Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Carl Honoré. Carl is an award-winning journalist, author, and rehabilitated “speedaholic.” He’s the author of Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting and the international bestseller In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed, where he examines our compulsion to hurry and chronicles a global trend of putting on the brakes.
He lives in London with his wife, who is also a writer, and their two children. With Sounds True, Carl Honoré has created an audio program called The Power of Slow: Finding Balance and Fulfillment Beyond the Cult of Speed, where he shows how to read a richer, more rewarding life by joining the “slow revolution” that is sweeping across the globe.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Carl and I spoke about how as a culture, we’ve become addicted to the quality of moving quickly through our lives—especially in the workplace. We talked about how we can help ourselves unplug from a fast life by rethinking our use of technology and help break our addiction to “faster is better” by incorporating slow rituals such as yoga, meditation and even slow cooking into our lives.
We also discussed the virtues of slow thinking, which to Carl means doing things as well as possible rather than as quickly as possible, and examples of corporations, such as IBM and Google, who incorporate this concept into their employees’ workdays. Here’s my helpful conversation with Carl Honoré.
Carl, as I was preparing to talk with you today, I said to my partner, “Hey, I need to go speed-read this book on In Praise of Slowness.” I’m sure you’ve heard this type of joke before when people refer to your work. Even in your own bio on the flap of the book, you said that you got a speeding ticket while you were in the process of writing the book.
But what this all made me think of is what a difficult, kind of against-the-wind experience it is to explore slowness in our world and something like the slow movement in today’s world. Does it really have a chance of success?
Carl Honoré: I think it does. And I think it’s proving that day after day as it spreads and manifests itself in different ways in every walk of life. But you put your finger on something there at the start, which I think is crucial here, and that is that the idea of a slow revolution is profoundly counter-cultural because we live in a fast-forward world. The virus of hurry has infected the bloodstream. It’s infected every corner of our lives, and it does run very much against the grain so that, yes, as you say, when I was investigating the prospect of slowing down and discovering as I went along that it made sense to put on the brakes from time to time, I found myself getting a speeding ticket. [Laughs]
This is one of the ironies nowadays: is that we’re all so pumped up; we’re all so impatient that we even want to slow down fast. So I do get people writing to me or making comments along the lines of “Is there a podded version of your book? Have you thought about boiling it down to a three-minute podcast?” This is sort of where we are now, I think: that we want to slow down in a hurry.
TS: So in the face of this incredible sense of rush and hurry that we all seem to be in the midst of, what gives you hope for the slow movement?
CH: Well, two things. One, I think that we’re reaching one of those turning points in history when the tectonic plates are beginning to shift below the surface. It seems to me, if we just step back a moment and take a look at the big picture, that we have been on an upward curve of acceleration for a good century and a half, maybe more, but at least since the Industrial Revolution, when every component of our society and our lives has been getting faster and faster. I would argue that for the most part, that was doing more good than bad.
But in recent years, the pendulum has swung to the other extreme, and this obsession with doing things faster and faster, with cramming more and more into less and less time is now, I think, doing more harm than good. If you spooled back 15 years and made that argument, I think a lot of people would have said, “Yes, that makes sense to me. But we can’t do anything about it. The world is the way it is.” But I think that in the last five or six years or so, it’s become plain that the model is broken. This fast-forward, roadrunner economic system, social system, cultural approach is busted. It doesn’t work.
Look at what happened in the financial markets. We’re always being told that we cannot slow down because the economy has to go faster and faster; the money has to get faster and faster. But even money is too fast now. Look at Wall Street, London. What went wrong there, in a lot of ways, was that money got too fast. People had no time or incentive to lift up the hood to see if the engine was overheating. It was all about fast profits, fast growth, and fast turnover. And it nearly drove all of us over an economic cliff edge.
So I think that even in the financial markets, you’re starting to hear people say, “Hang on a minute, here. Faster maybe isn’t always better.” There’s a very well-known investor in the city of London called Gervais Williams who a few months ago published a book called Slow Finance. His thesis is that he’s a free marketeer, he’s a money manager, he believes in competition and in doing the best you can do and so on, but he has also realized along the way that the markets and the economy and businesses in many cases are just too fast, and it’s backfiring on them. So he’s looking at ways in his book on how to bring that slow thinking—the idea that sometimes slower is better than faster—into the corporate world.
To me, that shows that the wind is starting to change, that the goalpost is starting to move, and that people are beginning to accept that more and more acceleration is not the way forward. You look at—another dimension here, I think, is the environment. It’s pretty clear that we cannot carry on along this same path. This same socio-economic model is doing such harm to the Earth that it’s just simply unsustainable to think that the planet could sustain eight, nine, ten billion people living the way the average American lives now, consuming that many resources in an average day and so on.
So I think that when you put all of these pieces together—and we’re reaching one of those turning points in history when things will change—things have to change because in a way, we haven’t got a choice.
