For the record

Arianna Huffington to 2016 grads: 'Safeguard your attention'

Some advice on rising above the clamor of buzzing, blinking, and flashing digital distractions

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(AP Photo)

Huffington Post founder and editor Arianna Huffington addressed the Class of 2016 at Colby College on Sunday:

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 engagement citizenship is just about the best it gets. And thank you for all you’re doing to make our world a better place.

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This is such an amazing day of contrasts, of a light being shined on two different worlds. One world that’s ending—after you pack things by 8 p.m., just in case you forget—and another world that’s just beginning. And these two worlds are different in many other ways. The world you’re living is structured towards a purpose, organized to help you achieve that purpose. The motto of the world you’re living is lux mentis scientia.

But the world you’re stepping into is extremely different. Frankly it’s a chaotic world, filled with the clamor of buzzing, blinking, and flashing digital distractions. A world filled with data and starved for wisdom. If knowledge is the light of the mind, raw data is just fog and haze. And your challenge is to find your way through the fog and not just to succeed in the world but to change it. As Brendan said, “the future is coming in hot.”

But, before I look at the future, I want to say a little bit about the world you’re leaving. Because you may not know that, but I have stalked you in the last few weeks on your social media accounts, your official Colby website, and your Tinder profiles—no I’m joking about that. And I must say I’m a little sad I missed Doghead. Even though as a vehement sleep evangelist I should be frowning at the staying up all night part, it’s in service of something so special. I loved what Hannah Schafer wrote in the Colby Echo, “There is no better feeling than watching the sunrise with the people we love at the college that brought us together.”

And after Doghead and ringing in the sunrise together, I would hope that the Colby Napping Club saw a surge of participation. Congratulations, incidentally, 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, and believed that America should follow his example on the brightly lit path of progress and self-improvement. He called sleep an absurdity, predicted to be eliminated. But I’m happy to say that the modern science is solidly on the side of Thomas Gregston and against Thomas Edison.

And now I want to ask parents and grandparents and innocent children to cover their ears for a moment as I address one piece of Colby mythology—the business about the blue light on top of the Miller Library, a light that will only go out when a virgin graduates. So, sadly, I have no research or wisdom to offer you on the connection between Colby virgins and blue light, but I can offer you some research on the connection between blue light and sleep.

Basically blue light is kryptonite, and the trouble is that our houses are filled with all these beeping, vibrating, flashing blue-light-radiating devices. And we have literally charging shrines everywhere for them. Because ultimately, let’s face it, we take much better care of our smartphones than we take care of ourselves, and you guys need to change that.

So, as you’re about to enter this new world that considers burnout, exhaustion, and stress as the necessary price to pay for success, I want you to recognize that it is a collective delusion. And I hope that your generation will shatter it.

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Because, you know, cultures often believe the wrong things. Did you know, for example, that up to the 1960s we had television ads for cigarettes, often by doctors in white coats who said things like, “I smoke menthols because they refresh my throat.” Finally the science of smoking caught up with the perception of smoking, but I hope it’s not going to take us long before the science of sleep and sleep deprivation catches up with the modern perception.

And the reason why I’m so excited that you all have a copy of The Sleep Revolution is because it will give you a competitive advantage to enter the workplace knowing the latest science, knowing the best practices, and challenging the Neanderthal norms that permeate so many workplaces, where people are congratulated for working 24/7, which the cognitive equivalent of coming to work drunk.

As we know now from an ever-growing mountain of sleep science, every quality involved in job performance—creativity, productivity, problem solving, the ability to collaborate—is enhanced when you actually take time to recharge yourselves. So it’s the person who has the self-discipline and the confidence and the perspective to unplug and recharge who should be celebrated and promoted, 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. Because there is the example of the presumptive Republican presidential nominee who brags about how little sleep he gets and how he always sleeps with his phone beside him.

What effects does that have? Well, there is for starters the inability to process even basic information. Mood swings, anger outbursts, emotional instability, false memories, the regurgitation of incomprehensible pablum, and, of course, the occasional retweeting of Mussolini. These are all, as it happens, symptoms of chronic sleep deprivation according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine—well except perhaps the retweeting Mussolini part. That’s just pure Donald Trump. So whether you’re running for president or just entering the workplace, sleep is the ultimate performance-enhancing drug.

