Exploring Discomfort with Farrah Storr – The RSA (Transcript)
Full text of famous editor Farah Storr’s speech about exploring discomfort at The RSA Conference.
Farrah Storr- ‘Exploring Discomfort’
It’s thought that babies really only have two fears and those are fear of very loud noises and fear of falling. Which means that every other fear that you have, So whether that’s fear of being stood on a stage or fear of a job interview, those are all fears that obviously we pick up. We pick them up from the culture around us and we pick them up from personal experience.
Now, that’s not to say that some people are not born more fearful than others.
In fact, I think it’s one in five babies are thought to be born to be very fearful. And you can tell quite easily who those babies are, because actually, when you take them near to a plane, the bill, those things that kind of hanging from the ceiling, whereas most kids will interact and they’ll laugh and they love those things. Fretful babies have a very different response. And what happened is they start to arch their back and they cry.
But then what happens to those fearful babies?
Does it mean that they then go into life and they become fearful adults? Well, actually, what they found is two thirds of those babies continue to be quite anxious individuals as they get older. Now, it’s not that the other third, the world around them in all its challenges change. That didn’t happen.
But what happened to that other third is that they realize that the only way to go forth into life is to stop being scared, was to expose themselves to the very things that they were frightened of. And what happens, of course, is the world doesn’t change, but you become braver and you become better able to deal with it.
Now, I know this because I was one of those fretful babies, so I kind of came out of the womb screaming and never really stopped, actually, until I was in my teenage years. So I was scared of absolutely everything.
I was the child at nursery who, you know, when my mother had to leave to go to work, I would stay at the window and I would be screaming uncontrollably. They had to move me from school to school because I was such a sensitive child. I just couldn’t stand being near the kids. I was the third child out of four. So I had two older siblings. I had a very outgoing older brother, and I had a very outgoing and very ambitious elder sister.
And of course, what happens is when you have bold, ambitious siblings is they kind of go out and taste test the world for you. And that was very much my experience. I had an older brother and sister, as I said, who very much for all of my battles for me, you know, at school, I was never a victim of shocking bullies because I had my older sister. I never had any problems with boys because I had a cool older brother. And I think for much of my life, particularly my early teenage years, I thought this was amazing.
All I ever came up against in the world was things that were good or things that had been taste tested by my siblings. I kind of existed, I suppose, in a sort of proverbial comfort blanket, which I was very unwilling to leave until I got to about 19 or 20. And my sister, my brother had kind of flown the nest and I realized two things.
One, I didn’t actually know much about who I was, because everything that I had experienced came through the sibling filter. The other thing I realized was that the world was tough and that in order for me to survive, I had to be tougher than it.
And so when I was 20, I did something which for me was completely audacious. I booked a one way ticket to Paris in France. I was a complete Francophile. I didn’t actually speak any French. And I got a job in a school.
And unbeknown to me at the time school that I was teaching, it was one of the toughest schools in probably the toughest suburb of Paris. So it was really, really hard, you know, alone and afraid actually in Paris by myself. I came up against obstacle after obstacle, and I was very much thrown into my discomfort zone.
But one of the amazing things about obstacles is that they teach you very, very quickly two things about yourself. They teach you your weaknesses, which actually I don’t think everybody knows what their weaknesses are.
But at the same time, they also teach you surprising strengths that you often don’t realize you have. And in my situation, I discovered that actually, miraculously, despite not speaking any French, I could control this crowd. It was about 40 really difficult kids I could control them.
And I also discovered that I was I was tough and I was street smart in a way that growing up I’d never been told that I could be. And actually, I never thought that I was. And so when I returned back to England from Paris, I discovered not only these amazing things about myself, but I also discovered that what I really believe is true to this day is that the human body and the human mind is made for discomfort. We are made to carry a load.We are made to withdraw, which to withstand struggle.
But I just want to leave you with one thought before I go, because it’s a thought That really deeply worries me. And it’s something that I’ve been seeing more and more of because I honestly think that the culture that we now live in is afraid of discomfort. And I think it is getting worse. I think, you know, we still live in a world where we have participation medals for first place and last place.
we see our universities now are creating increasingly these places called safe spaces where students can retreat from words or ideas that they find difficult to deal with.I see it myself, When people call the largest generation on earth millennials generation snowflake, which is a reference to their fragility, not to their strength. And I question whether that’s the right thing. And I also question whether every one of us here in this room can honestly ask ourselves whether we coddle ourselves. Because I know even I do it to myself.
we choose to exist in an online world where we only ever have to come up against the views and the opinions of people whose worldviews chimes with our own. And I think it’s a danger. I think it’s a dangerous thing. And so my plea to all of you is to share the message that actually you need to expose yourself to the very things that you are frightened of.
We know that exposure therapy works.We know little by little you do not retreat away from the very things that scare you. But you expose yourself to them. So our messages step into the discomfort zone because you will honestly be rewarded and realize quite how tough you all are.
– Farrah Storr