TS: Well, I hope you’re right. I definitely sometimes feel like I’m naturally part of the slow thinking movement, meaning sometimes my mind feels kind of slow. But tell me what you mean by that—when you use a term like “slow thinking.”
CH: This is probably the moment to underline what “Slow” means with a capital “S.” It’s not about doing everything at a snail’s pace. It’s not about doing everything in slow motion. It’s about doing everything at the right speed. So there are times to be fast, and there are times to be slow, and you want to be moving through all of those different speeds in between.
Musicians use the term tempo justo, the correct tempo—the idea that each piece of music has a natural rhythm, a natural speed that is best for that piece of music. We all have our own natural tempo. We all have our own internal metronome, and if we can arrive at each moment of our day, trying to do whatever it is we are seeking to do not as fast as possible but as well as possible, then that turns everything on its head, and that is the essence of living slow.
Now, what does that mean for thinking? Well, what we know more and more about the way the brain operates is that there are various gears in our heads. There’s what some people call “system one” and “system two” or fast thinking and slow thinking. Fast thinking is that sort of intuitive stuff we do when we make a snap decision. Sometimes that can be very accurate, sometimes a little less so. Slow thinking is about shifting into a slower gear, taking more time, reflecting, pondering, mulling, daydreaming—doing all those things that seem a little bit countercultural at the moment because they take time.
But actually, what we know from the research is that when people slip into that slow thinking mode, when we’re in a relaxed, mellow state, the brainwaves move around in the head in richer, more nuanced patterns, and we get those moments of breakthrough insight, those flashes of genius, those eureka moments that we’re all seeking. Psychologists refer to that as slow thinking.
And we all know it in our own lives, don’t we? That our best ideas seldom come when we’re juggling 24 emails or rushing to meet a 5:00 deadline or racing to finish a report while our impatient boss hovers at our shoulder. No. They come when we’re soaking in the bath or walking in the park or swinging in a hammock. When we’re in that slow mode, your mind just moves into a different gear.
You need to have both gears and have various gears. I think more and more you’re seeing people understanding that and creating space, even in fast environments, whether it’s in Silicon Valley or banks, to try and create moments when people can tap into that deeper, richer, more creative, more fertile form of thinking that you rightly call slow thinking.
TS: Now, I just want to clarify something that you’re saying because I think it’s really important here at the outset. You’re really defining “slow” more as balance than as just being at a snail’s pace. Is that correct?
CH: Yes, absolutely. I would stand on the rooftops and shout that into the four winds: that that is the absolute quintessence of this slow revolution—is that it’s not about replacing the cult of speed with the cult of slowness. I cannot think personally of anything worse than doing everything slowly—not least because actually my personal tempo, my metronome, is actually quite a fast one. So I find it insufferable to be pushed into doing everything slowly. That would be just as much folly as doing everything fast. The “Slow” revolution, “Slow” with a capital “S,” is about doing things at the right speed.
So there are times to be quick, times to be slow, and then sometimes there are times just not to have any speed at all, just to be still, to be quiet, to do nothing at all. So it’s about—balance is another way to put it. It’s about finding the right equilibrium in terms of different speeds. It’s about remembering that there is “good slow” and “bad slow.”
[Laughs] I had to change an airline ticket the other day. I called up one of those help lines, and I was left on hold for 40 minutes, listening to Enya on a constant loop. And I could tell you that that is bad slow. But you know, I think the revolutionary idea is that people are beginning to grasp that there is such a thing as good slow. You know? Good slow is taking the time at work, for instance, to look at a problem from every angle so that you can make the best decision and get the solution right the first time. Good slow could be as simple as just getting enough sleep or reading a bedtime story to your children without skipping pages and lines.
So I think that’s really what we’re at here is good slow/bad slow—and by the same token, good fast and bad fast.
TS: I want to talk more about some of the ways that the slow movement is looking at redesigning our world, redesigning cities and redesigning all kinds of things, our education system—but before we go there, the thing that was really striking me when I was thinking about my own habits of speed is first of all that there seems to be a type of addictive quality to moving quickly that I see in my life and the lives of many people—meaning we almost seem to enjoy being busy.
You know, “I’m an important person. I’m very busy. I have a lot to do.” And I almost build, sometimes, my schedule so that there will be that adrenaline rush and sense of importance that comes with that. So I wonder what you think about this addiction and the cult of speed that we find ourselves in.
CH: No question. I think that speed is a kind of drug, and we are collectively speed junkies, and I think we’re addicted to it on two levels. One is this sort of social-cultural level that you mentioned there—that there is such a social imperative to be busy. We feel like—if there’s an empty space in our schedule, we don’t rejoice and think, “Oh, there’s a moment to rest, to reflect, to recharge.” We panic, and we rush to fill it with some more activity.
