Carl Honoré was a speedaholic – like many among us who live in fast-forward, trying to cram as much activity as possible into never-enough time. Until one day… well, let's not rush ahead.
I met Carl last summer when he spoke at TEDGLOBAL in Oxford. Met him again today at the GDI Institute in Zurich where he was giving a keynote speech. Tomorrow I will interview him at another event there – sorry, it's sold out. Carl is the author of a book called "In praise of Slow". It is one of those books that can change your life – at least for a few hours, and potentially forever – for it explores a worldwide movement-in-the-making towards slowing down, finding a balance, and living better. It's a movement that, apart from the Slow Food phenomenon, most haven't probably noticed too much, maybe because it's moving at a pace too slow for our hyperhurried cognitive system to notice. But Carl has tracked slow cities, slow music, slow healthcare, slow schools, slow sex, and much more: everyone is interested in slowness these days, apparently – although many may be so impatient that they want to slow down fast.
Here are my running notes (in Carl's own voice) of today's speech:
We live in a culture obsessed with speed. For many, every moment of the day feels like a race against the clock, to the point that – like US actress Carry Fisher says – "even instant gratification today takes too long".
Even things that are by their very nature slow, we try to speed those up, too: there are "speed yoga" classes in some cities, and I just discovered "drive-through funerals" in the US. These are extreme examples, but they underline a very serious point: today we are so marinated in this culture of speed that we lose sight of the toll it takes on our life, work, health, relationships, environment.
When we get stuck in roadrunner mode, it takes a jolt to change. For many it comes in the form of an illness: the body says that you need to slow down, you burn out (younger and younger). Or as a dying relationship, because we haven't taken the time to nurture it.
My wake-up call came when I started to read bedtime stories to my son and I was so stressed that I was speed-reading, skipping paragraphs and pages; but like every kid my son knows the book inside-out, so he started protesting, and what should be the most tender moment of the day became a sort of battle between my speed and his slowness. This went on for some time until I was running through an airport and reading the paper and found an article with references to a book about "one-minute bedtime stories". My first thought was: halleluya, what a great idea, I need this book. But thankfully I caught myself: am I really in such a hurry that I am ready to shortchange my son?
I got on the plane and for the first time in a long time during the flight I didn't do anything – no book, no laptop - but think, and by the time I got to Heathrow I decided I wanted to do something – and since I'm a journalist I wanted to write, and two questions were already forming in my head: how did we get so fast? And: is it possible, or even desirable, to slow down?
How did we get here? There are obvious reasons: urbanization, competition pushing us, technology, consumerism (the culture of "having it all"). But the unifying thing is our relationship with time: time flies from A to B, it's a finite resource, our own mortality is somehow a reason, an excuse to turn every minute of the day into a dash, a sprint – "time is money", "faster is better".
Can we break free from that mindset? There is a worldwide movement of people that go against the conventional wisdom that if you slow down you're a loser. Actually, if you slow down you live better, work more efficiently, relate to other better, get more pleasure.
To talk about the Slow movement, we should start with food. So much of what we consume is bad food eaten badly – in the car, on the sofa, at the desk. Not only we lose the pleasure, but we become unhealthy. "Slow food" is the tip of the iceberg, and it's accompanied by the renaissance of the farmers markets, the growth of organic farming, the new trend towards family dinners, the handmade breads and cheeses and small-breweries beers. Out of Slow food has come a movement called Slow cities, which started in Italy: the idea that you can redesign the urban landscapes to allow people to live better, doing both simple and more complex things, from putting down a park bench to curb traffic to closing streets and make them pedestrian. It's a philosophical declaration, and it's spreading around the world. Or think of medicine: the medical profession is another sphere of human activity that has been infected with the virus of hurry (in the UK the average length of a medical consultation is barely 6 minutes), but there are doctors who start to take the time to really talk with patients, and alternative therapies such as acupuncture or massages are part of this, too.
The same thing is happening in the bedroom: there is an awful lot of fast sex out there these days, we find it so hard to "be in the moment" because we are in so many places at the same time that we are unable to fully be with our lover, and of course we are always in a hurry. (He quotes a headline of a men's magazine: "Bring her to orgasm in 30 seconds").
And in the workplace – that engine of speed. There too there is a big rethinking going on: working hours tend to come down, working less often means working better (but of course it's a mixed picture: the French 35-hours-week is too much, too soon); if you do everything quickly you are prone to make mistakes, the quality of your work is generally lower. We've lost the race for working hours against the Chinese anyway, and our future is in the value added, the creativity, and and for that our brain needs time for relaxation. Some companies are introducing modern forms of "siesta", and pushing people to turn off the Blackberry and cellphones on evenings and weekends, and mandating email-free days; a senior manager at IBM signs off his emails like this: "Read your email just twice a day; recapture your life's time and relearn to dream. Join the slow email movement!".
Kids also need slowness – and yet they're overwhelmed with homework, sports and other activities. Here too a backlash is starting: a posh school in Britain for example banned homework for all pupils under age 13; the parents – all type-A go-go people – were appalled; the headmaster took a stand, and a year later the school's average marks in math and science are up 20 percent. At Harvard, every first-year student is sent a letter about "getting more out of Harvard by doing less" – reach for the stars, but in order to do that you need to take time off, walk the campus, daydream. The message is that slower can be better and less is often more.
Of course, it's hard to do. When I was researching my book on slowness I got a speeding ticket while driving to a Slow food dinner… Why do we find it so hard? Because speed is fun, sexy, exciting, it's an adrenaline rush, and if somebody takes it away, instead of enjoying the stillness we sort of panic. Also, speed is an instrument of denial: if you go fast you don't have the time to ask the main questions in life. But the main obstacle, I believe, is the cultural taboo: "slow" is a bad word in our culture, it is a synonim for lazy or slacker or even stupid. People are afraid that they will be left behind if they slow down. But that's by far not the case. Fifteen years ago the only people interested in slow would have been burned-out executives, but now it is the iPod generation that's interested in Slow. Slow London was launched by an überactive young consultant (and is spreading to other cities). Companies are also becoming interested in slow. I get asked often to speak at corporate events. Orange in the UK used recently a slogan saying "Good Things Happen When Your Phone's Off"; VW launched the new Beetle in certain countries with the slogan "go slow"; slow is becoming "good". After 150 years of constant acceleration, where increasing speed has mainly been good, we have reached the point of diminishing returns, where speed is doing more bad than good.
Slow is not about doing everything slowly. It's a struggle, probably no one will ever achieve the perfect balance – probably even the Dalai Lama goes too fast sometimes. I live in a fast city (London), work in a fast industry (media), play fast sports (hockey, squash). Slow is about choosing the right speed, re-learning the lost art of shifting gears, finding a balance. I offer myself as exhibit A that it's possible. I am a rehabilitated speedaholic. I personally feel a lot happier, healthier, energetic – we think of slowing down as lazy and boring, but in reality you have more energy, get more done in less time by working more slowly. And my relationships feel stronger, I feel more connected to the people around me, I'm not trying to move across relationships and friendships at fast pace anymore.
After Carl's speech, many people rushed outside to check their voicemail. I felt the same urge - but resisted. For a few hours.