Carl Honoré: Slower – Human Beings vs. Human Doings
How do you commit to slowing down in a world that demands we move fast? In this episode, we have a timely conversation with Carl Honoré, the acclaimed father of the global “Slow Movement.” In May 2019, the World Health Organization recognized burnout as an official medical diagnosis. As Carl says, “When we get stuck in fast forward … it’s harming us on every single level.” Tune in to hear Carl’s prescription for inoculating ourselves against what he calls “the global virus of hurry.”
“The culture is telling us to go faster and faster, cram more and more into less and less time. One of the main benefits of slowing down is we start to get to know ourselves better; we find and forge the right path for us through life.”
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Carl Honoré: No one ever says, my best ideas come when I’m juggling 45 emails or racing to meet a 5:00 deadline with a boss or a client breathing down my neck or on Facebook, while watching Netflix, right? It just doesn’t happen that way. Our best ideas come when we slow down. It tends to be when we’re in the shower or walking the dog or swinging in a hammock or like I was, just doing nothing, just simply being, we’re all human doings now. I was just a human being in that moment.
Manisha Thakor: Welcome to the true WELLth Podcast, where we bring you a wide range of guest experts, who provide information, inspiration and insights to help you identify what kinds of tiny tweaks or radical rebates you could make in order to more deeply aligned the way you spend your money and time with what matters most to you in life. But before we get to today’s guest, I want to ask you a question. What are you doing right now? The obvious answer would be, “Manisha, I’m listening to this podcast,” but really what else are you doing right now? Are you trying to maximize your time listening to this podcast while doing something else?
Manisha Thakor: If you’re like most people, you may be driving, cooking, cleaning out the garage or returning emails. Multitasking has become so prevalent that the notion of doing absolutely nothing besides simply sitting still and listening to a podcast almost sounds well like a complete waste of time. This brings us to our guests today. Carl Honoré, who joins us from London. Carl is often referred to as the global guru of the slow movement. His 2005 TED Talk, In Praise of Slowness, has been viewed nearly 3 million times. He’s the author of four best-selling books, which have been translated in 35 languages.
Manisha Thakor: A prolific writer and researcher and speaker. Carl’s core message is that the best way to thrive in a fast world is to slow down. Carl’s work is fascinating to me at a cultural level, but also very much on a personal level. In one of his writings he asked, “Is every moment of your day a race against the clock, are you tired, stressed, and distracted? Do you feel like you’re rushing through life instead of living it?” And up until now, when it comes to whether I identify with the states of racing, tired, stress, distracted and rushing, my answers have been a resounding yes, yes, yes, yes and yes.
Manisha Thakor: Ironically, the very week we put together this episode, my body forced me, and I mean that quite literally, to acknowledge something that I’ve known down deep down, but strongly resisted addressing, i.e. that I’m utterly exhausted from two and a half decades of working like a whirling dervish. And that if I don’t change my behavior, I’m about an inch away from crashing into the brick wall of catastrophic burnout at full speed. If any of this resonates with you, then you are in for a treat with today’s episode. So let’s dive in. Carl, as someone who’s been living life in this self-imposed fast lane for far too long, I’m curious, how did you get started on this crusade in supportive slowness?
Carl Honoré: Yeah, well that’s a very good question because I sometimes ask it of myself, “How did I become this person or how did I end up where I am today?” Because if you rewind a few years, you would find me in my road runner mode. Every moment of the day back then was just a race against the clock and I just could not slow down. And the whole idea of slowing down was just anathema to me. It was poison, it was absurd. I just, I recoiled from it and everything I did was about going faster and faster.
Carl Honoré: I think that when we get stuck in fast forward mode like that, it often does take a shock to the system or a wake up call or something that makes you realize that you have forgotten how to put on the brakes and this is doing real harm. I know a lot of people have that wake up call in the form of an illness, the body just one day says, “No, I cannot take the pace anymore,” and it’s a burnout or you can’t get out of bed one morning. But my wake up call came in a much gentler form.
Carl Honoré: It came when I started reading bedtime stories to my son and I just could not slow down. I’d go into his room and I would be speed reading Snow White, skipping lines, paragraphs. I became an expert on what I call the multiple page turn technique, which I don’t know if any parents out there will no doubt recognize. But of course it never works, right? You can’t skip stuff because kids know the lines and the stories inside out. So my son would always say to me, “Daddy, why are there only dwarves in the story tonight?”
