Farrah Storr, pictured today relaxing at home, had Oxford in her sights from a young age
On December 16, 1996, I sat bolt upright in bed, clutching an envelope.
I was 18 years old and I’d been waiting for this letter for years.
It was from Oxford University and inside was the verdict that would seal my fate for ever. Or so I believed.
I weighed it in my hand. It felt like the stakes were as high as they possibly could be: was I a success or a failure? Did they want me, or not?
My big ambitions came from a longing to impress my father.
He was a first-wave immigrant from Pakistan and I was his third child – a shy girl who showed little academic vigour.
But education and attainment are applauded in Asian culture.
It’s an ongoing joke that distant uncles and aunts may not know your middle name but they will know how many GCSEs you got, what grades they were and how far ahead of the rest of the class you currently are (all wildly exaggerated by your parents, of course).
I knew the route to my father’s approval was hard work and the highest grades. Better than that, the way to really impress him would be to get into Oxford University.
So from the age of 13 I studied. And studied some more. Eventually my grades started to shift.
I went from Bs to A minuses. A minuses’s to straight As. And finally, on GCSE day, from As to a clean sweep of A stars. My path was set. I had Oxford in my sights.
At the interview, I wondered whether to smooth the Northern undulations from my accent. People didn’t really go to Oxbridge from my state college. And Oxford felt alien to me. Apart from travelling to St Ives as a child once, I had never really spent any time ‘down South’. Even the air seemed to smell different. Cleaner, richer, suffused with promise. I’d never met people like this either.
At dinner in a cavernous hall of ancient wood and intense formality, I sat next to a smiley young girl called Anna who said it was just like her boarding school. When she asked me where I was from, I told her: Manchester.
‘Oh…what part?’ she smiled.
I stumbled over the words. Salford didn’t feel right. Not in this place. So I settled on Prestwich — the neighbouring, more middle-class village. The interviews were conducted in front of a panel of old grey men with devastating manners and even more devastating questions.
Rumour spread that they had asked one child to get a brick out of the window without opening the window — one of their cruel, logic-testing questions. To which the student had thrown it out of the window, shattering a glass pane in one of the oldest colleges in Oxford. Apparently, it wasn’t the right answer.
Life lessons: Farrah on her graduation day at King’s College after being rejected by Oxford
True or a myth, it set us all on edge. I had applied for French and English and my own interview was kept short. Why did I like Thomas Hardy? What other Existentialist did I read? As I left, closing the door behind me, I smiled to myself. I had given it everything. I remember taking the train back home, and telling my mum it was now just a waiting game.
And so, a week shy of Christmas, that letter arrived. But, no, it did not contain the answer I had been expecting, and the devastation was overwhelming. Tears fell before I even managed to read to the bottom. I had been rejected. To me, it was a sign: I was a failure. I asked my mother not to open the curtains that day, and stayed in bed, very still beneath the sheets. We didn’t talk much about it.
Later that year, I bombed out. I started going out and dating older boys. I quit the punishing work schedule I had set myself for the last few years and decided I would just go to any university that would have me. It took many years for the sting of failure to subside, for the echo of those words ‘I regret to inform you…’ finally to fade.
But here’s the thing. At the time, I thought it had changed the course of my life for the worse. Now, 20 years on, I can truthfully say it was one of the defining moments of my life, but in a good way.
By forcing myself to come to terms with that deeply uncomfortable feeling of failure, I got stronger. I went to King’s College London and, alongside my studies, started to apply for work experience on glossy magazines. What was the worst that could happen? They’d say no. Reject me. But I’d been through that already; I had nothing to lose.
Slowly I rebuilt my confidence and started to write little bits here and there, and when I graduated I had a portfolio of work to show. Something that made me stand out from the hundreds of others applying for jobs on magazines. It is without question why I am in the job I am in today.
Storr (pictured on GMB earlier this month) says her rejection from Oxford is one of the defining moment in her life, in a good way
Nowhere in the history of the world was failure ever aspirational. No one ever welcomes failure. Yet this cultural mindset has led to generations with something called ‘failure anxiety’ – an aversion to ever trying anything new or too challenging for fear of mucking it all up.