And you know there is a very simple, actual tiny step you can take right away, as soon as you leave tonight, as I mentioned, by 8 p.m. And it has to do very simply with you resolving never to use an alarm clock again. Just think of it. If you get enough sleep, you don’t need an alarm. And just think of it. An alarm, what a horrible word. It immediately evokes danger, a fight-or-flight response. So you wake up and start your day before anything bad has even happened with your body filled with the stress hormone cortisol. And why? Incidentally, if you’re asking how much sleep is enough? Unless you have a genetic mutation, it’s seven to nine hours. About one percent of us do have a genetic mutation, but, just in case you skipped Biology 101, you cannot train yourself to have a genetic mutation. But those of you who are not parents yet—and I hope it’s all 500 of you, but you never know—there is actually a new discovery, a kind of gene editing. So if you wanted to give birth to a child who is a short sleeper and has a genetic mutation, you can actually edit the gene while the baby is in the womb. Although, whether you want to bring up a baby that only sleeps for four hours, you may want to have a conversation with your parents first.

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And when you wake up without an alarm, the other good news is that you’re more likely to remember your dreams. Dreams throughout history have been the source of new ideas, insights, arts, and scientific breakthroughs. The periodic table of elements, the Beatles “Let It Be,” even Google were all conceived in a dream. As Larry Page put it, when a really great dream shows up, grab it.

So 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 it guides how we think about the world and what we value. But everywhere we turn, sleep deprivation is glamorized and celebrated. “You snooze, you lose.” “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” And that goes hand in hand with how we glamorize burnout. “I’m slammed” is a way of saying “I’m important and I’m in so much demand.” And look at all the other similar words we use in our everyday language. “I’m swamped.” “I’m drowning.” “I’m under water.” “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—not only has serious implications for our health, our productivity, and our happiness, but it also makes it much harder to maintain that warmth and goodness and joy that Brendan said Colby is famous for.

So there is one last thing that I want to ask you to change, and that’s what you 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. I talk to many people in the tech world. Let me tell you that at the center of their business plans for growth is your attention. They want it. And in the world that you’re entering, your attention is truly the most valuable currency of the digital age. Companies may be using different algorithms, different bells and whistles to get you to part with your attention, but attention is the unifying Holy Grail. The grab for your attention is the new gold rush. So Colby graduates, you are really 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, although I’m probably the only commencement speaker in the country who would actually consider it a personal victory if you’re asleep right now.

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How many of you here are on Snapchat? How many know DJ Khaled? He was my date at the White House correspondent’s dinner last month, and you know what he would have said if he was here now? He would have said, “Colby graduates, they want your attention!” And, major key alert, your attention is the most valuable thing you’ve got. So don’t give it to them without getting something in return.

There has to be part of our attention that is not available to be constantly captured and colonized by social media, by text, by email. 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, with your help, a new cultural norm.

The world you’re heading into is a world in which always being connected has become a status symbol, a sign of success. It’s a world riddled with anxiety, for if someone emails you or texts you and you don’t immediately respond, people go crazy. Have you noticed that? If you wait 15 minutes before responding to a text and they are practically calling local emergency rooms to find you. We need to change that, because this has become our 21st century’s Frankenstein monster.

Fortunately, there is a growing cultural awareness of this problem and even a word to describe the alternative of FoMO—fear of missing out—and that’s JoMO, joy of missing out. Missing out on the insignificant, the transient, the trivial in order to not miss out on your life.

And now, you have a chance to change this. And those who take the lead will be the new pioneers, the early adopters until will 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 with 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 it’s students. So I just want to ask: Are you regretting it? Email as we well 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 67 seconds just to recover from each email that lands in your inboxes.

So as you leave here today, I hope you take with you a renewed and zealous commitment to safeguarding your attention. And I hope you write about it on the Huffington Post. And to make it super easy, I am now going to give you my email address, which is very simple, If anyone here wants to found a company, make sure you get the good email address.

Before I leave you, there is a short list that 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.

First of all, 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 on their résumés, on their LinkedIn pages, and on their Tinder profiles. And definitely 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 the narrator reads a terrifying list of side effects. And because we’re all addicted to our devices, an app will be created—I’m actually working on it—that turns our smartphone into a dumb phone for special times, like commencements, weddings, your honeymoon, 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.

Congratulations to the great Colby Class of 2016.

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