some new materials and structures. Which is why I hope that after unplugging, recharging, getting some sleep, and becoming "untired," Hillary will return to public life and bring with her a new blueprint for employing those values. If so, there's no ceiling on what she could accomplish for women -- and yes, for men too.