Meet Elizabeth Day, The Woman Changing How We Think About Failure
Author, journalist and podcaster Elizabeth Day is not afraid to speak out on failure. After starting her podcast ‘How to Fail’ and writing a book exploring what she has learnt from her guests – as well as throughout her own life – she has in fact disrupted the narrative around failure completely, suggesting it should be embraced more positively as a learning experience that can shape us. We caught up with Elizabeth about growing up, careers and relationships in one of the most refreshing and honest conversations we’ve had to date.
For those who haven’t yet listened to your podcast, ‘How To Fail’, can you talk us through how this idea was born and the meaning behind the title?
Just before my 39th birthday someone broke up with me and it forced me to reassess everything. Looking back on my 30s, I realised they’d been a very intense time of transition. On the one hand, I’d had professional success but personally, things had not gone according to plan. I started to reassess vulnerability because I came to realise that when things have gone wrong in the past, I have actually withstood them and learnt from them.
So what if you can learn from failure? What if I can open up these kinds of conversations and share them with a wider audience? Being able to be vulnerable is a source of great connection – that was the kernel of the idea.
The entire premise of the podcast is that failure can teach you something if you choose to let it. Failure is a crucial part of learning how to be human and how to evolve.
How do you go about selecting guests for your podcast? Has this process changed over time?
The first couple of seasons I relied on friends and contacts I had made through work. I’m now in a more fortunate position where people approach me but I’m guided by instinct – I have a sense as to whether it’ll be a good episode.
The one thing that I would say is non-negotiable is that they have to have a story to tell and the narrative needs to feel important. I want to include a range of diverse voices in terms of ethnicity, age, gender, race, class and background – I think I’ve got better at that with time.
Can you tell us about one of the most inspiring conversations you’ve had on the podcast?
Mo Gawdat is probably my favourite guest of all time – he is so wise and full of extraordinary insight. He developed an algorithm for happiness and spent 12 years researching this concept. He brought together his scientific background with research surrounding religion and philosophy, to come up with a premise that if your perception of life is less than or equal to your expectation, you can be happy. The lesson is don’t set expectations that are unrealistic because you could make yourself feel like a failure. And even after experiencing personal tragedy when his son unexpectedly died at 21, he manages to be such a joyful and calming presence.
“The one thing that I would say is non-negotiable is that they have to have a story to tell.”
Would you mind telling us a little bit about your book ‘How to Fail’ too and how that came about?
As a novelist, the thought of writing non-fiction – let alone a memoir – had never crossed my mind. However after explaining the concept of my podcast to my editor, she persuaded me that it would also make a great book. I later decided I didn’t want it to be a straightforward memoir. I don’t have enough to say and I’m aware I speak from a position of privilege – being a white, middle class person – so I wanted to bring in other voices and make it part memoir, part manifesto. ‘How to Fail’ therefore combines the experiences of my podcast guests with my own learnings.
The book focuses on the various failures you’ve experienced throughout your life and what you’ve learnt along the way - from how to fail at work to how to fail at relationships. Which experiences would you say you’ve learnt the most from?
From my experiences of trying (and failing) to have a baby. I knew this chapter was the one I desperately wanted to include. Personally, I’d never found much literature covering this before and in the course of writing, I realised how much I’d learnt along the way. It felt important to use my platform to share this with other women.
This chapter was the most cathartic and emotional to write, detailing my journey of unsuccessful IVF rounds, a miscarriage at 3 months, freezing my eggs and since the book’s publication, I’ve experienced two more miscarriages and other procedures. Trying to have a baby has been a huge, ongoing part of my life.
Up until that point, I had mistakenly thought that if I put in enough work and applied myself, I would be rewarded in the ways I most desired. I think it stems from being taught at school that if you work hard, you’ll get the right results. Yet when you’re an adult, it doesn’t work like that – especially when it comes to biology. The biggest lesson has been that some things will be so painful and feel like a failure, yet we can also learn to be at peace with them. Being unable to conceive has caused me great sadness but it has also shaped me in many ways and provided me with more empathy.
