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Interview: October 13, 2006

October 13, 2006

Arianna Huffington is a bestselling author and the founder and editor of a nationally syndicated column, The Huffington Post. Her latest work of nonfiction, ON BECOMING FEARLESS.... IN LOVE, WORK, AND LIFE, explores the roadblocks that prevent women from achieving their personal and professional potential. In this interview with's Shannon McKenna, Huffington explains her own definition of the word "fearless" and describes how and why she chose to examine a more personal and vulnerable topic after focusing on politics for much of her career. She also discusses the need to prioritize one's values, muses on her own fearless models and shares the reactions her book has received from both men and women. When did you first realize that you needed to be fearless to succeed in life?

Arianna Huffington: Sitting around the dinner table, listening to my fearless mother explaining that I should follow my dreams, and telling me that if I failed she would love me no less because failure is never a problem --- the problem is being afraid to go after the things we want in life.

BRC: What compelled you to share so much of your own personal history in the book?

AH: It didn't make sense to write this kind of book without being willing to be vulnerable about my own battles with fear. The personal aspect is one of the things that most appealed to me. After concentrating on politics, I liked the idea of tackling a subject that cuts across partisan lines. Because whatever our political views, there are so many more things that unite us than divide us, things we all have in common --- like our fears, and the need to get beyond them if we are to live a more fulfilling life. And whether you are a red state conservative or a blue state progressive, you can get more out of your job, your relationships, your friendships and yourself if you are able to overcome your fears and learn to live a fearless life.

BRC: Each chapter opens with a recollection from a notable woman such as Diane Keaton and Nora Ephron, talking about how she has dealt with fear in her life. Why did you decide to include these stories? How did you select what to include?

AH: It was important for me to make it clear to the reader that women who are really successful and appear to have it all are also struggling with fears. As I say in the book, again and again, fearlessness is not the absence of fear, but the mastery of fear --- doing what you want to do and saying what you want to say even while you are afraid. And the women I chose to include in the book --- all women who are friends I love or women I know and admire --- have all done this.

BRC: You say in the book that if someone invented "a TiVo for our inner dialogue," we would discover that "not even our worst enemies talk about us the way we talk about ourselves." Are women, in some ways, their own worst enemies when it comes to improving self-esteem and fearlessness? Is turning this inner voice from a negative influence to a positive one the first step in achieving fearlessness?

AH: Absolutely. It's stunning how we put ourselves down and undermine ourselves. In the book, I call it the Obnoxious Roommate in our Heads --- it's that little voice inside our heads that is constantly criticizing and judging us. It revs up when we take that first look in the mirror or get on a scale or put on a pair of pants that fits too snugly. "Oh, my God, I look awful...Another wrinkle here --- I hope that's just from the pillow...Did I put these pants in the dryer? Can't...seem them..." And we're always comparing ourselves to people like Angelina Jolie --- who doesn't even look like the perfectly lit and airbrushed Angelina Jolie who stares out at us from movie screens and magazine covers. Evicting the Obnoxious Roommate from our heads is key to becoming fearless.

BRC: It's not uncommon for reporters to comment on your appearance when writing about or conducting an interview with you. How do you feel about this emphasis on your looks? Is being fearless in the face of public scrutiny something you had to work at?

AH: It's all about priorities and balance. There is nothing wrong with caring about one's appearance and being physically fit. The problem is when these things become what your life is about, when we confuse what should be in the background of our lives with what should be in the foreground. It's important to try to be as healthy as you can. But, I have to say, it's just so satisfying when you accept getting older. When you do that, one of the nice things about it is that you're more able to enjoy the good things about getting older: wisdom, experience, peace. Our culture is obsessed with trying to be younger, but really, think back to your younger years --- most likely they were full of a lot of ups and downs. There is so much more we know and understand about ourselves and the world now than we did then, and I wouldn't give up that knowledge for anything. Once you come to regard getting older as nothing to be afraid of, you free yourself.

BRC: Your mother was your fearless role model. Did you know this when you were growing up, or did you realize it later?

AH: It's something I realized from a very early age. It's hard to have a mother who stood up to the Nazis during the war --- and to her philandering husband before she took my sister and me and left him -- without realizing that she was an amazing role model. It was both inspiring and daunting, wondering how I would ever be able to live up to the example she set.

BRC: Your sister now lives with you and is an integral part of your daughters' lives, and your mother lived with you until she died. Do you think that this familial female circle of support has had a special impression on your daughters that can contribute to their fearlessness?

AH: No question. In the book, I talk about how important it is to create a fearless tribe --- that's what I call the support group of friends and family we surround ourselves with. And wherever I've gone on my book tour, I absolutely love it when women come up to me at book signings with 4, 6, or even 8 copies at a time asking me to sign them for their "fearless tribe!"

BRC: What is the single most important piece of advice that you have given to your daughters?

AH: That fearlessness isn't the absence of fear, it's the mastery of fear; that being fearless means getting up one more time than you fall down. In the book, I talk about how fearlessness is something we can learn --- a muscle we can develop. The more we act on our dreams and our desires, the more fearless we become, and the easier it is the next time. And that flat shoes can be very cool too!

BRC: In ON BECOMING FEARLESS, you reference Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth, who reveals that "the scale of my own fears seemed very small" after traveling throughout the developing world and encountering women who had lived through rape, slavery, mutilations and other atrocities. What can women who don't have the means or opportunity to travel to other countries do to expand their world view?

AH: You can expand your world view locally, by getting involved with local charities and volunteering your time to help people less fortunate than you --- and there are always people less fortunate than you. It goes back to what I was saying before about the treadmill of comparisons. We need to stop comparing ourselves to Angelina Jolie, and start comparing ourselves and our circumstances to someone who lost their home to Katrina or someone who lost their leg in Iraq. Sometimes it takes a crisis to bring some much-needed perspective to our lives. It's like the outpouring of fearlessness and selflessness that came in the wake of 9/11. At that point, when the world around us appeared to be collapsing, we weren't afraid of whether we looked fat in those jeans or worried about how our boss would react if we asked for a raise. So, really, I suppose the biggest lesson we can learn is how we can bring that sense of perspective and fearlessness into our everyday lives, even without a crisis --- whether that crisis is a giant public one or an intimate personal one, like an illness or the death of a loved one.

BRC: Have you heard from men who have read ON BECOMING FEARLESS? What advice can men take from the book, both in terms of overcoming fear themselves and also how they can effect change in society as it pertains to women?

AH: Lots of men have read and responded to the book. Some tell me that it speaks directly to them, and some want to immediately share it with their daughters, mothers, or wives. One of the things I've heard a few of them say is that the book shows that a fearless woman is not to be feared! Too often in our culture, strong women get stereotyped as shrill or bossy. In my experience, the strongest, most fearless women I know are also the most open to creating lasting and meaningful relationships. I mean, wouldn't a healthy man prefer to be involved with a woman who is driven by her true thoughts, feelings, beliefs and desires, instead of by her fears? The book also speaks to how fear shapes both our personal and our political lives --- and how by becoming more personally fearless, we can become better citizens. By building a foundation of personal fearlessness, we can inoculate ourselves with enough fearlessness antibodies to resist the fear mongering our politicians have gotten so good at.