[Laughs] You meet people in the street nowadays, and you say, “Hi. How are you doing?” People say, “Busy.” It’s kind of a badge of honor now to be busy, and somehow not to be busy is seen as a mark of failure or a lack of—people being uninterested in you.
And I think we’ve sort of painted ourselves into a corner where we can feel in our bones that this busyness is actually backfiring, that it’s eroding our enjoyment of life and making us less productive and getting in the way of our personal relationships. But we still find it hard to let go of because the taboo against not being busy, you know, the opposite of constant busyness, the taboo against that runs so deep that it’s even built into our vernacular. We talk about “down time,” “dead time.” These are pejorative terms to describe what should be a good thing, which is time when you’re not racing the clock, time when you’re not juggling four things, time when you can breathe for a moment. That’s absolutely crucial.
And then coming back to the second element here of addiction: I think there’s a physical component, almost a chemical addiction to speed that—we know, as we start to look into the way the brain works and so on, that when people are in that busy, fast-moving state, there’s a kind of adrenaline rush. You know, you get—the limbic system lights up, and you’re getting dopamine and things fired into the bloodstream. And that gives us a little kick, a little thrill. And that’s addictive. And we come back for it more and more.
We’re hardwired for the quick fix and the rush that we get from delivering one. So we end up in a cycle where we get a little bit of a dopamine squirt, a little bit of excitement, and we go back and back and back, so that even when intellectually we’ve decided that this running around and chasing our tail, this carousel of quick fixes, is not working for us—and let’s say we do take the first step and jump off the carousel, what happens? We start to fidget because like a drug addict coming off of heroin, we get withdrawal systems in the early stages. We start to panic and get a bit restless, and then we reach out for something else to replace that stimulation.
So there’s no question. I think it’s a perfect metaphor to describe where we are individually and collectively and also physically and emotionally and intellectually is speed junkies. This is a kind of addiction, and addictions are hard to break. They take time to break. But they are breakable.
TS: I would love to hear from you now from a personal perspective. It’s always useful for me, in terms of looking at an addiction, to hear from somebody who was an addict and has gone through some kind of process in working with their own addiction and how they dealt with it. So tell me a little bit about your own speed addict and hopefully breaking through, dropping the addiction to speed, yes, Carl?
CH: Yes, absolutely. I think of myself as a rehabilitated speedaholic. I still love speed. I live in London, which has a lot of speed and volcanic energy, and I play fast sports, and I like to go fast, but I’ve also learned to feel comfortable with slowing down and to reconnect with my inner tortoise, if you like. By striking that balance, I feel I’ve got control of my life again, and I’m enjoying it and living it rather than rushing through it. But that didn’t happen overnight.
It was absolutely a—you used the word “process” there. And in some ways, it may even be a lifelong process: tackling this temptation to go faster than you need to, in the same way as an alcoholic maybe is always an alcoholic. There’s always the danger you might fall off the wagon again. I think as a speedaholic, you’ve always got to be aware that you’re susceptible to that temptation to go too fast. I still feel the urge to go too quick, but at least now I have kind of brakes, I’ve built sort of systems, if you like—without wanting to sound too mechanistic about it—into my own life that allow me to resist that temptation most, if not all of the time.
So, I guess, “What are the sorts of things that I do?” One, I took a look at all of the things that I do. I do less, I suppose. And again, this profoundly runs against the cultural grain. We’re all under so much pressure to do more and more and to say yes to every work assignment and yes to every social invitation. But you cannot have it all. That’s just a recipe for hurrying.
I think a big part of slowing down is accepting that you cannot do it all and prioritizing, pinpointing the things that really matter to you socially, professionally, emotionally, in relationships and so on, and focusing on those and letting everything else go. That’s a difficult thing to do if you’ve spent a lot of time, as I had, just trying to squeeze it all in.
But that’s something that—I think of the power of slow, but it goes hand in hand with the power of no—having the discipline to say, “You know what? No. This is not important enough to occupy time. I have more important things that my time will go to.” So that’s a first thing that I began doing, and it took a while to do it, but that’s now very much the way I approach everything when I’m building my schedule for the week or the month or the year.
A second change that I made is to redesign my relationship with technology because this is one of the great drivers, I think, of our speed culture—are all of these gadgets, which are everywhere now and are wonderful. I’m no Luddite. I’ve got an iPhone and a MacBook and wifi, and I love them. [Laughs] But they all have a little red button that says “off,” and I think the problem is that we don’t tend to use that button, and that’s why we get overwhelmed.
So I’ve been very firm with my own use of technology. I keep my phone switched off a lot of the time. Many times I don’t take it with me when I know I don’t need it. I don’t take gadgets into the bedroom, ever. I have a space that’s just completely free of distractions and electronic interruptions and so on. So that’s made a big difference as well.