Carl Honoré: We were always at logger heads and I could feel that this was wrong, but I just couldn’t stop because I was a marinated in the idea of speed of doing things faster and faster all the time. What stopped me was one day I caught myself flirting with buying a book I’d heard about called The One Minute Bedtime Story. So someone had taken the great tales of Hans Christian Anderson and Snow White and boiled them down into 60 second sound bites.
Carl Honoré: And I caught myself thinking, “I need that book now.” And then I had the second thought, the light bulb over the head moment. I just thought, “Whoa, has it come to this? Am I really in such a hurry I’m prepared to fob off my little boy with a sound bite instead of a story the end of the day.” And it was like an out-of-body experience, like an epiphany moment. And I just suddenly thought, “Whoa, I’ve lost my way. I’ve lost my compass, I’ve lost my mind here.” I realized then that I had to slow down and that was for me, the starting point.
Manisha Thakor: It’s the rare parent who can’t relate to Carl’s experience on some level. And even if like me, you don’t have children, most likely there are in your life some things that you’re doing with a subconscious or even conscious focus on hurrying up and maximizing time, rather than savoring the underlying ritual. For example, this morning I took a shower while listening to the news.
Manisha Thakor: As a result, I neither fully enjoyed my shower nor the morning news. Perhaps you can relate, but back to Carl, with this new found epiphany, Carl goes on to write the book In Praise Of Slowness and puts the book out there, not knowing if that will take off, given the world is not exactly receptive to slowness. Carl, what surprised you the most as your first book about the power of slow in a world of fast came out?
Carl Honoré: Two things surprised me with the publication In Praise Of Slower, in the United States, the title is In Praise And Slowness. The first is that I feared that there would be blood on the floor, it would be carnage. Especially from the corporate audience. I thought that businesses being so resistant as they are culturally and it was hardwired into business DNA that faster result was better and so on or it was certainly then.
Carl Honoré: I remember thinking, “Well I’m going to get crucified,” and it didn’t happen. In fact, the opposite happened, from day one and the book was taken up by The Economist and Financial Times, it was being hailed by Business Week all these publications that on the face of it, were cheerleaders for this fast forward, speed culture in the workplace, had just landed on the book and said, This is what we need and we need it now.” So that was my first surprise.
Carl Honoré: The other surprise is a more deep and maybe existential one, which is that I would hear from readers and I still do, even now, will hear from readers right away saying, “Thank you for giving me permission to slow down.” And there was something about that word that really caught me off guard. I thought, “Well, why do you need permission? Why do you need someone else to tell you it’s okay to slow down? Why do you feel you need to be permitted to do?”
Carl Honoré: And it got me thinking about something that I’d obviously looked at in the book, which was that a lot of what locks us into this dash to the finish line, fast forward, multitasking, do everything faster, do several things at once culture, is the taboo against slowing down. That slow is a dirty word in our culture. It’s less so now, all those years since my book came out, partly because of this whole slow evolution and slow movement. But certainly when the book came out, it was very much a pejorative term. It was a four letter word, it was a by letter slow is a byword for stupid, unproductive, lazy, boring, unmodern, unhappy, roadkill, nobody wanted to be seen to be slow.
Carl Honoré: I think that, that taboo is so deeply ingrained in our culture that people, even when they yearn to slow down, even when they were desperate, they could feel in their bones it would be good for them to put on the brakes. They wouldn’t do it because of this taboo. They would feel guilty or ashamed or afraid. I think that was where the permission thing came in. It was almost like someone coming from outside their lives and saying, “You know what?” Putting a gentle hand on the shoulder and saying, “You know what? It’s okay. You can exhale. You can slow down. It will be okay. It’s going to be fine.”
Carl Honoré: And normally we’ll be fine, but actually you’re going to live a lot better. You’ll work better, you’ll make love better. You’ll raise your… everything will be better. It’s not just that it’ll be okay. It’ll actually be pretty wonderful. And I think for a lot of people that was just a sense of… Finally someone has made the case, the case is compelling. I’ve known it in my bones, now I can do something about it. So those were my two surprises, I suppose when the book first came out.
