03/19/2012 02:46 pm ET Updated May 19, 2012

Arianna Huffington's Talk at Penn State

I attended a talk by Arianna Huffington, who spoke at Penn State in the Distinguished Speaker Series. Usually these topics do not come with an agenda and I was curious what she would talk about. She talked about 'leadership' but it was a broad sketch including women in leadership, social media, journalism, clever jokes, little bit of personal history, lot of mentions/plugs for Huffington Post and her books (which I didn't find intrusive) and quotes. Of course, how many chances will I get to hear from "one of the 50 people who shaped the decade."

After her introduction by a student, Arianna opened her talk giving an introduction of the introducer -- went at length about her likes (probably from Facebook , Twitter), about their dinner, etc. This was a nice touch -- walking the talk as a journalist and in tune with the social media. Now that I think of it, this is the first time I have seen a speaker going the length of knowing the person/talking about the person who introduced him/her.

Arianna started with a customary joke about her Greek accent which has not changed despite her living in the UK and U.S. for most of her life -- which, according to her ex-husband, is the result of "you never listen to others." I had done some research about her before the talk, but I had already come across her mentions during the TechCrunch-gate (anything is a gate these days, no?) and the more recent nappod-gate (1, 2). So it was a little surprising and nice when she talked at length about taking break and sleeping. She quoted research, science and repeatedly emphasized why it is important to sleep and rest well -- not just for physical and mental health reasons, but also for better decision-making. This is where it linked to leadership -- leaders need to make decisions -- good ones -- all the time and it is important that they listen to their inner voice which is probably clearer if mind rests well. She took sleeping/resting quite seriously and talked about it for a considerable time including about her own accident due to overworking. She talked about decision fatigue that happens due to overworking and not resting. Decision fatigue reminded me of this article that I had recently read. She talked about listening to inner thoughts, and also not listening to this obnoxious roommate kind of person who resides in our heads who stops us from making bolder decision and taking risks -- the person residing inside the head reminded me of the recently watched Super Bowl ad for She quoted a Businessweek quote, which cited a CEO confessing that he behaved like a cold-headed bastard -- she reasoned this to be the result of fatigue -- both by overworking and by the high-level decisions executives have to take every day. (She quoted a figure from research about average decisions taken by an executive). To proactively take decisions and to have a forward-looking vision, she pressed for good sleep.

Earlier during the talk, she also passingly mentioned, after taking a count of women in the audience, about how women leaders might have made some difference due to the inherent different capabilities. Later in the talk she goes about it in a little more detail, but not-jokingly says, 'the world might have been different if it was Lehman Sisters, instead of Brothers.' This reminded me of the ongoing debate about the lack of women in leadership/board/executive positions. (Two interesting links -- Sheryl Sandberg about women leaders, quite an old link, and one of Wadhwa's many articles.) She suggested that women should sit at the table (the phrase is used by Sheryl in the above video) and suggested how empathy is a character the leaders have forgotten or do not possess these days, and is the characteristic that would differentiate women leaders.

Amidst these, she invited students to post their thesis on HuffPost.

She transitioned to new media and journalism somehow, and I was not clear of the transition. She touched upon how the revolutions in Middle East were communicated, organized in a better way with the help of new media and technologies and a few decades ago, the same communication would have been much difficult. References to the Planned Parenthood controversy and few other stories were made to emphasize the power that lies with the individual as well as the speed of the communication that has been enabled by the social media. One better sit up and listen because she is the person who founded Huffington Post and later sold it for $315 million. On HuffPost, there is a section for only good news, she said, to motivate and reinforce good things happening around our world. This reminded me of a similar site for India. She appreciated the Penn State students effort for cancer fund-raising THON (which raised over $10 million this year) and vowed to do her best to cover this news on HuffPost as much as possible. I was so glad that at least some media people recognize the need to spread THON news to be more important than the cheesier scandal sound bytes.

I have forgotten the context but she made a joke about how Americans ranked 10th place in upward mobility and behind France. She also expressed concern about lazy journalism practices that are becoming more common. Among other things, she suggested that we are lacking good leaders who would look around the corner, be concerned more about leading than about worrying about followers and making unpopular but impactful decisions. There were lot of good quotes (something I like in a speech), that I wish I had made a good note of. I did take some notes, but now don't remember the context (Margaret Thatcher movie, innovator's dilemma, social entrepreneurship, lazy journalism, approval rate).

In summary, her talk was about leadership -- how resting and listening to the inner voice helps make better decisions, impact of social media, women leaders, empathy and forward-looking as key characteristics of leaders. During her talk, she interspersed her personal stories, cited research, used quotes and maintained a good sense of humor. An example of her personal story was that she was rejected 31 times for her book, and she almost became bankrupt. She took debt to just get by and persisted in her efforts. Sometimes in life, some people or situations would just appear out of nowhere and show the path -- similar to animals in fairy tales. She was forthcoming in accepting some of her books didn't do well at all, and also quoted/referenced her books and research liberally. An example of a quote was advice to "make only new mistakes."

P.S.: It was fun to see local celebrity Mike the mailman in the audience. I almost told my photographer friend that I would wish a pic with the celebrity!


At the end during Q & A (the questions were asked only by girls, and some of them didn't need special answers) answering one of the questions, Arianna said:

I lived with my boyfriend for seven years, I was very much in love with him. But he wouldn't want children and I wanted family. I left him, came to U.S., wrote books, started HuffPost and today I am in this position. Maybe nothing would have happened if he had agreed for children. So I think, because he declined me that day, I am in this position today.

She said that with the right amount of emotion, and probably truly believed it. I know many who believe whatever happens is for the best. I, for one, have a hard time accepting this. Not only is this self consolation, it is also selective bias. The road one never took might have led to heaven or hell, who knows -- but people convince themselves that the road taken now is somehow better.

Originally posted on the author's blog LENS.