2016 Commencement Speaker’s Address

May 22, 2016

Arianna Huffington, Cofounder, president, and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post
Colby College
Commencement Speech
May 22, 2016

 

The following is an adaption of an address to Colby College’s Class of 2016.

Thank you so much President Greene, Chairman of the Board of Trustees Bob Diamond, members of the platform party, faculty, staff, students, and families. But who is Billy Lin? Okay, Brendan, you and I have to talk after this. I can’t live without knowing the answer to this fundamental, existential question.

So especially being here as a Greek immigrant—yes, that’s a slight accent you hear—I am thrilled that I can finally say I made it to the Mayflower, or at least to the Mayflower Hill, and that there are 32 flags here representing the 32 countries that have graduates today. That is such a great achievement for the College, for the families, for everyone involved. And I hope some of you have an accent.

As a mother of two not-so-long-ago college graduates, I know that the hard work leading up to today is a team effort. So congratulations to all the moms and the dads and the grandparents and the siblings. But above all, congratulations to the Class of 2016.

And Brendan, a special congratulations to you. That was a great speech. I fully expect to hear a lot from you back in New York City, and when you create the next “Hamilton”-level hit, can you please promise me two tickets without having to mortgage my home?

And congratulations to Bonnie Maldonado. Winning an award for engaged citizenship is just about the best it can get. And thank you for all you’re doing to make our world a better place.

This is such an amazing day of contrasts, of a light being shined on two different worlds — one world that’s ending, another world that’s just beginning. And these two worlds are different in many other ways. The world you’re leaving is structured toward a purpose, organized to help you realize that purpose. The motto of the world you’re leaving is “Lux Mentis Scientia,” — “Knowledge is the light of the mind.”

But the world you’re stepping into is very different. It’s a chaotic world, filled with the clamor of buzzing, blinking, and flashing digital distractions, a world drowning in data, but starved for real knowledge and wisdom. If knowledge is the light of the mind, raw data is fog and haze. And your challenge is to find your way through the fog. And an even greater challenge is that you endeavor not just to succeed in the world, but to change it.

But before I get to that new world you’re entering, I want to say a little about the world you’re leaving. And having stalked you in the last few weeks on your social media accounts, your official Colby website, and your Tinder profiles – actually, just kidding about Tinder – it’s a very special world you’ve been immersed in. And I must say I’m a little sad I missed “Doghead,” the night where, so I understand, you stay up all night, possibly drink a little bit, with the goal of bringing in the sunrise together with friends. As a vehement sleep evangelist, I should be frowning at the staying up all night part, but it’s in service of something special so I’m willing to make an exception because as Hannah Schafer wrote in The Colby Echo, “there is no better feeling than watching that sunrise with the people we love at the college that brought us together.”

And after “Doghead,” and bringing in the sunrise together, I would hope that the Colby Napping Club saw a surge of participation. Congratulations to the founder of the club, Thomas Gregston, who is helping to correct the historical error of another Thomas, Thomas Edison, who was convinced that sleep was unnecessary. Edison bragged that he never needed more than four or five hours a night, and believed that America should follow his example on the brightly lit path of progress and self-improvement. He called sleep “an absurdity, a bad habit,” and fully expected it to be eliminated from our lives. Modern science is solidly on the side of Thomas Gregston not Thomas Edison.

Now, I need to ask parents and grandparents and innocent children to cover their ears for a moment as I address one piece of Colby mythology – am I safe to proceed? – the business about the blue light on top of Miller Library, a light that will only go out when a virgin graduates. Sadly, I have no research or wisdom to offer you on the connection between blue light and Colby virgins, but I can offer you some research on the connection between blue light and sleep. What we know from sleep scientists is that blue light, of the kind given off by our ubiquitous electronic devices, is kryptonite when it comes to sleep. And the trouble is, our houses, our bedrooms, our dorm rooms, are littered with beeping, vibrating, flashing blue-light-radiating devices. Though we don’t give much thought to how we put ourselves to bed, we have little recharging shrines all over our houses, like little doll beds, where our technology can recharge, even if we can’t — because let’s face it, we take better care of our smartphones than we take care of ourselves.

So as you are about to enter this new world that considers burnout, exhaustion, and stress as the necessary price to pay for success, I urge you to change what is simply a collective delusion — one that your generation has the ability to shatter.

Cultures often believe things that are simply wrong. For example, once upon a time, smoking was considered glamorous and cool. As late as the 1960’s, in fact, there were still television ads complete with doctors in white lab coats, promoting cigarettes. As one doctor put it at the time, “I smoke menthols because they refresh my throat.” It took a while before the perception of smoking fell in line with the science of smoking. Well, the science of sleep and sleep deprivation is now in, and it’s up to your generation to bring the perception of sleep in line with the conclusive science faster than my generation did with smoking.