Manisha Thakor: The idea of permission to slow down reminded me of the Japanese concept of inemuri. Google the phrase Japanese salary men and see what you find or visit our show notes, where we have some fascinating articles and videos demonstrating the Japanese custom of white collar workers sleeping in public.
Manisha Thakor: Sometimes literally passed out in the streets, sleeping in their suits and with our western minds, we see these images and may have judgments, more on that in a bit. For now, I wanted to know if Carl felt we had made any progress in the corporate world, relative to what it was like in 2005, the year in which he made his now viral TED Talk, In Praise Of Slowness.
Carl Honoré: I think we’ve made slow and grudging progress. There has not been seismic shift in the corporate world towards slowing down, definitely not. I’m not a Utopian and I am very clear eyed and I am skeptical and any I need to see the numbers and the facts. And the facts are not there, we have a long way to go. But we have come a long way at the same time.
Carl Honoré: I mean, just one example is the explosion, the boom of mindfulness programs and training that you find across the corporate world, which I think 15 years ago, when I stood up and did the TED Talk, preaching, the virtues and the power and the joy of slowing down, that whole kind of meditation, mindfulness thing hadn’t really crested. It wasn’t really on the radar, certainly in the corporate world back then.
Carl Honoré: Maybe in some forward looking, slightly hippie-ish companies in southern California or Silicon Valley, but now it’s completely mainstream, right? And it’s something that I think 15 years ago people would have looked at mindfulness and meditation as a waste of time. They’d say, “Well, you’re doing nothing. You’re just breathing. That’s clearly a waste of time.” Whereas now, there’s much more of an understanding, and it comes back to this idea of shifting gears, that in order to thrive in a fast workplace, you need moments of slowness.
Carl Honoré: You need to have injections of calm, of tranquility, of serenity. And meditation and mindfulness brings that into the corporate world in a very easy and meaningful way, which is why companies of all sizes and shapes in all sectors of the economy are carving out moments and times when staff can slow down. Well sometimes it’s not just mindfulness, there might be quiet rooms for doing yoga or listening to whale music or even napping is making a comeback and the siesta.
Carl Honoré: Not the traditional Spanish siesta, have a bottle of wine and two hours sleep. I mean that one’s probably best kept for a slow travel holiday. But a more modern siesta, like maybe a bottle of water followed by 20, what’d they say, 20, 24 minutes is recommended by NASA to return in the afternoon recharged and refreshed. You know, so more and more you’re finding companies looking for ways to allow staff to shift into a slower gear, so that when they have to speed up, they’re able to do the fast thing better.
Manisha Thakor: So let’s go back to the Japanese concept of inemuri. inemuri is not laziness, literally translated, it means to be present while you are sleeping. In Japan, it’s a culturally honorable sign that you’ve worked so hard your body is literally forcing you to refresh through sleep. Now, this is an interesting paradox to ponder. On one side you could argue it’s horrible that you’re working so hard that you literally can’t help but fall asleep at work.
Manisha Thakor: But on the flip side, you could argue it’s wonderful that there is cultural permission to sleep at work, that there is support for the body’s natural need to pause and rest or said slightly differently, it raises such questions as, “Will taking a 10 minute cat nap on a bench outside your office building be more nourishing and joy producing than say, scrolling through Instagram for 10 minutes.” There’s no one size fits all right or wrong answer. The key to finding the right fix for you, pun intended, is in asking the question. Carl, as the prophet of the slow movement, do you reject all things fast?
Carl Honoré: Well, I mean I play both squash and hockey and I do love fast sports, but the way I play them has shifted. I mean I think one of the things that… Whatever sport you like, if you like sports and you watch especially team sports or not even team sports, let’s think of tennis as well. That the greatest athletes, the one thing they all have in common is that they’re never rushed, right?
Carl Honoré: They know when to go fast and when to go slow. And when they’re fast, they have a kind of internal stillness that allows them to exploit the moment, to find the right pass, to get the right angle, to pull off the right shot, to make the right block or whatever sport you’re talking about. And I feel like there was a kind of frenzy, a little bit about my play as a sportsman or as an athlete before and now I’ve played with much more calm. I’m playing fast sports, but I’m playing it with a slow spirit.