“The biggest lesson has been that some things will be so painful and feel like a failure, yet we can also learn to be at peace with them.”
What has failure taught you about the unpredictability of life?
Life is unpredictable and it shouldn’t go as expected – that would be boring. Whenever something in my life hasn’t gone according to plan, it has forced me to question the plan itself and I’ve often discovered it was either dysfunctional or constructed in the vacuum of a future that doesn’t exist yet. If you choose to, you can gain so much more wisdom and insight when life is unpredictable.
How to Fail also explores the failures and uncertainties we face in our young adult lives - whether that’s related to careers, relationships or our body image. Do you believe that confidence and self-acceptance comes with age? And what would you tell your younger self now?
I can only speak from my perspective but I would say so. I would tell my younger self that when you are told “as you get older and wiser, it’s a great liberation and you’ll care less what others think” that this isn’t just an easy line. It’s actually true. I would also say you are being sold a lie by society that age will diminish you as a woman, because age does in fact empower you.
What you are most proud of to date, professionally or personally?
I’m most proud of having realised that it is never too late to change your life. I made some bold decisions in my mid-thirties that a lot of people questioned but there was an instinctive part of me that knew I had to make a change. I ended my marriage, I moved to LA and I left my job at a national newspaper to go freelance.
After experiencing all of this, I could finally be the truest version of myself in all areas of my life – both professionally and personally.
In the chapter ‘How to fail at relationships’ where you revisit your divorce, you reference a quote from Less, the award-winning novel by Andrew Sean Greer, which we’d like to share with our readers:
“Twenty years of joy and support and friendship, that’s a success. Twenty years of anything with another person is a success. If a band stays together twenty years, it’s a miracle. If a comedy duo stays together twenty years, they’re a triumph. Is this night a failure because it will end in an hour? Is the sun a failure because it’s going to end in a billion years? No, it’s the fucking sun.” – Andrew Sean Greer
What did this quote mean to you and how did it make you see the end of your marriage in a new light?
We’ve been taught to think that relationships are failures if they end because of the romantic narratives of incredible highs and devastating lows. However, what if a relationship is something that is sent to you, to teach you something you need to learn? Greer’s quote and my own experiences helped me to realise that once you have learnt all you can, or rather outgrown each other, you can still go your separate ways with great respect for one another. This helped me to take the toxicity out of my divorce.
I know that I wouldn’t be who I am now if I hadn’t experienced marriage or a marriage ending – and I don’t regret it for that reason.
What would your advice be for aspiring writers and journalists today?
Write as much as you can – don’t wait around for permission to do so. There are so many platforms out there to encourage writing today. Also, many people want to be writers and believe that they have a book in them but only a handful will actually go for it. Don’t be intimidated. The only way to get better is to keep practicing. Get the words on the page and go from there.
“I know that I wouldn’t be who I am now if I hadn’t experienced marriage or a marriage ending - I don’t regret it for that reason.”
And what podcasts have you been listening to?
You Must Remember This which is hosted by a film historian exploring the first 100 years of Hollywood. It is fascinating and compelling.
Working from home has become the new normal for many people. As a writer and journalist who is well-practiced at working from home, do you have advice on how to stay motivated and productive during this time?
My top tip is to get up and start the day with a form of exercise – even if that is just a walk. Also although this is a difficult time, I would say the benefit of working from home is being able to design your day how you want to and having more flexible freedom. Instead of thinking ‘I have to’ try and think ‘I get to.’
“The benefit of working from home is being able to design your day how you want to and having more flexible freedom.”
What’s next for you?
I have a book out in October called Failosophy which I’m really proud of and it explores everything that I’ve learnt whilst making the podcast. I’ve distilled this into seven principles of failure designed to help you survive when things go wrong. It’s short, practical and hopefully inspirational.
How to Fail is also hopefully being adapted for a TV series and I’m in the process of writing a new novel. Just a few things on the go!