Of course, you’re already experts on at least one culture that glorifies sleep deprivation: college culture. The motto “sleep, grades, social life: pick two” – or some version of it – can be heard on campuses across America. It’s as though college students feel as if they’re forced to choose between sleep and life. This is why we launched the HuffPost Sleep Revolution College Tour at more than 300 colleges across the country, to raise awareness about the importance of sleep. And I hope you all received my gift of The Sleep Revolution to arm you with all the science and the best practices you need to enter the workplace with a competitive advantage — challenging the Neanderthal norms that still prevail in far too many offices around the country where people are congratulated for working 24/7 — the cognitive equivalent of coming to work drunk.

As we now know from an ever-growing mountain of sleep science, every quality involved in job performance – creativity, productivity, problem solving, the ability to collaborate, to handle stress, to learn – is enhanced by sleep and degraded by sleep deprivation. It’s the person who has the self-discipline and the confidence and the perspective to unplug and recharge, to not remain tethered to their email inboxes at all hours, to make time in their lives for downtime, for imagination, and for wonder, who should be admired, emulated, and promoted in the workplace.

And it’s the ones who brag about only needing four hours of sleep that we should be wary of, especially if they’re running for president. There is, for example the presumptive Republican presidential nominee who brags about how little sleep he gets, and how he sleeps with his phone beside him. What effects does that have? Well, there’s the inability to process even basic information, mood swings, anger outbursts, false memories, lack of impulse control, belligerence, paranoid tendencies to spout conspiracy theories, and things like retweeting Mussolini. Those are all, as it happens, symptoms of chronic sleep deprivation. Except possibly the Mussolini bit – that’s probably just Trump.

So whether you’re running for president or just about to enter the workplace, sleep is the ultimate performance-enhancing drug – and one without side effects, if you don’t count bed-head, which apparently some young people actually want, therefore it’s not a side effect, it’s a bonus feature.

So how about this as a tiny first step that’s both symbolic and practical: resolve to wake up without an alarm. You can set your alarm as a precaution, but the goal should be to wake up naturally before it after a full night’s sleep, which unless you have a genetic mutation, is seven to nine hours. And for those who skipped Biology 101, you cannot train yourself to have a genetic mutation. And only one percent of the population does. But, Colby graduates, I bring you some good news: By gene editing, you can implant a “short sleep” gene in embryos and thus shorten the sleep needs of your unborn children. Of course, good luck with babies that only need four hours of sleep!

Just think about the word “alarm”: “a sudden fear or distressing suspense caused by an awareness of danger — a signal that something is not right.” So we emerge from sleep in full fight-or-flight mode, flooded with stress hormones and adrenaline as our body readies itself for danger.

And when you wake up without an alarm you’re more likely to remember your dreams. And dreams have throughout history been the source of new ideas, insights, art, and scientific breakthroughs. The periodic table of elements, the Beatles’ “Let It Be,” even Google, that repository of our entire waking world, were all conceived in a dream. As Larry Page put it, “When a really great dream shows up, grab it!’” And our dreams are also a gateway to life’s mystery, to the recognition that we are more than our daily struggles, projects and to do lists, more than our successes and our failures. By helping us keep the world in perspective, sleep, and the connection with ourselves it allows, gives us a chance to refocus on the essence of who we are.

But even if performance and winning are, at least for now, everything for you, you can be easily convinced of the benefits of sleep by looking at what’s going on in a world that is the ultimate in pragmatism: the sports world. To professional athletes, sleep is not about spirituality, work-life balance, or even health and well-being; it’s all about performance. It’s about what works. And the list of those using it as a performance enhancer includes the Who’s Who of the sports world, from Kobe Bryant and Tom Brady to Roger Federer and Andre Iguodala.

At Stanford, a sleep researcher, Cheri Mah, ran an experiment on members of the Stanford basketball team. She had them sleep normally for two weeks, and then had them increase their sleep to eight and-a-half hours for five more weeks. The results? Free-throw shooting went up by nine percent, three-point shooting by 9.2 percent. That’s an amazing difference for such elite athletes—and all achieved just by sleeping more.

To further destroy our collective delusion that burnout is essential for success, another thing I ask you to change is our everyday language around sleep and burnout. Language matters – it both reflects and guides how we think about our world and what we value. But everywhere we turn, sleep deprivation is glamorized and celebrated: “You snooze, you lose.” Or look at the phrase “catch a few z’s”: the last letter of the alphabet used to represent the last thing on our culture’s shared priority list.