Manisha Thakor: Yeah, that reminds me of watching any great athlete or dancer, they seem to almost effortlessly float while doing what are clearly physically taxing movements.
Carl Honoré: Yeah, those players just, they do not panic. And even in the moments when things are moving at almost superhuman speed, mind blurring pace, they are the calm eye of the storm. That is what defines great athletes and great athletes. Of course, even away from the arena, the pitch, the field, they understand the power of slowing down. So they will train hard, but they will also rest a lot, they will shift gears. So it’s woven into their training and preparation, as well as the way they play the sport in the game itself.
Manisha Thakor: Carl, how do you commit to slowing down when the world around us demands living fast?
Carl Honoré: Well, I guess it depends how you define living fast. I mean I break it down to acts, rather than living. So I would say there are absolutely times when you want to be fast, coming back to sports. I mean Serena Williams, she’s got to be fast when someone hits a lob hit over her head and she’s got to rush back to the baseline. But after the match, when she’s resting her muscles and got out of the ice bath, she wants to slow down, right?
Carl Honoré: And it’s a very simple metaphor, but it’s one I think that applies to everything. This whole slow creed is not about doing everything at the speed of a tortoise, in snail mode that would be ridiculous. I’m not an extremist or fundamentalist of slowness. I love speed and faster is often better, clearly you’ve got to be fast sometimes. And I love fast, right? I love squash and hockey because they’re fast and I love the buzz of a good deadline and having to move quickly in the workplace sometimes, but not all the time.
Carl Honoré: I think that’s the key really. It’s about finding the right speed. It’s about saying, “Okay, sure, this is a moment now to hit the gas pedal. And this is a moment now, just to ease off a little bit. And this is the moment to be somewhere in between the two, right? Or here’s a moment to be completely stopped and still.” So I certainly don’t want this whole slow culture quake to be about demonizing speed and saying we should move from fast to slow, far from it.
Carl Honoré: I’m saying, let’s be sensible, let’s be wise, let’s be human and humane about our choices. Let’s make the right choices so that we can be fast when we need to be fast and slow when slowness is the best option. Whether that’s at work, whether it’s with our children, whether it’s in bed with our partner, whether it’s walking down the street or playing a sport, whether it’s cooking and eating, it applies right across the board.
Carl Honoré: A very simple idea, you just try and do things at the right speed. What musicians call the tempo giusto, right? The correct tempo, the correct speed or rhythm or pace for every moment. Very simple idea, but very powerful and revolutionary in a time addicted to speed and addicted to the idea that faster is always better. It’s so counter cultural to say, “Hang on a minute, maybe faster isn’t always better.?
Manisha Thakor: Carl, you speak literally all over the globe on this topic. Is there one country that really stands out to you as one that’s getting it right and which we should look to for inspiration?
Carl Honoré: Well what I always shy away from doing is nominating one country or culture as the gold standard saying, “These people are the paragons, we all need to do exactly what they’re doing.” Because I don’t think any country has got it all right. The virus of hurry has pretty much infected every culture around the globe and it manifests itself in different ways. So see, you’ll find cultures that are really good at slow in one way. Let’s take Italy for instance, right.
Carl Honoré: And Italians are famously good at doing slow with food, around the table, all that social stuff, sitting together. They’ve got the slow cities movement, which is for smaller towns and redesigning the urban landscape in ways that encourage citizens to smell the roses and slow down, enjoy their lives, all that dolce far niente, all that kind of culture. So we think Italians, great, they’re the sultans of slow. But actually if you’ve ever driven on an Italian highway, you know that the Italians have also been bitten by the speed bug too, right?
Carl Honoré: So there’s no culture that I would put on a pedestal and say, “We need to do everything they’re doing.” That said, there are certainly some cultures that are better in some ways than others at at slowing down. I think, where does the US rank? I think certainly the workplace, the workplace culture, I think the US definitely could learn a lot from other places. Scandinavia being one of them. If you look at northern European countries, you could throw Germany and Holland in there as well.