What’s more, many young people today are so protected from failure, they find it impossible to cope with life’s setbacks when they do inevitably come. We have spent so long cosseting our children in a misguided effort to produce healthy ‘self-esteem’, they have never learned what the discomfort of failure feels like.
In US universities, academics talk of ‘failure-deprived’ students – the kids who strive for perfection and are faultless on paper. These are the ones who have spent their childhood captaining the football team, winning the debate cup and tinkling their way to Grade Eight piano.
Surrounded by praise, pushed by their parents, they ease through school collecting medals and trophies. We coddle them so much, failure has largely untouched their lives.
And that’s a problem. Because it’s these kids who are rocked by the smallest struggles later.
Not getting on to the university course they wanted; not making the college team; not being cast as the lead in the drama production. These everyday tribulations are leading to depression, anxiety and tearful sessions in university counselling rooms. The more outstanding they appear on paper, the more difficult they find it to deal with life’s teeniest obstacles.
I see the results of failure deprivation all the time at Cosmopolitan. I see high-achieving work-experience students who are so scared of getting something wrong, they simply do nothing at all.
I know of brilliant young writers whose fear of not wanting to rock the boat means they produce bland stories rather than the bold tales I know they have within them. I want our young people to be more fearless – and fearlessness, in my experience, comes from having tasted struggle and failure. It comes from having been grazed by life’s sharp edges, rather than shackled by success.
So how do you make failure acceptable? You talk about it in an unemotional manner. You look at what went wrong rather than who was responsible for it going wrong.
In Japan, teachers often set children very difficult problems to solve, knowing some of them will fail. But, whereas in Western schools the child who gets the right answer is singled out and the ones who get it wrong are shamed, in Japan it works slightly differently. There, the child who is struggling to find the right answer is the one who is singled out. The other children in the class are then encouraged to help this child find the right answer. They must fathom it out together and never, ever demonise the child in question for failing to get there by him/herself.
By talking so openly about failure, they take the discomfort out of it. Failure has touched most parts of my life. I’ve failed at love, at friendships, and almost certainly at leadership. And what have I learned through all of it? That you should never walk past a mistake, no matter how terrifying it is. You can always learn from it.
I will never forget the first major job I failed at. It was on a fashion magazine in Australia where my husband and I had moved in order to ‘see the world’ before settling down in England. I was 31, and although I’d worked in other offices, this was the big one – a place I’d wanted to work my entire career. The cracks started to appear early on.
My ideas weren’t right in meetings. The copy I edited wasn’t good enough. The editor-in-chief found my quiet demeanour unfathomable. She was not an unkind woman, but like most bosses she had her ways and her people. And her people cottoned on quite quickly that I was not one of them.
I was supposed to lead a small team but as my confidence drained away – slowly, steadily, like bath water down the plughole – I doubted everything. At lunchtimes I would sit on the edge of the harbour with all of shimmery Sydney before me and I would cry. I don’t cry (Oxford disappointments aside). It’s never been my thing. But I had backed myself into such a corner of frustration that crying seemed the only thing left to do. In the end I resigned, telling the editor that I couldn’t see a way forward for me. She smiled kindly and nodded.
For many years I was too scared to look back on that experience. I put it in a box and blamed the magazine, the editor, my colleagues – anyone but me. But when I became an editor and went looking for answers as to how to lead, I finally looked back and realised that once again failure had taught me valuable lessons about myself. I was a loner on a magazine that needed constant communication. I was defensive.
I was too inexperienced then to make the job work. Eventually, I was able to examine that failure in a healthy, useful way. Again, far from destroying my confidence, it made me less fearful for the future because I knew whatever came next would be better.
How I wish I could go back to that teary-eyed 18-year-old girl sitting on her bed and tell her that. I’d hold her hand and tell her to dry her eyes. It’s a good thing to lose sometimes, I’d say. Life isn’t over. In fact, it’s just begun – with a lesson you’ll take strength from again and again.
Abridged extract from The Discomfort Zone, by Farrah Storr, which is published by Piatkus, priced £13.99. Offer price £11.19 (20 per cent discount) until September 30. Order at mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640.