And then, I guess a third thing that I’ve done—I mean, there are lots of things I’ve done to make this transition happen and push it forward, but a third is to build sort of slow rituals into your daily life. That’s something that I always suggest people do. It will be different for everyone. It might be you do meditation, or gardening, or poetry, or Pilates, or whatever it is.
For me, I do yoga, which has been hugely helpful in just causing me to find that lower gear, helping me shift down. And then I’m a big fan of cooking. So I make time to cook. Cooking to me is like my daily yoga almost. So those are sort of three of the things, but there are others that we can talk about if you like, but those are kind of three things that I think are a good first step towards conquering that temptation to live in turbo.
TS: It’s interesting that you brought up cooking because I think most people that I know, when they hear “the slow movement,” they think of slow food. That’s how they’ve heard about the slow movement. Why do you think cooking is such a leverage point for slowing down?
CH: I think food is so central to our experience as people, as human beings. I mean, a) it’s basic fuel. You know, it keeps you going. It’s connected to your health and so on and to the way your mind works, but it also taps you into social connection. The English word “companion” comes from the Latin words “with” and “bread” because it’s when we sit down at table together with the telephone and the TV and everything switched off, and we break bread together, that we are at our most close, at our most human.
A big dimension to slowing down is relearning the lost art of living, of pleasure. I think one of the things we lose when we get stuck in fast-forward is pleasure because we end up skimming the surface of things, rushing through, not being fully engaged, never being completely in the moment. And I think food, when you slow down with it, is one of the activities where you notice, pretty much instantly, the sensual, the sensorial, the pleasure payoff. It could be simple food, but good food, well-made, and eaten in a human, social, civilized fashion around the table—I mean, what could be better?
And we all understand that intuitively, even if we’ve been reared on the worst diet of fast food and never really—that’s something that’s hardwired into us: that need, that yearning to eat together and the ability to appreciate food and good food well-assembled.
So I think that’s one of the reasons that slow food has been one of the spearheading strands in the slow movement in general, and it’s often the gateway movement for a lot of people to come into a broader understanding of slow—because if you’re sitting at home on the sofa, thinking “Oh man, my life is so fast it’s spinning out of control. Where do I even start slowing down?” You think, “Do I start slowing down at work? Oh, no—my boss will have my head on a plate.”
You have often much more control over your food. So that’s often a good place to start, but it’s also a place where you get the instant payoff, which is what we all like as rushed, hurried people: you know, to be able to savor and taste right away the benefits of slowness. And I think from there, often for a lot of people, like I say, slow is the gateway, and that leads to them bringing this slow ethos to other corners of their lives.
TS: Now, for people who are unfamiliar with the slow food movement, can you give me a sense of—if I want to join the movement, what does this mean? How do I approach my breakfast, lunch, and dinner differently?
CH: I think that ultimately, it’s about taking time over food. So that’s at every stage of the chain. So you think about where your food has come from: instead of buying a factory-farmed chicken, you think about buying a free-range chicken. I guess it’s about quality over quantity as well, so that’s the flip side of thinking about investing more time. And then taking the time to prepare it. You know, the joy of cooking itself can be very therapeutic. It’s, personally, my form of yoga almost. And then sitting down, with the gadgets switched off, with people that matter to you, and eating together, and chatting, and having conversation, and talking about the food, and enjoying it.
So I guess the simple thing is time; devote more time. Every person has different tastes, and everybody has a different budget. Some people think slow food is all about an Italian, loving bonne vivant who drinks fantastically expensive Barola wine and coiffed truffles.
That’s one end of slow food, but that doesn’t have to be everything. You can do something as simple as just buying some tomatoes in the local co-op, bringing them home with some garlic and a bit of basil or something, and just chopping it up, making a little pasta, and eating it outside in the garden or in the backyard with your family over some spaghetti.
You could feed a family of four for not very much on that. And get the children involved; get them chopping up the tomatoes or thinking about what goes into the food. Make it a convivial, pleasurable experience rather than a chore. And I’m not a utopian. We cannot turn every meal into a four-course banquet. There will be times when you can’t. You haven’t got time to do this stuff. But where you do have time, use it, and try and make more time.
Maybe on the weekends, you set aside a couple of hours to cook together as a family or with your partner or even on your own. Two or three dishes, you freeze them, and you can heat them up and eat them around the table during the week. It’s not a kind of rigid idea of everybody living by some nostalgic notion of every meal being put together within hours. We don’t all have an Italian mama in the kitchen to do that. But bringing some of that spirit, I suppose, to every meal, whether it’s breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
TS: Now, it’s interesting, Carl, that you mentioned pleasure and that the pleasure we can find in food when we slow down—and obviously the pleasure from slow sex. And one of the things I’ve been reflecting on in thinking of why people don’t slow down is some sense that they feel inside that they don’t deserve it. “I have more to prove in the world. I have to earn more, get more, do more because somehow inside, I don’t feel like I’m enough, or I don’t feel like I deserve pleasure.” I’m curious what you think about that—we could say the sort of psychological underpinnings, the inner hunger that has us going, going, going, going.