Carl Honoré: I mean these countries work many fewer hours than Americans do and yet their economies are among the most productive and successful and competitive in the world. They’ve got high rates of productivity, very healthy populations. They’re not exactly the same as the US, you couldn’t just bring in the German model or import the Finnish model or whatever. But the idea that working less can mean working better, that spending more time with your family, is a good thing to aspire to for society. Those are things I think probably the American culture could warm to, I think to its own benefit.
Manisha Thakor: We’ve talked about work, but what about or personal lives? For example, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found myself rushing to go to yoga class, fully grasping the irony of that.
Carl Honoré: I think that’s the whole way that modern capitalism is set up, the productivity drives us to do more and more with less and less time because that often rewards it with more money. There’s another push here, which is the whole world has become this enormous smorgasbord or buffet of things to consume. So the consumer culture, so even when we’re off the clock at work, we’re on Amazon buying more stuff, right?
Carl Honoré: So those lines have blurred, we’re even approaching our leisure time with this kind of productivity mindset, the sort of time as money idea, that we’ve got this time here, whether it’s at work or home and how do we get the most out of that time? Well, the culture is telling us go faster and faster, cram more and more into less and less time. I think technology of course has allowed us now to do things faster and faster. That flips the tables, creates expectations that everything’s now going to happen to the speed of a screen swipe or the click of a button.
Carl Honoré: So those are some of the factors that are going on here. I think there’s an a deeper metaphysical angle, which is that for a lot of people, speed, busyness become an instrument of denial. They become a way of running away from the big questions in our lives like, “Who am I? What’s my purpose here? What kind of life am I living? Am I living the right life for me? Are my family well?”
Carl Honoré: Those can be frightening, unnerving questions to confront and sometimes it’s easier just to get fast, be busy, be distracted and sweat the small stuff, just confront the small questions like, “Where are my keys? I’m late for my 11:00 AM.” That’s a lot easier than doing the deeper stuff, but the deeper stuff is where real life resides. It’s by confronting and grappling with those big questions that we find out who we really are and live the life we’re really supposed to live.
Carl Honoré: So that’s one of the main benefits I think of slowing down, is we start to get to know ourselves better. We find and forge the right path for us through life. Your second question was what toll is it taking on us? Well, I guess it’s the flip side of all the things I’ve just enumerated there. When we get stuck in fast forward, it takes a toll on everything, from our health and diet, to relationships, families and communities. It takes a toll on our ability to think, to listen, to innovate, to create, to work efficiently.
Carl Honoré: It’s taking a toll on the environment. This whole kind of turbo production, turbo consumption approach to daily life. It’s just harming us on every single level and I think that’s why right across the globe you find more and more people rallying to the idea that hang on a minute, maybe there’s a role for slowness in the 21st century. Maybe an important role to be had and that’s why this slow movement, ironically a delicious irony, is growing quickly.
Manisha Thakor: From Managua to Mumbai, we are clearly living in a globe, inextricably linked via technology. Carl, how can you reconcile a desire to embrace the best of slow in a world where absent to moving into an igloo in Antarctica, social media and the speed of intensity of life that comes with it is nearly impossible to avoid?
Carl Honoré: No, exactly and I’m not a Luddite, right? I mean I love social media. It’s great fun and it does add an extra layer to our communication. The trouble is when it replaces all the other kind of communication, because I think of social media almost as fast communication and the slow stuff is what we really need, which we’ve always had, which is just simply being together in the physical world with another person, no distraction.
Carl Honoré: Just being there, talking, looking at each other, maybe touching, sometimes sitting in awkward silence, right, which never happens online because you can just move on to the next stream or chat, whatever it is. And we need all of that. We need the slow stuff, we need the fast stuff and if you have the two together, that’s glorious. That’s the best kind of communication. I think a lot of people though, fall into the trap of having much more of the fast communication and missing out on the slow and of course nobody lies on their death bed and looks back and thinks, “I wish I spent more time on Facebook.”
Carl Honoré: We look back and think, “I wish I’d spent more time reading bedtime stories to my children or just going for walk with my partner, or sitting with my grandmother in the back garden and just hearing her stories.” Those are the things that light us up and make us human and give life meaning and texture and color. So you asked me what did I do? I just started favoring more of the slow side of that communication equation. So I would A: make sure I had more time to be with the people I was with.
