Arianna Huffington to Hunter College Grads: To Create a Better World, Secure Your Own Oxygen Mask First

I had the great privilege of joining Arianna Huffington, HuffPost's editor-in-chief, at the 2016 Commencement Ceremony of my alma mater, Hunter College. Arianna gave the keynote address and was given the President's Medal by Hunter College President, Jennifer Raab.
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I had the great privilege of joining Arianna Huffington, HuffPost's editor-in-chief, at the 2016 Commencement Ceremony of my alma mater, Hunter College. Arianna gave the keynote address and was given the President's Medal by Hunter College President, Jennifer Raab.

During the ceremony, I was reminded why Hunter holds such a unique place in my memory. Hunter is truly one of the most diverse academic institutions in America, and fosters a message of tolerance and academic prosperity across many disciplines. Listening to President Raab's remarks, I was taken by the range of academic and personal triumphs made within the graduating class of 2016 -- many through extreme adversity. I was again made grateful that I was able to have an academic experience in New York City, enriched by a kaleidoscopic student body.

Arianna's speech eloquently echoed Hunter's motto, which I remember was prominently emblazoned on the wall of our campus in Manhattan.

Mihi Cura Futuri: The care of the future is mine. It is my job to remember that our collective future begins with my personal choices.

You can read Arianna's entire speech below:

President Raab, CUNY Board of Trustees member Brian Obergfell, CUNY Vice Chancellor Gillian Small, Hunter administration, faculty, staff, and above all, the graduating class of 2016 and their proud families, I'm deeply honored and grateful to be sharing in such a special moment in your lives, and especially honored to be at Hunter. And congratulations to valedictorian Sarah Soo-Hoo, a double-major in economics and biology -- that's quite a combination. Sign me up for whatever startup you end up launching. Though I was especially impressed to learn that you were raised in New York City and somehow became a golf champion. Anyone that can do that certainly has a bright future ahead of them.

This is such a unique place, and one that reflects the great city it serves -- a place where people from different countries, different traditions, speaking different languages, come together, united in a desire to better themselves, and the world. As an immigrant myself -- I know it's hard to tell since I have lost every trace of my Greek accent -- I of course feel completely at home here.

I'm proud to be at a place where nearly a third of undergraduates were born overseas, where nearly 40 percent speak a native language other than English, where about a third are the first in their families to go to college, and where almost 20% of you are graduating with a second degree. Also impressive is that this is a place where so many of you have held down jobs while going to school, and have triumphed over so many obstacles to get to this moment of celebration. If this were a sporting event, we'd all be spraying each other with champagne right now, but President Raab vetoed that idea.

Now I know when you Google stalk someone you're not supposed to tell them, but I've been secretly getting to know you a little better. And I've learned all kinds of things, like, for instance, that Hunter has apparently been doing some innovative work on the subject of time, coming up with some kind of quantum system of Thursdays somehow replacing Mondays, which I'm still confused about -- so I have no idea what today is. I've also learned there's a place you spend a lot of time at named Oasis, which, from what I've been able to glean, might be ironically named. And I know it may sound silly, but I feel a connection to you because Hunter College and HuffPost are both on the 6 train. We're connected by a green line of destiny.

More well-known is that Hunter has nurtured the best and the brightest throughout our history, from Nobel Prize winners to civil rights activists, to former congresswoman Bella Abzug, who famously remarked, 'This woman's place is in the House -- the House of Representatives.'

Hunter is a living testament to the power of diversity, tolerance, and progress. But as much as we would like to think otherwise, these values cannot be taken for granted. They have to be safeguarded, protected and defended every day. You don't have to follow the news particularly closely to realize they're under assault right now. We have a presidential nominee who smears Mexicans as 'rapists,' who wants to institute a religious test to enter a country founded on religious freedom, who wants to erect barriers and walls. But this is an institution based on breaking down barriers and walls, on proving the value of opportunity, openness and diversity. So all of you have a special role to play in upholding Hunter's rich legacy at a time when it is threatened like never before in our lifetime.

And I'm very happy that at HuffPost we have a wonderful Hunter graduate, Karah Preiss, leading our editorial video initiative to bring us together through a combination of making science accessible and a lot of humor. The series is called Talk Nerdy to Me. And one of her first episodes was about the search for other habitable planets, a search which has accelerated since the Republican nominee was decided. In fact, Elon Musk has just announced that he hopes to send a human to Mars by 2025. And that's all well and good, but with the potential outcome of this current election, can't we find another habitable planet just a little bit sooner? It doesn't have to be a fancy planet, it doesn't have to have rings. It just has to support intelligent life. Everybody will be welcome because of course, in space, we're all immigrants.

I'm often asked if I had the chance what advice I would give to my younger self. So here is what I wish I could go back and tell myself on my own college graduation day: 'Arianna, stop worrying and get more sleep! Every aspect of your life will actually improve if you get more sleep -- your work, your health, and your happiness.' And I might also tell my younger self something about certain hairstyles that might look dated later on, but that's a different speech.