CH: That’s an interesting way of coming at it. I’m not sure if I think that we don’t feel we deserve pleasure because in some ways, it seems to me that as we’ve stumbled into the early 21st century, the whole consumer culture has reached its apotheosis: you know, the idea that we deserve everything, now. That’s kind of what led to that massive debt bubble that blew up in our faces in 2008. People just felt like, “Delayed gratification? Forget it! I’m just going to go out and buy whatever I want, whatever car, whatever house, whatever—and spend, spend, spend.”
So I sort of think that we feel that we deserve pleasure, goods, pleasure that we think comes with them, that we feel that we’ve got to—at the same time, there’s a lot of pressure on people to be busy and to be working and productive, so in some ways, I think we get locked into this cycle where we feel we’ve got to be working very hard, earning as much as possible, and at the same time, we feel we deserve to enjoy the fruits of that, but we tend to go a little bit too far with the fruits of that.
So we end up spending a lot of money, which often puts more pressure on to work harder. So we end up in this cycle of working, spending, debt, more work to pay off the debt to spend more—so we end up in this vicious circle where there’s a kind of race to nowhere ultimately. And the horrible irony of that is that we start off thinking that we’re driving in that direction in order to reward ourselves, in order to have pleasure, to enjoy things and to earn the status and approval of our peers that comes from working hard and being busy and stuff, but ultimately by going too fast and getting stuck in that vicious circle, it all ends up going horribly wrong because we end up racing through our lives instead of actually living them.
TS: Maybe there’s a kind of pleasure that you’re talking about that comes from a bigger house or more consumer goods, and what I’m talking about is the type of deep-relaxation, sort of in-the-moment type of sensual pleasures that—but in any case, I think the real point I’m driving at is it seems that people have some sense of poverty inside that is part of what’s creating this “drive, drive, drive, drive, drive” rushing. And I wonder how you feel that can be addressed.
CH: I think that’s very true. I think that speed becomes a way of running away from deeper problems. It almost ends up becoming a mechanism of denial, that when something’s not going right on that deeper level that you’re talking about, the spiritual, metaphysical, philosophical, whatever word you feel most comfortable using—that kind of deeper reservoir. When things are not going right there, I think people often compensate by going faster on the surface.
So you do more, you get busier, you consume more, but in a way, all of that is just a way of avoiding those deeper, big questions. So we end up in this very superficial existence where everything is about now, it’s about our to-do list, it’s about trivialities. It’s kind of “Where are my keys? I’m late for my 11:00 appointment” rather than “Who am I? What’s my purpose here? What do I want to get out of life? How can I leave the world a better place?” The big questions get pushed aside.
And I think what happens ultimately—I mean, this is what therapists often talk about speed as—there’s a final stage before burnout. There is one last burst of acceleration, of busyness and running, as though the person is trying to escape all of those deeper issues and problems and dislocations, and then, of course, you hit the wall and crash and burn.
People, by and large, do not have two burnouts. And I think that’s quite revealing because once you’ve had that burnout, that usually forces slowness on you. It forces you to look deeper, to think harder, to see the bigger picture. Very few people, I think, come back into the game, into daily life, with that same roadrunner craziness and frenetic busyness.
They may go back to the same job, but I think they go back with a slower spirit, and they go back making more time for that depth, that meaning, that understanding of enjoying the moment that you described a moment ago that we do end up denying ourselves but which is ultimately one of the main objectives of the slow movement: to recuperate that, to bring that back into not just something we do on holiday or on the weekends but something that is part of every day—that we arrive at every moment fully engaged, fully there, and living that moment completely rather than scatterbrained, trying to get through four moments at once.
TS: Now, Carl, this is a kind of strange question, but it’s something that I’ve actually really been reflecting on. I’m really curious what you have to say about it, which is: often people say, “Well, you know, the culture is causing me to do, x, y, z. It’s the culture that has me needing to keep up on my email or needing to make more money or whatever.” And the question that comes to me is “Isn’t culture a product of all of us?” What is this thing called culture that people say is sort of outside of them, working on them? What do you think about that?
CH: I think it’s true that people say that. And I think that’s people’s experience. I think they’re not just inventing that as an excuse. I think people do genuinely feel that there’s a lot of pressure from outside because, you know, we are social animals. We’re wired to worry about what other people are doing, to keep up with the Joneses, to worry about what the Joneses are doing, to try and fit in. That’s what we are as human beings.
In some ways, that’s wonderful, and it can lead humanity, and it can lead us individually into some beautiful places, but, of course, it has a dark side as well. And I think that when you get to a state when the—most people are painted into that sort of hysterical mode of going faster and faster and doing more and more in less and less time, on the individual level, the micro, you end up with a macro culture that pushes people. So to some extent, I think that it’s true that people do feel pressure from outside, but I think it doesn’t give the whole picture because I think a lot of the drive to go faster comes from within, comes from each of us individually.
