In a recent interview, Michelle Obama made headlines when she said that women can’t, in fact, have it all. “It’s a lie,” she said. It’s a sentiment echoed by Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief Farrah Storr, who is firmly of the belief that striving for perfectionism in all areas of your life isn’t quite as noble an aspiration as it might seem. Her new book, The Discomfort Zone – a guide to getting what you want by living fearlessly – addresses that exact issue, pointing out that you have to decide. You don’t get to have everything; and you shouldn’t want to.
Here, the editor and author tells us what she’s learned about success, failure and everything in between – and why having it all-ish, actually, is even better.
Get used to the idea that you can’t have everything in life
“At some point in your life, you have to decide what it is that you want. I’ve always felt that you don’t get to have everything in life – and actually, you shouldn’t want to have everything. Sometimes if you have everything, you have nothing – because you’re so busy trying to make everything perfect. Remember years ago, when all those books on happiness came out? Well actually, you don’t get to be happy all the time. And if you were happy all the time, there’d be nothing to strive for. That’s what makes human nature tick – the struggle and the strive to get there. For me, ‘having it all’, is deciding what the things are that you think you need, to have the life that you want. That’s having it all-ish.”
Don’t be afraid of making tough decisions
“Once I thought that I wanted a family and a big career and lots of friends; I thought that I wanted to have absolutely everything. But when it came to trying to have a family with my husband, it didn’t happen for us. We got to a point where we decided to try IVF – it hadn’t occurred to me not to try -.but when I got to the clinic, the receptionist said to me, ‘Just so you know, it can be really difficult for relationships. It can be really difficult for the woman.’ And so what I was forced to do, with my husband, was actually make a decision about what to do, rather than simply going along with it. I had to really think: is this right for me? I had taken a very, very big job at the time, and my husband’s career was going incredibly well – we’ve been best friends for years and our marriage is very important – and for me personally, I didn’t think I could do it. Let’s not forget, there are women who do have it all, and more power to them, but I didn’t think that I could do the job to the standard that I wanted to do it, and juggle a marriage, and add a child to the equation. I’m lucky that I didn’t have this massive ovarian ache that a lot of people have, because for some women, I think when you have that ache it overrides everything. But my message for young women is to decide what’s important to you, and that will change throughout your life. It’s like Oprah Winfrey famously said; ‘You can have it all, but you can’t have it all at once’. That’s about right, I think.”
Don’t put too much unrealistic pressure on yourself
“You learn that you can’t have everything in life when you’re young; there’s someone’s birthday party and then there’s ballet class on the same day. You’ve got to decide which one you want. You don’t get to have both of them. So, I’m not sure about the message of ‘Go forth and have everything’; it can be an unrealistic challenge. There are some people who can do it – those people who have got nine kids and a top job and an amazing marriage (or they appear to have) – but I think for most people, that struggle to ‘have it all’, can leave them feeling like they’ve missed the mark. I think it puts an enormous amount of pressure on yourself. And actually, having most of what you want, for me, is perhaps more of a realistic and noble aspiration, particularly for young men and women.”
“When I made the decision not to have children I thought my family would be disappointed, but they’re fine with it. I made the decision when I was maybe 37 or 38, and I think by the time you get into your late 30s, early 40s, you know yourself pretty well. You know your weaknesses, you know your strengths, you know what you’ve got to work with. And so even if I did let people down – perhaps I was a disappointment, or perhaps I wasn’t the symbol that people thought I should be – I was okay with that. But actually, the biggest struggle was communicating my decision. I would be at a dinner party and someone, because I look a certain age, would ask, ‘So, have you got a family?’ and I’d reply, ‘No’. And then they’d look awkward – and because my impetus is always to put people at ease, I would launch into this monologue about why I decided not to. There was this intense justification on my part, and you could see them thinking, ‘Why is she telling me this?’.
“Now, when I tell someone I’m childless by choice, they’re less shocked, but they still find it unusual – because it’s not usual. People are always quick to tell me that I’m very controversial, but I’m not controversial; I just sometimes say things that are countered to the general narrative. If you’re leading your life in a slightly different way, then I believe you have a duty to speak about it. There are lots of people who may feel the same, but never hear those voices.”
Don’t shy away from intimate questions
“I prefer to think of them as a brilliant opportunity for people to explain themselves. We go through life having small talk – and I hate small talk – so, actually, intimate questions are a really good time for you to discuss a potentially difficult situation. Because what comes out of that is reasoning; you have a conversation and perhaps both people don’t agree, but that’s where answers come from. When two people don’t agree on something, rather than shutting the conversation down and saying that you don’t want to talk about it, why not have the conversation and tell your personal story? That may change their opinion on it. Try and answer those difficult questions as fully and as honestly as you can; see it as an opportunity to try and change the conventional narrative. Personal success can look different for different people, and all anybody wants to know in life is ‘why’. If you can tell people why, then they are generally far more accepting.”
‘Having it all’ is not a gender-specific issue
“I think men and women are in slightly different places with the concept of ‘having it all’. There are different expectations on the sexes. For women, it’s ‘Can I have it all?’ and I think for men, it’s more of a sad realisation; ‘Is this what having it all looks like? Because I’m not sure I want these pressures and these demands’. I’m sure that many men, if they were really honest with themselves, would say that they don’t have it all. How do you know that men who are at the top, working 90-hour weeks, aren’t sat there wishing they could give it all up tomorrow and have more time with their children? The cultural message is that it would be somewhat odd, for a man to think that. When it comes to gender debate, I tend not to think in terms of gender – I tend to think in terms of individuals – but, generally speaking, men are thought to want the career and to provide for the family, and that’s expected of them. Of course, now we know there are a lot of bloody horrible consequences that come with that pressure – and that not every man wants that. Alternatively, women are expected to want to nurture, and so I in a way have broken the stereotype, which is unusual.