And that goes hand in hand with how we glamorize burnout and overwork. “I’m slammed” has become a way of saying, “I am important and I’m very much in demand.” And look at all the other similar words we use in our everyday experience: “I’m swamped, I’m drowning, I’m underwater. I’m crazed. I’ll get back to you when I come up for air.” In any other context, hearing a friend say something like this would make you call 911. And living in that state of mind – a perpetually stressed-out fight-or-flight state of mind, always on the edge of burnout – has serious implications for your health, your productivity, and your happiness.

Changing the culture of work needs to begin by changing how we talk about work—and how we talk about sleep.

The next thing to change has to do with your attention. It’s one of the most important currencies available to you and one which is only going to increase in value.

If you talk to people in the tech sector – and that’s part of my job — it’s clear that what they want, more than anything, what’s at the center of their business plans for growth, is your attention. In the new world you’re entering, your attention is the most valuable currency of the digital age…much more valuable than Bitcoin.

Companies may be using different algorithms, different bells and whistles, different sales pitches to get you to part with your attention, but attention is the unifying holy grail. The grab for our attention is the new gold rush. So all of you, just starting out in life, are actually sitting on a gold mine – a gold mine you’re carrying with you all the time. I’m mining a little bit of your attention right now, or at least I hope I am. And if I’m not, well, I’m probably the only Commencement speaker in the country who would take it as a personal victory if you happen to be sleeping right now.

As Snapchat superstar and modern-day philosopher DJ Khaled, who was HuffPost’s guest at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, might say, “THEY want you to give them your attention. But major key alert, Colby graduates, your attention is the most valuable thing you got.” So don’t give it to them without getting something valuable in return — because otherwise technology will eat away at the edges of many of the very things that make you human. Like how we connect to one another, and how we connect to ourselves.

There has to be part of our attention that is not available to be captured and colonized every moment of every day. We need to reclaim part of our lives and to nurture the idea of our attention as something sacred that needs to be safeguarded and protected—until this becomes a new cultural norm.

And if that new cultural norm is going to be established, it’s going to take you and your generation to make it happen. It was my generation that allowed the strip mining of our attention and of what makes us uniquely human, and ignored the dangers. We were so dazzled by all the possibilities of all these new tech tools that we became blinded to the costs. So it has to be your generation that can claw back and restore this delicate and essential ecosystem.

The world you’re heading into is a world in which always being connected has been a status symbol, a sign of success. It’s a world riddled with anxiety, where if someone emails you or texts you and you don’t immediately respond, people go crazy. You wait 15 minutes before responding to someone’s text and they’re practically calling local emergency rooms for you! This is our 21st Century Frankenstein monster. We’ve created this world of constant connection, but diminished real connection. It’s a world of what has been called “continuous partial attention.” Fortunately, there’s a growing cultural awareness of this problem, and even a word to describe the alternative of FOMO—fear of missing out—JOMO, the joy of missing out! Missing out on the insignificant, the transient, the trivial in order to not miss out on your life.

And now, Colby graduates, you have a chance to change this. And those who take the lead will be the new pioneers, the early adopters – until we get to a place where it’s normal and acceptable to give each other permission to disconnect from technology – and truly reconnect with each other and ourselves. And there’s an added layer of significance to this, given that Colby was the first college in the country to issue email accounts to all its students. So I just want to ask: Are you regretting it? Email, as we all know, is one of the major attention thieves. In the past decade, we’ve gone from an estimated 12 billion emails a day to 215 billion. And according to a recent study, it takes us sixty-seven seconds just to recover from each email that lands in our in-boxes.

So as you leave here today, I hope you take with you a renewed and zealous commitment to safeguarding your attention. There will be more and more claims on it — so have the courage to set your own. And here is a short list I have drawn of some of the things that will be different when you have succeeded at changing the culture of burnout and sleep deprivation:

The saying “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” will be unceremoniously tossed into the dustbin of history.

People will list their healthy sleep habits as an item on their résumés, LinkedIn pages, and Tinder profiles – and on their Presidential campaign websites.

Sleeping pill TV commercials will be a thing of the past. No more beautiful, happy people leading perfect lives while a narrator reads a terrifying list of side effects.

And because we are all addicted to our devices, an app will be created that turns our smartphone into a dumbphone for special times. Like commencements, weddings, your honeymoon, or just hanging out with your friends, or having dinner with your children — all times that deserve your undivided attention. And you will not be able to override it.

Those of you who master the ability to be alone with yourselves, undistracted by all the endless digital claims on your attention will rule the world. And this in the end is my wish for you — that you will use this newfound mastery and all your ambition, your creativity, and your wisdom not just to rule the world, but to do something far more important – to change the world.

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