books lifestyle

The Slow Fix, by Carl Honore

the_slow_fix-coverSeveral years ago I read In Praise of Slow, Carl Honore’s tour of the slow movement. It’s a book that I really enjoyed, and that inspired my thinking in a few new ways, so I’ve been looking forward to a follow up of some kind.

The Slow Fix is a book about problem solving. It’s about taking the time to really understand problems, think creatively about them, involve people in fixing them and develop long term solutions. It’s a great title, because we all know the opposite that it refers to – the quick fix, universally recognised as a bad thing and yet so tempting.

The quick fix could be the diamond necklace bought as a grand gesture to save a failing relationship. It could be ordering another fitness DVD on Amazon in the hope of finally getting an exercise regime underway. It might mean pumping cheap money into the housing market to prop up GDP ahead of an election year. “In every walk of life,” says Honore, “from medicine to relationships to business and politics, we are all hooked on the quick fix.”

There are reasons why that is so. The quick fix is gratifying and we’re not very good at long term thinking. Doing things properly is harder, you have to be patient, and it may force us to confront mistakes or poor decisions in the past. But ultimately, the book argues, there’s no substitute for fixing things properly. We’ll just have an endless run of half measures, or for particularly big problems, no solutions at all. “Complex problems, from climate change to conflict in the Middle East to a marriage on the rocks, need to be examined through a wider lens and tackled holistically.”

So what characterises a ‘slow fix’? That’s the body of the book, and each chapter takes an approach and explores it through a case study. The chapter on taking the long term view is based around Norway’s rehabilitative prison system. (“We don’t think about revenge” says a prison guard. “We look at what kind of neighbour you want to have when they come out.”) A chapter on being prepared visits the McLaren Formula 1 pit crew, showing how the literal quick fixes during a race depend on a meticulous training scheme behind the scenes.

There are some great stories here, of a company that turned around a failing American inner-city school, how Iceland is crowdsourcing its new constitution, how Bogota reclaimed the streets for pedestrians. There’s a wonderful story about a coffee farmer tasting his own coffee for the first time.

They’re all pithy and well chosen, and they are given context by the more travelogue elements of the book. Honore lets the people describe their solutions and how they arrived at them in their own words, making them personal and authentic. It’s a book that is more about people than theory, and that’s a real strength. As it moves from Chile to Australia, LA to Iceland, I imagine it was also an adventure to write.

It’s not perfect of course. If you don’t worship at the temple of Apple, you may roll your eyes at the number of times Steve Jobs is mentioned. The fact that Jobs rejected 67 different cancer nurses before choosing three worthy to care for him is not an example of attention to detail, but a billionaire behaving like a diva. And the prize announced in 1714 for whoever could work out how to calculate longitude at sea is hardly an early example of crowdsourcing, since it took five decades before anyone claimed the prize. But I’m being picky in an attempt to write a balanced review of a book that I really enjoyed.

In the end, the various techniques and approaches add up to a change in culture. “If the earth is going to sustain 8,9 or even 10 billion people, we need a revolution in the way we live, work, travel, consume – and think” says Honore. “We need to demolish the taboo against slowness that runs so deep in 21st century culture. We need to accept that decelerating judiciously, at the right moments, can make us smarter.”


  1. Does he draw on much research in to the effectiveness of ‘slow fixes’ vs ‘quick fixes’? Aside from our neurological wiring being more set up for short-term solutions.

    Reason I ask is having read a number of books recently whose ‘insights’ are mostly based on anecdotes and choice case studies which, although useful for illustrating a point, are very weak in terms of backing it up. Although I very much like the message of the book, it does sound like it falls in to this trap.

    1. That’s a fair criticism, except that I don’t know how you could actually research this qualitatively. You’d need to objectively decide what counted as a ‘quick’ or ‘slow’ fix, which is impossible really. Good decision making is a matter of wisdom as well as data, and this would fall under the wisdom category.

      There are also some nice examples of how quick and obvious solutions don’t work as well as we’d expect. For example, Spain has a high rate of organ donation because they take the time to talk to patients and their families and discuss it thoroughly. Their rates are higher than countries that have taken the quick fix solution of making organ donation an opt-out national policy.

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