“But this is the issue with group identity and identity politics; it can be brilliant and gets conversations going, and movements moving, but actually, if you talk in terms of men and women – or any other sort of group, for that matter – you miss the people within it. Everyone is so different.”
Perfectionism isn’t truly attainable
“Social perfectionism is part of human nature; ‘What does the world think about me?’ We see that on Instagram. Someone asked me recently if I thought Instagram was damaging. I think it hones into our natural instinct to essentially tell people that you’re better than them, or that you’re having a better life than them. But I do think we all have, as older women, a duty of care to younger women, to start repealing that and revealing that, actually, perfection doesn’t really exist. Perfection isn’t a truly attainable goal – you shouldn’t want to have it. Alex James once said, ‘Success always feels like you’re never quite there’. Perfection is the same. It’s a very dangerous thing to keep on chasing. If you’re never going to reach it, why chase it?”
Enjoy the grind
“Once you get everything you want, you quite often realise that the enjoyment was actually getting there – and you never realised, until you look back. Enjoy the grind to the top. Aiming for the top is a noble aspiration but, believe me, I don’t think you’ll ever feel that you’re there. Or if you do get there, it probably doesn’t look quite how you thought it would. Also, it might not last very long. Success is like happiness in that you are chasing something which is momentary. Success is the peak of the mountain; you’re wobbling when you’re there, and then there’s the fall. So you’ve got to enjoy the grind.”
It’s harder to maintain success than it is to achieve it in the first place
“That’s why people are scared of success. I’m often asked, ‘What does success look like?’ For me, success is challenging yourself every day. Human nature likes to be challenged. Look at lottery winners – the minute they get everything they think they want, they get depressed, they start drinking… Personally, I think finding success in the everyday is the most important thing. If I go home at the end of the night and I put my head on the pillow and think that I really stretched myself, that for me is a successful day. Success isn’t an end point for me, it’s got to be in the everyday doing. If you never get there, you’re going to be in your grave thinking, ‘I failed at life’. Well, you didn’t fail at life, you were enjoying success all along, but you were looking at the wrong thing. It’s like the magician pulling the rabbit out of the hat; you weren’t concentrating on the right thing.”
Think twice before blaming everything on social media
“I don’t think social media is an evil, in and of itself, but it does burrow into some of the more unsavoury sides of human nature. It’s really seductive. It facilitates our narcissism. Social media itself isn’t the problem – the problem is human nature. It’s the same with phones and our obsession with selfies. We made the decision to turn the camera on our own faces – technology just made it possible. Social media channels into our deepest desires, and our desire is to be better than the man or woman next to us. That’s what we want. It’s about status. But that’s why – at any age, really – you need to be really careful about how you use it. On my Insta bio it says something like, ‘Disclaimer, Instagram is not a real representation of my life.’ And it really isn’t. I’m very careful about what I put on there. I don’t take selfies – I don’t think anyone’s particularly interested in seeing my face – and anyway, I don’t like to concentrate on that. You have to be really self-aware of the message that you’re putting out there when you’re using these tools. When we publish celebrity interviews now in Cosmo, we’re so careful about the language we use. We don’t refer to people as ‘beautiful’ – we try not to concentrate on their looks at all. We focus on the things that they’ve worked to get.”
Self-awareness is key
“It all goes back to self-awareness; when you do something, be aware of the consequences. You are a ripple effect in the world and your actions are going to have consequences, so you need to think really deeply about that. The problem is, not everybody does, because we’re obsessed with ourselves. We don’t think about others. Every time you share an Instagram post, I challenge you, sit with it for 15 minutes and think, ‘Is it the right message I want to convey to whoever’s looking at this?’”
Life is tough but you are ultimately tougher
“That’s if you can be prepared to investigate who you are. There’s a brilliant saying, ‘You don’t prepare the road for the child, you prepare the child for the road’. You’re not going to change what’s going on in the world around you – you can’t control the world – but what you can change is that you can become more fearless and you can face it head on, rather than retreating. That’s why I wrote my book, The Discomfort Zone, because I think it’s a particularly important issue right now. The cultural message is that if you feel anxiety or you feel scared, don’t worry – you don’t have to do this. You don’t have to be confronted with it. In universities we’re seeing it, with these safe spaces. But actually, I think, no – your right in the world is to be brave and to challenge it. Through challenging the world, you reveal great truths about yourself that you didn’t know. Often those truths reveal that you’re a lot tougher than you thought you were – and what an amazing thing to discover about yourself. But you won’t experience that if you’re too frightened all the time. Of course, you’ll find some things you’re weak at, but actually that’s also really important, to know what you’re crap at as well. You’ve got to know what you’ve got to work with – but you don’t know that until you go through something tough.”
Push yourself to embrace challenges
“You’ve really got to force yourself into the discomfort zone. I’m not saying throw yourself into something really scary, but identify what it is that scares you most and then come up with a plan for how to get through that. Once you have a plan, you feel in control. Even if ultimately you never really are in control – because none of us are. Regardless, if you have a plan of how to tackle it, you’re going to feel much safer in charting those choppy waters.”
The Discomfort Zone, £10.99 BUY NOW
Follow Farrah on Instagram @FarrahStorr
From: Harper’s BAZAAR UK