Carl Honoré: But not only was I dedicating more time to them, but I was actually there 100% in body and soul. I started switching off my phone. My two favorite words these days are airplane mode. So I was there, I wasn’t distracted by my phone vibrating in my pocket. I also began to rewire my own approach to listening because listening is something else I think we’ve lost in this culture of speed and distraction.
Carl Honoré: We’ve lost the art of really listening to other people because these days when we’re in a position where we’re supposed to be listening, very often we’re not listening. We’re thinking about our phone or wondering about our to do list, or we’re just reloading, waiting for the person to take a breath, so we can jump in and say what we want to say. I found that I had gotten to that in my fast time. I had got into not really listening to people. I was just kind of waiting for them to stop so I could just start talking or I wasn’t even paying attention.
Carl Honoré: So I began to practice what people call, I mean, I call it slow listening, but other people call it mindful listening or deep listening or whatever. Just simply reminding myself when I’m with someone to actually make an effort, almost like a physical effort to listen, to repeat some of the things they’ve said to me, back to them. Not in a creepy way, but just in a way that kind of just nudges you back deeper into the moment with that person and at first it’s a little unnatural and a bit uncomfortable and it feels a bit weird. But it pretty quickly becomes natural.
Carl Honoré: I find now that I’m such a better listener and people say that, people realize that they’re around someone who is actually listening. It makes a huge difference when, in a world where no one’s listening to you, when you meet someone who’s listening, that just ramps up and deepens the exchange you have with someone. Whether it’s a friend, a colleague, or a lover or a partner or a parent or whatever. It makes such a palpable difference to the experience when people are really listening. So those are some of the things that I did myself in my own life and have not looked back since.
Manisha Thakor: As my conversation with Carl came to a close, my mind wandered back to history class and the early days of the Industrial Revolution. As with so many things in life, the pendulum of progress swung way too far in one direction before coming back to a reasonable center point. In this case, workers had to fight hard for what I’ll call the 8/8/8 rule. In other words, for the right to have eight hours a day of work, eight hours for sleep and eight hours for recreation.
Manisha Thakor: Of course, if you add hours on to any one of those buckets, you have to take them away from another. Fast forward to the modern world and perhaps it’s time to start thinking about days of 8/8/8 once again. In other words, rather than thinking about time from a mindset of scarcity, shifting to a mindset of setting boundaries and optimizing the quality of time spent in each of those buckets. In my personal case, I’ve long identified or perhaps better stated over identified with my work.
Manisha Thakor: Like a well-watered and properly fertilized ivy vine, my work has managed to weave its way into any open nook and cranny of my life. Absent some intentional pruning and proactive placement of guard rails going forward, work will continue as it has for far too long in my life. Taking away from recreation and increasingly from sleep. And yet as Carl found out in both his own life and from the feedback of others, who have encountered his work, often the ‘fastest’ way to increase work productivity and life enjoyment is to slow way down, be present and single focused.
Manisha Thakor: So let’s go back to my original question. Did you feel you are fully present while listening to this podcast? No matter what your answer, a great ending point for today’s show is to ask yourself these two questions. First, what is a recent experience where you remember yourself slowly savoring being present? And second, what adjustments to your actions or your mindset can you make that would enable you to slowly savor whatever numerical breakdown of the 8/8/8 formula you’d like to live by?
Manisha Thakor: As usual, don’t forget to visit the show notes for this episode at truewellthpodcast.com. There you will find links to Carl’s website, books, online course, and just some very interesting articles and YouTube videos about what the Japanese would refer to as the culture of salary men. Lastly, if you enjoyed this episode, we’d be grateful if you’d recommend the podcast to your friends and family and/or leave us a written review on iTunes. I’m Manisha Thakor and that’s it for this episode of true WELLth.
Automated Voice: The true WELLth Podcast is made possible by Brighton Jones, financial wellbeing firm founded 20 years ago in Seattle. Today, Brighton Jones helps their clients with their balance sheets and beyond in markets all across the nation. Learn more about how you can leverage your life at brightonjones.com. Today’s show was produced and edited by Stan Hall with help from Michael Stubel, Marc Asmus, Chris Sylvester, and John Dougherty. To get in touch with the true WELLth team, drop us a line to truewellthpodcast.com.