failing
2020 with elizabeth day

Unless you’ve been under a rock (which, let’s face it, who can blame you for at the moment) you’ll know podcaster and author Elizabeth Day is all about embracing failure – hello 2020, is that you?

Her second book Failosophy launched this month, bringing together all the lessons she’s learned herself – and those from her famous guests on her award-winning How to Fail podcast – distilling them into seven easily-digestible principles of failure.

From the philosopher Alain de Botton to feminist icon Gloria Steinem, in Failosophy, Day shares universal failures alongside the intimate. “Because [it] happens to us all,” she says. “it is what makes us human.”

learning how to fail in 2020

Day launched her podcast in July 2018 after a “patch of failure” in her own life, but the innate resilience this taught her has helped.

“I’m very aware that certain failures – a global pandemic say – are far less easy to bounce back from, if we ever do,” she says.

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“What I’ve discovered is that you can be sad – you must absolutely have a necessary grieving period for whatever it is that you have lost – but you do not have to live in that place of sadness. You can be sad and it can be part of you. You can be at peace with that sadness… And that’s what Failosophy’s all about really.”

failing at creativity

While we may know her for her non-fiction, Elizabeth Day also has four novels under her belt and another on the way. How on earth did she manage to find inspiration this year?!

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“I really struggled with creativity during lockdown,” she says. “I started out thinking ‘I’m going to learn Italian, take a life drawing class, and just bake. I did not do a single one of those things… I watched a lot of reality TV and caught up on sleep.” Now that’s something we can relate to.

“It was only the second half of lockdown that I really felt like I was able to start writing again. It’s partly because my creative process historically has always relied on cafes.” Cafes gave her a new place to work on her books, away from her desk at home that she uses for her podcast and newspaper journalism. “I like to go somewhere else and be surrounded by the murmur of other people.”

here’s a little teaser…

Every day since 13 July 2018, I have thought about failure. My own and other people’s. The failures that define us and the ones that seem stupid in hindsight. Everything from failed marriages to failed driving tests.

I can name the date so precisely because that is the day on which I launched a podcast called How To Fail. In fact, it was called How To Fail With Elizabeth Day because with near-perfect comic timing, I had failed to name it properly, having earlier failed to do my research, which would have uncovered another podcast already in existence called almost the same thing.

Blissfully unaware of this fact, I drew my logo with felt-tip pens one night, tracing around the bottom of my favourite mug to draw a rosette badge. I wrote the title in my own handwriting, haphazardly colouring it in with pink highlighter. I sold the wedding dress from my failed marriage on eBay to fund the first few episodes. At first, it failed to attract any bids so I slashed the price and then, when someone bought it, I wrapped it up in a bulky package and took it to the post office feeling a sense of release as I did so. My marriage might have failed, but at least one good thing had come out of it.

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Having failed to find an original name, failed to get the desired price for the wedding dress and failed to hire a graphic designer to produce a more professional logo, I was all set for the failure of the podcast itself. I didn’t expect How To Fail With Elizabeth Day, or the subsequent memoir that came out of it, to be the most successful thing I have ever done, but that’s how it turned out.

Never let it be said that the universe doesn’t have a sense of irony.

At the time of writing, the podcast has been going for 18 months and is well into its seventh season. It has attracted many millions of downloads despite, or perhaps because of, its relatively simple concept. Each week, I ask my guest to come up with three ‘failures’ in advance of the recording. These can be sublime or ridiculous; profound or superficial. The only criteria are that the guest must feel comfortable talking about the subjects they’ve chosen, and that they are able to reflect on what they have learned from them.

The idea is to make listeners who are scared of failure in their own lives feel less alone, and also to reassure them that there might be hope on the other side. It was based on the premise that learning how we fail actually means learning how to succeed better. Most failures can teach us something meaningful about ourselves if we choose to listen and, besides, success tastes all the sweeter if you’ve fought for it.

The people I’ve spoken to have told me about their family dysfunction, their mental health issues and the grief they have grappled with after profound loss – a son who died during a routine operation at the age of 21; a baby lost to miscarriage; 10 years lost to the grip of heroin addiction. I, too, have examined my own failures both professional and personal, failures of faith and intimacy, and sometimes just a failure of self-belief that repeated itself on what seemed like an automatic spin cycle until the world shuddered to a halt and I was confronted with who I actually was as opposed to the blameless, pleasant, undemanding projection of the perfect person I’d tried so hard to be.

Alongside this, I have thought about the failure of my marriage; my failure to have children; my failure to realise that a desire to people-please was making me desperately unhappy; my failure to resolve things with an ex-boyfriend who was killed six months after we broke up; my failure to express my own anger, instead masking it with a more socially acceptable sadness; and my failure to remove myself from toxic relationships until it was a question of survival. All these failures have been an integral part of my life. All these failures have been part of my growth. Life is texture. Experiencing all facets of existence – the good and the bad – enables us to appreciate them fully. I feel lucky in my current relationship not only because I have met a wonderful person, but also because I have so much experience of dysfunctional relationships with not-so-wonderful people to compare it to.

‘The darker the night,’ Dostoyevsky wrote, ‘the brighter the stars.’

Being at peace with failure means I have very few regrets. Each time something has gone wrong, it has led me to where I am meant to be, which is right here, right now, writing this introduction. I firmly cling to the belief that the universe is unfolding exactly as is intended and that although we, as imperfect humans, can’t hope to understand it all at the time, life will generally teach us the lessons we need to learn if we are open to the possibility.

elizabeth's picks

The author is celebrating her failures with pendants and chains made for layering.

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