And we do have the scope and the lever to stop that if we have the courage and the imagination to do so. So that brings me back to the very first question you were asking about where I felt this is going and how optimistic I was. One of the reasons I am optimistic is that a lot of this comes down to the personal. A lot of this starts with one person waking up one morning and just saying, “You know what? I am not going to race through every moment of this day. I’m going to approach this day differently.”
Any social movement that has turned the world upside down is driven from the grassroots. It’s driven by people waking up and having those “aha!” moments, whether it’s the feminist movement or the civil rights movement or the environmental movement. That pressure comes from below, comes from a grassroots groundswell. And every grassroots groundswell is built by millions of people changing their behavior and changing their attitude. So I think yes, there is pressure, collectively and culturally—there’s no question. But it’s not irresistible. And who can change culture? We can.
TS: I like that. Wonderful. Now, I mentioned that I wanted to make sure that we talked about some of the different aspects of the slow movement, and we’ve briefly touched on slow food, and we’ve at least said the words “slow sex.” I’m curious what else, where you think the real examples of the slow movement in action are in the world today?
CH: It really is right across the spectrum. There’s a big movement in the—there’s the slow cities movement, slow design, slow—rethinking how we build cities to give people the space and the time and encourage them to put on the brakes and smell the proverbial roses. So, whether it’s closing streets to traffic, putting in more park benches in public spaces, putting in more green space, trying to rethink the urban landscape in ways that encourage people to slow down.
I live in London, in England, a big, bustling metropolis. We now have thousands of public bikes everywhere, parked all over the place. You just go up and put your membership card in, and you just ride them off, and you leave them in another spot. And that’s—having all of those bikes in the street all of the time has changed the dynamic in the streets. I drive as well as cycling, and you feel it differently. There’s a different feel in the road. There’s a kind of slower idea of how to get around London. I think having so many bikes present there is one reason for that.
You see a lot of this slow thinking pushing into the world of work. When it comes to technology, for instance, big, high-tech companies telling us to switch off our gadgets, to use them less. There’s a slow email movement from IBM, which is all about checking your inbox a bit less often so that you are able to focus on your work and then come back and not be tyrannized by your email.
There are—one example is Google with its 20-percent time. It gives a lot of its engineers and creative people—are given the right to devote a fifth, 20 percent of their working time, to personal projects. So no time tables, no targets. You know, just allowed to do some slow thinking, essentially, chase hunches, get things wrong, come back, rethink. Some of the Google people refer to that as their slow time. It sounds like a charter for slackers and wasters and stuff, but actually, it turns out that more than half of the game-changing products come out of Google, like AdSense or Google Maps and so on—come out of that 20-percent time.
There’s a big push within education now to get away from this pressure to stuff children with academic learning earlier and earlier and earlier and test them over and over and over again so that marks and exam scores become more important than learning itself. A big push towards what’s called slow education, slow schooling, and you find that in North America, and you find it across Europe.
What else? Even in the fashion world. Of course, fashion is famous for being incredibly fast and throw-away and disposable and “here today and gone tomorrow”—that a lot of fashion designers are trying to embrace some of these slow principles. So, working with sustainable materials, cotton that’s fair-traded and environmentally friendly, or encouraging people to buy—
Vivian Westwood, a very famous designer from London, who’s famous for launching the punk movement and so on, still a big mover in the fashion world, she talks a lot about “Choose well, and buy less,” the idea again of quality over quantity. Instead of buying things that are just disposable, buy things that someone has made slowly, someone has made with a slow spirit, some extraordinary piece. Keep it for the rest of your life, hand it on to your children—sort of thing.
Where else? Travel: huge movement in travel to get away from—the travel industry to get away from this idea of flying to Barcelona for lunch and all that superficial experience of other countries that we have when we travel in a hurry. So there’s a big, big push within the travel industry to promote what’s called slow travel, so spending more time in one place; instead of staying in a chain hotel, you rent an apartment from a family and live in a local neighborhood and sit in the café and watch the children playing on the playground and really plug into the culture so that you have a genuine, deep experience of the place rather than a kind of box-ticking, guidebook-reading approach.
It’s a long list, and I could go on, but the bottom line here is that this slow creed, slow philosophy really is very simple, the idea that you do things as well as possible rather than as fast as possible; you seek to do them at the right speed. Once you change that chip in your head, you realize that it can revolutionize everything you do, from food to design to cities to work to education to sex; take your pick.
TS: Now, slow parenting seems like a pretty important area for exploration, especially when a child is in its earliest years. Is there attention being given to that?
