Carl Honoré has written himself into an ironic pickle.
The author of the 2004’s international bestseller, In Praise of Slow, which was published just as the world was beginning to worry about how speed-addicted it had become, has found his “furrow to plough” in the slow movement. The success of his first book allowed him to leave his job at The National Post, where he wrote about Europe from London, in order to consult and give talks on the dangers of thinking that fast is always better. His new book, The Slow Fix, discusses how we can think better, work better and have better relationships, if we get off the quick-fix merry-go-round and adopt slower, truer approaches – all of which he details. If the first book was a clarion call, this one is more of a how-to. Slow fixes include admitting mistakes in order to learn from them, collaboration, focusing on details (yes, sweating the small stuff), patience, thinking long term and humility.
He has become an expert, in other words, someone whom others seek out for short-cut – dare I say quick? – answers to their problems. How does he reconcile that position with his message?
“I feel that I’m quite a humble guy,” he says, slightly taken aback, his explanation a little less smoothly delivered that his exquisite sentences on the merits of slow.
“I have chafed against [the expert role],” he continues. “I never wanted to be a public figure. I feel that I always have to dampen down people’s expectations. They expect me to be an oracle, wave a magic wand, sprinkle some slow, sparkly dust on them, to make everything all right. But I don’t have all the answers, and in a sense, that’s the kind of tension in this iteration of my life at this stage … There’s a hunger for tablets of stone set against the fact that I’m not a tablets-of-stone kind of guy.”
You could have fooled me. In the iteration of self he presents at a Toronto café, everything about him is chiselled: his sentences, his demeanour, his fitted, blue, three-piece suit. Of course, that’s part of his message, held over from his first book: Just because you believe in slow, that doesn’t mean you’re a slacker or dim-witted. Despite his efforts to make it otherwise, the word is still burdened with its pejorative meanings, he acknowledges. “It helps that I’m a pretty fast person,” says the 45-year-old father of two teenagers. “My metronome is set pretty high.”
His stoney expression cracks a smile, and he laughs. Honoré has a house-of-mirrors sort of personality. If he projects a professional, business-like demeanour that’s not to say he isn’t an easy-going guy with a healthy sense of humour. Intentionally or not, he challenges the popular idea that we should rely on our first – fast – impression of someone, a skill celebrated in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, a book that, arguably, fed the speed addiction. Taken slowly, and given a bit of time to unfold, Honoré’s personality is a quirky mix of intentions and interests.
Raised in Vancouver, St. John’s and Edmonton, he studied at Edinburgh University in Scotland, and then set out to make a difference with his writing. “I guess I went into journalism to save the world,” he says with the sort of meek self-regard only an adult can have for his younger self. “I always felt through writing that I wanted to rotate the world slightly.” Early in his career, he worked with street children in Brazil, later reporting on poverty issues when he covered South America as a foreign correspondent. In the short biography he supplied to his publisher for his book tour, he wrote that he once won a contest for the “ugliest transvestite” during Carnival in Brazil. He wore fake eyelashes, stilettos and a plastic tiara through the throng. “I guess I wanted to break [that impression] that slow means being po-faced and a killjoy. I’m not any of those things,” he explains when asked why he included that personal anecdote.
As the global guru on the Slow Movement, he has resisted the temptation to set up a think tank, even though some have suggested it. After his second book, Under Pressure, which examined modern child-rearing, he teamed up with Britain’s Eton College to initiate a slow approach to education. He is often approached by large multinational companies to consult on how to adopt slow practices.
He is taking his success in a stride that suits his pace. “I could be working 300 hours a week. I just say no. The power of slow is the power of no. I can’t go to every party I get invited to. I can’t do every work thing.” He does yoga – part of his slow fix for a bad back. He has learned a lot about his own needs for fast and slow aspects of life after writing his first book. “There’s a very clear before and after,” he explain. “I used to always feel rushed. Now I don’t.”
At home in London’s Battersea neighbourhood, he and his wife impose technology rules. The bedroom is a no-screen zone. No one is allowed a device at the table. “I’m not a Luddite at all,” he explains. “I love all this stuff. I look at all the gadgets that come out and I think, ‘Oh, this fix works for me. But the rest don’t.’ I’m not genuflecting in front of the God of Newness.”
His greatest lesson in slow was writing his new book. He travelled around the world for the research, looking for the themes that connected his observations about what slow fixes entailed. “The essence of the creative process is always in the journey … I spent a lot of time just sitting with the story. It takes a long time and a willingness to drift, to let things happen, to listen. That goes against the grain. We want to know in advance.”
It’s only now on his whirlwind book tour that he exercises his skill at uttering the quick, perfect sound bite.