But I didn't learn about the true value of sleep and recharging until much later in my life. And what I'm here to tell you today, after my own painful experience of collapsing from sleep deprivation and burnout nine years ago, is that to make the most of who you are and of all the hard work that has gotten you here today, to fulfill all your dreams, you actually have to start -- as they tell us on airplanes -- by putting on your own oxygen mask first, before helping others. Not because you are selfish, but because that is how you are going to be at your best and most effective. The science on this is conclusive: burnout and sleep deprivation degrade every part of our lives, including our productivity and our empathy.

It's not a surprise, for instance, that some of our best ideas come in the shower. In fact, I'm terrified that Apple will soon create a waterproof iPhone and rob us of yet more of our precious time away from technology, where we can think, imagine, dream without our smartphones holding our attention hostage. I remember the first time I started walking around Soho, where I live, without multitasking and staring at my phone. I actually began noticing things that weren't on my tiny iPhone screen, including a beautiful building near my apartment. 'What a gorgeous building,' I told a friend I was with. 'When did it go up?' '1890,'she said.

It was in the Industrial Revolution when we began to think that we could treat humans as machines by minimizing downtime. This was when sleep became not just devalued but actively scorned, as just more idle time spent not working. But now we are in something of a golden age of sleep science, revealing that sleep is, in fact, a time of frenetic activity in our brains, with profound consequences on both our physical and mental health.

So now we are at this amazing moment in the zeitgeist when the culture is slowly shifting, and I urge you to be pioneers in this shift, and accelerate it. It was my generation that built this world fueled by burnout, and it's now up to your generation to change it. And that means, among other things, no longer celebrating people who are always on, who answer emails or texts immediately no matter when they're sent, who make a show of working 24/7. In fact, I had dinner with a man recently who bragged about having only gotten 4 hours of sleep the night before. I thought -- but I didn't say: 'This dinner would have been a lot more interesting if you had gotten five.'

Your former President, Donna Shalala, recounts how back in the days she served as President Clinton's Secretary of Health and Human Services, the President would often call her up in the middle of the night to talk policy. At one point, she took to sleeping with her big briefing books next to her bed. It's perhaps no surprise that President Clinton himself later said, 'Every important mistake I've made in my life, I've made because I was too tired.'

Because when we're always on, when we're always connected, we're there, but not really there, and we go through our days at 60 or 40% capacity, or worse, sleepwalking through our lives in a zombie state. Or we're in constant emergency-mode, eternally panicked about all we have to do. This is why my screensaver is a picture of gazelles: They are my role model. They run with all they've got when there is danger -- a leopard or a lion approaching -- but as soon as the danger passes, they stop and go back to grazing peacefully without a care in the world. But human beings can't distinguish between real dangers and imagined ones. Past failures and future worries activate a fight-or-flight response the same way as real dangers, and unlike the gazelles, we can't stop running -- we just keep going, until we crash.

And when we're sleep deprived, all our fears, anxieties and self-doubts are exacerbated. We are more likely to go into catastrophic thinking and negative fantasies -- that interview went bad, therefore I won't get the job, therefore I'll never get a job. As Montaigne put it: 'There were many terrible things in my life, but most of them never happened.'

I was delighted to find out that three of this year's graduates, Dana Seag (Dana Seeg), Catherine Traynor, and Alicia Ambrosino, launched a national alliance on mental health at Hunter. Because, as Catherine said, 'Not everyone has to have a mental illness in order to care about mental health.'

And what modern science is revealing is that when you scratch the surface of depression or anxiety, over 80 percent of the time you find sleep deprivation. So if I could give you one graduation present -- one that would make it easier for you to deal with whatever problems and setbacks life brings, as well as access your best, most creative ideas for your life and for the world -- I would give you the gift of waking up and greeting each day with fresh eyes, fully restored after a good night's sleep.

We all have different areas in our lives where we are more insecure and anxious. You probably all know what is your biggest anxiety trigger, so you can test how sleep deprivation exacerbates it. I'll tell you what my greatest anxiety trigger is. It has to do with my two daughters -- any parents here who identify with me? If I text one of them and she doesn't respond within five seconds I move into the most idiotic negative fantasies. A few years ago I was in Switzerland on a grueling business trip, and I woke up, still sleep deprived, to a text from my daughter Christina that she was feeling terrible and needed a doctor. I immediately tried to call her and she didn't answer. And then of course I moved into full-scale panic, calling everyone -- her friends, her friends' parents, all our relatives, and just stopping short of calling the police and putting out an Amber alert for her. I'm sure there are people in this audience who I called! But, of course, she was fine, it was just a very bad cold and she had gone back to sleep, which is why she hadn't responded to my texts. But my sleep deprivation had turned that into a full-blown emergency.