CH: Oh, very much so. I mean, there’s a lot of stuff going on in that world because we’ve handed on the virus of hurry to the next generation. Our kids—nowadays, they’re born, they come out of the womb, and they hit the ground running, don’t they? It’s Baby Einstein DVD, Baby Mozart, baby sign language classes, Chinese lessons, and then they just carry on with schedules that would give a CEO heartburn.
And I think more and more, we’re realizing that that’s not working, that it’s backfiring on kids. They’re having dreadful physical, emotional problems. They’re not learning as well. There are a lot of things going wrong in our approach to children, and because of that, the backlash is on, and people are bringing this slower idea, the idea that—you know, children have to—you want to stretch them, they have to struggle, they have to strain, a bit of competition isn’t a bad thing, and sometimes they need to go fast. It’s good for them to be busy some of the time, but not all the time, not obsessively so.
Really, what children need ultimately is slowness. They need the time and the space to explore the world at their own pace, to daydream, to get bored even. We’re all so terrified of boredom now. A generation ago, a child came to a parent—I was that child—you said to your mom, “I’m bored,” and she said, “Tough. Go outside and play. Make up a game.” Now if a child comes to a parent and says “I’m bored,” the parent panics, thinks, “Oh, I’m failing. I’m failing as a parent” and rushes in there to give them some kind of stimulation or create the fun for the child.
I think by backing off, you give children that space—boredom can be a launch pad to inventing your own fun, to learning how to get along with your friends, to make sense of the world, to work out who you are rather than what your parents want you to be. Slow parenting is about giving children that freedom, giving them more of a free-range childhood so that they have their moments of being fast, but they also have some moments to slow down as well.
And that’s something that really resonates with people, I think, especially the generation of parents who can look back on their own childhood, when they did have that time to explore, to mess around, to come up with stuff on their own. And then they compare it to what they and their neighbors have been doing to their own children, where they get up in the morning and every minute of the day is organized, and starting to feel, “Is this really what we wanted for our children? Is this really what we wanted for ourselves?” Increasingly, the answer is no. And increasingly, people are turning to this slow idea to reinvent childhood for the 21st century.
TS: You know, as I’m listening to you, Carl, what’s occurring to me is that you really seem to have a type of—you might call it a generous historical view of how we got into the situation we’re in, in terms of being in such a rush—meaning that you see it as something that has happened over time, as we’ve developed certain abilities to improve our life in certain ways and technology, et cetera. And yet, now it’s gone too far. I wonder if you can just give us some insight into the historical perspective that’s informed you.
CH: I think the history is fascinating, actually, and in some ways, it’s reassuring because it shows that this is not new, that people have always felt the itch to go too fast. If you go right back to ancient Rome, when people were using sundials, when the sundials began to appear in towns and people began using them, right away, people began to feel that their time was no longer their own, that other people were measuring their time, that they had to measure up to time somehow, they had to go faster to keep the schedule, keep up the speed and so on.
And then you find, as you came into the medieval eras, people began inventing clocks and putting clocks up in town centers, that as soon as the clock went up, people began measuring themselves against the clock. They began racing the clock. They began deciding how to live in relation to the clock. And I think that’s one of the key strands here that goes all the way back—is that once you start measuring time, once you start dicing it up, time turns the tables on you, and you no longer control the time. The time, in a sense, controls you.
I think what happened was that we came into the modern era, that we suddenly created all these gadgets and machines that allowed us to go faster, to apparently steal a march on time by doing more and more with less and less time, and for awhile, as I said earlier, that worked out, probably on the whole pretty well, but we’ve entered the stage of diminishing returns now.
I come back to the fact that I am quite optimistic: I think that we can learn to unlearn some of these habits, keep the good from the measuring of time and the machines and gadgets and so on and allow them to help us live at the right speed rather than oblige us to live at the speed of software or follow the speed of the gadgets. So I think taking the bigger historical view makes me, in some ways, more optimistic.
Yes, on one hand, it shows that we’re always going to have that urge; the compulsion to go too fast is always going to be there. But at the same time, it makes you realize that “Well, you know, this has happened over a long period of time.” We’ve been on an upward curve, a very sharp curve for 100, 150 years, but the curve has been there for hundreds of years. It’s something that’s always been there. People are becoming more and more aware of it.
And mankind is very innovative and, I think, very ingenious, and I think that we can find a new way to relate to time. Even now, you see people, younger people, no longer wearing watches. I know that they have their time on the phone, but that’s already a sort of symbolic gesture. It’s saying, “I’m not gonna have the clock in my sightline”—because we know from experiments that when people look at the clock, just seeing the image of a clock begins to make us feel a little bit rushed and start worrying about time.
That’s why casinos always never have clocks and why they block out the sunlight: so we don’t see the time passing, so that we stay there in the moment. So there are levers that we can pull and different ways that we can toy around with our psychology and so on to start to get more out of this modern society than we’re getting at the moment.
TS: Now, Carl, our program is called Insights at the Edge, and I’m always curious what someone’s personal edge is. And it seems like you engaged in this whole inquiry into the power of slowness partially out of your own curiosity about your own life, and I can hear even when you speak, you’re quite a quick speaker for someone who lives and understands the power of slow. I’m curious: is this whole idea of slowness still a central question for you, or have you moved on, and if so, what is the central question at work in you now?
CH: I definitely—this is the central question for me and remains it. After I wrote my first book, which is In Praise of Slowness—but my second book was called Under Pressure, which looked at childhood really through the prism of fast and slow, and I’m just finishing my next book, which is called The Slow Fix, and that’s looking at how we solve problems without falling into the quick fix.
So for me, slow seems to me the perfect lens through which to see and think about who we are, where we’re going, what we should do next. It just opens up so many different vistas intellectually. It’s an engaging way, I think, to talk to people about their lives, about how they see the society advancing and culture changing and where the economy needs to go.
I guess in some ways, it breaks away from the old maybe left and right arguments or language that people couched arguments in. For me, the human condition, in some ways, perhaps boils down to how fast and how slowly we choose to do things because it’s not only in choosing the tempo that we determine our pleasure from an experience or how well we do it, but it also says something about how much value we place on an act or a moment.
It’s as simple as saying that if I sit down with my child, or I sit down with a friend, and I switch off my phone, and I’m completely listening to them for 20 minutes, that says a lot about my relationship, but it says a lot about how I think society should operate. It says a lot about what I think the human condition should look like. And in the same way with slow food, every time you put a morsel of food on your fork and put it in your mouth, you’re making a statement about how you think agriculture should be constituted, how farm animals—or farming should be done, what the supply chain should—so all of these things are connected, and I just think that for me, slow is a wonderful way in to these different conversations, and it remains a kind of guiding light for me, absolutely.
TS: And then just one final question, which is: I’m curious how you would help someone whose listening to this who says, “Gosh, I really do need to slow down. And Carl’s offered a lot of ideas in this conversation and different ways of looking at it, but where do I start? I know I’m a speed addict, so where do I begin?”
CH: I’ll say one thing before I give a suggestion of where to begin. I just want to underscore the fact that being slow ultimately is a state of mind, that it’s a bit like changing a chip in your head—because people often think or fear that slowing down means throwing in the towel. It means leaving the city, giving up your career, moving to the country, moving to the Rockies, growing carrots, living in a shack somewhere—and that’s one expression of slow, but it’s not the only one. And it’s one that many of us would probably run away from.
I think slow really, ultimately—and I’ve said it before, but I just want to say it once more—is getting to this notion that you arrive at every moment trying to do whatever it is as well as possible instead of as fast as possible. You’re looking for the right speed. So I guess to that person sitting there thinking, “How on Earth do I slow down?” I suppose I want to reassure them that you can do it, and you don’t necessarily have to make huge changes in your life. You probably can make huge headway towards finding your inner tortoise and living better and so on and living more fully, more slowly, by making some smaller tweaks.
I’ll come back to some of the things that I did. I think the first step for all of us when it comes to putting on the brakes is just do less. Less is more. Maybe sit down, look at the last week or the average week, write all the things that you do on a piece of paper, order them in order of priority, what’s most important and what’s least important, and you’d be surprised how easy it is to cut things at the bottom of that list.
We just fill up our schedules with fluff, with distraction, with things that are not important. And I think to see it in the cold light of day on a piece of paper, you think, “Goodness me. I devoted how many hours to watching TV, how many hours to my email in the middle of the night, how many hours to just loafing around on the internet?” I think when you see it written down, it’s often a bit of a jolt and a wakeup call. So I think that’s a good starting point.
Another—again in the same way as I slowed down—think about your use of technology. Just create a time every day when you switch everything off; you’re just not reachable. Maybe it’s an hour, starts as an hour on Saturday morning, and it grows to be most of Sunday afternoon, depending on your circumstances, but find moments when you can get off the grid.
A third suggestion is to identify some activity—as I said earlier, for me, it’s yoga and especially cooking—something that puts a brake on you, that helps you find that lower speed, that lower gear, and it sort of reeducates you into the joys of slowness. I think with those three points—I mean, even just pick one of them to start, and go with it, and don’t be impatient because slowing down takes time.
The slow revolution will be slow for all of us at the collective level, as a society, but it’s also slow as a process, as a transition, individually. So don’t get disheartened if you feel a bit fidgety, if you feel panicky, if you think, “I can’t do this. I need to speed up again.” Just stick with it. It’s worth it.
TS: Wonderful. Thank you.
I’ve been speaking with Carl Honoré. He has created with Sounds True a three-session audio teaching program on The Power of Slow: Finding Balance and Fulfillment Beyond the Cult of Speed. Thank you, Carl, for being with us on Insights at the Edge.
CH: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.
TS: SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey. Slowly we go.