There will always be emergencies and unexpected challenges in your life. The question is how do you deal with them. You can't control what the world brings to you, but you can control how you respond to it. That's why my favorite expression of wisdom -- one that I keep laminated in my wallet -- is by Marcus Aurelius, who was both the emperor of Rome and a Stoic philosopher: 'Truly whatever arises in life is the right material to bring about your growth and the growth of those around you. This, in a word, is art -- and this art called 'life' is a practice suitable to both men and gods. Everything contains some special purpose and a hidden blessing; what then could be strange or arduous when all of life is here to greet you like an old and faithful friend?'

And if we live life this way, then we have more resilience and more ingenuity to help us deal with the hardest moments. I remember one of the low points in my life, when my second book was rejected by, yes, 37 publishers. By about rejection 25, you would have thought I might have said, 'Hey, you know, there's something wrong here. Maybe I should be looking at a different career.' Instead, I remember running out of money and walking, depressed, down St. James Street in London and seeing a Barclays Bank. I'm not sure why, but I walked in and asked to speak to the manager. And I asked him for a loan. Even though I didn't have any assets, the banker gave it to me. It wasn't much, but it changed my life, because it meant I could keep things together for another 13 rejections and then, finally, an acceptance. In fairytales there are helpful animals that come out of nowhere to help the hero or heroine through a dark and difficult time, often helping them find a way out of the forest. Well, in life too, there are helpful animals disguised as human beings -- in my case, as a bank manager, ready to help. So, very often, the difference between success and failure is faith and perseverance, which are easier when you believe in yourself enough to take care of yourself.

As you head out into your new world, you might well feel overwhelmed with far too many items on your to-do list. So here is a hack on how to trim those lists down and give your life some breathing room. You can complete a project by dropping it. There is no law for example that you have to binge-watch the entire Game of Thrones series. That's the way I finally checked learning to play piano, and learning German, and becoming a good skier, off of my to-do list -- I 'completed' them by just finally getting rid of them. It's about priorities, and realizing you're more than your to-do lists.

I'd like to close on a note of gratitude. Not just my gratitude for having the chance to be here with you today -- though there's that -- but also how important it is to build gratitude into your every day.

And there's no time like the end of the day to reflect on what you're grateful for, and what were your moments of joy. And I love that because my new goal in life is not just to get stuff done, not just to be effective, but to bring joy into my life and into everything I do and touch. And you know what? I get more stuff done as well!

No matter what the challenges, each day let's also find joy in what we're doing. As Colette said, 'What a wonderful life I've had! I only wish I'd realized it sooner.' Let's move from struggle to grace. And that's entirely a matter of our attitude.

But it is infinitely harder if we are sleep-deprived and exhausted to tap into the joy that is independent of circumstances, the joy that lies beyond our to-do list, our job title and our next promotion -- the joy that people have found in the middle of the darkest times. And nothing takes the stress out of anything potentially stressful in our days faster than joy. Stress and joy cannot occupy the same space. Speaking to 1700 people is, on paper, stressful. But unlike some of you who might have, uh been out celebrating last night (and I can't really blame you) I had eight hours of sleep. And I love being here connecting with you. So it's not stressful, it's joyful.

And when we take the time to recharge and renew ourselves, we are more likely to find shortcuts through the problems and solutions to the greatest challenges. Those of us in the media have tended to focus on the crises. Indeed, there is an old saying in the news business, one that's guided editorial thinking for decades: 'If it bleeds, it leads.' That is, stories of violence, tragedy, dysfunction and corruption get top billing -- at the top of the hour, at the top of the computer or phone screen or above the newspaper fold -- driven by the assumption that these are the stories the public will be most drawn to watch or read. This ethos is wrong, both factually and ethically. And it's lousy journalism. That's why at The Huffington Post we have created a global solutions initiative that we call What's Working. Because as journalists, our job is to give our audience an accurate picture -- and that means the full picture -- of what's going on in the world. Just showing tragedy, violence, mayhem -- focusing on what's broken and what's not working -- misses too much of what is happening all around us. What about how people are responding to these challenges, how they're coming together, even in the midst of violence, poverty and loss? And what about all the stories of innovation, creativity, ingenuity, compassion and grace? If we in the media only show the dark side, we're failing at our jobs. And it's not just journalists and the media. Whatever field you're in, having the courage and daring to recognize that you can make a difference begins with focusing on solutions. And when you do that, you will inspire others to do the same.

And every night can become a reminder that we are more than the sum of our successes and failures, that beyond all our struggling and our rushing there is a stillness and a joy that are available to us, that come from a place deeper and more ancient than the unending noise that surrounds us. The motto of your school translates to 'the Care of the Future Is Mine.' And it fills me with optimism that the care of our future rests with you. But if I could add a rider to that, the care of yourself also rests with you... and taking good care of yourselves will give you the resources to take care of our collective future.

So please remember that life is a dance between making it happen and letting it happen. You're leaving a special place, and the world needs what this place has taught you -- your wisdom, your creativity, your tolerance, the strength of your diversity. It's a richness you are bringing with you into the world. Please remember to regularly replenish it.

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