In this interview, we catch up with Elizabeth Day — author, journalist and creator/host of the popular How To Fail With Elizabeth Day podcast.
Her memoir, How To Fail: Everything I’ve Ever Learned From Things Going Wrong is a Sunday Times top 5 bestseller. She has also written four novels — her debut Scissors, Paper, Stone won a Betty Trask Award. Her follow-up, Home Fires was an Observer Book of the Year. Her third, Paradise City was named one of the best novels of 2015 in the Observer and the Evening Standard, and was People magazine’s Book of the Week. Her fourth novel, The Party was an Amazon bestseller and a Richard and Judy Summer Book Club pick which has been optioned for television.
Elizabeth is also a columnist for You magazine and a feature writer for numerous publications in the UK and US including The Telegraph, The Times, the Guardian, New York Magazine, the Observer, Vogue, Grazia and Elle. She is a contributing editor for Harper’s Bazaar. Here’s her story:
Newnham: What was your childhood like? How would your friends and family have described you?
Day: Interesting. My family moved to Northern Ireland when I was four so my childhood was quite literally like a scene from Derry Girls, where I’m the weird English dude at school. My friends and family would have described me as funny, stubborn and obsessed with books.
I remember wanting to be an author at the age of four. Madness, I know.
Newnham: You are a successful author as well as journalist and broadcaster. What makes someone a good storyteller?
Day: Listening. Other people’s stories are not about you. You’re the conduit, the communicator, and your job is to connect.
Newnham: Your podcast and subsequent book about failure have been hugely successful. Why is it do you think that people fear failure? How do you think we should frame failure in schools so future generations fear it less?
Day: I think we live in an age of curated perfection — we’re constantly comparing ourselves with the filtered representations of other people’s best lives on Instagram or wondering why we don’t look like Kim Kardashian — and at the same time as this is happening, criticism has become a whole lot more public, so there’s very little space to fail without fearing shame and humiliation. I think it would be helpful if schools encouraged students to do their absolute best, but alongside striving for academic merit, if they also taught them that failure is a part of life and dealing with it builds up emotional resilience. I absolutely don’t advocate a ‘prizes for all’ mentality. Doing well at school is important; but if having tried your hardest, something goes wrong, it’s a good idea to be equipped with the necessary skills to deal with that and to realise it’s not necessarily a negative verdict on you as a person.
Newnham: You have interviewed an array of wonderful guests — out of interest, how do the male interviewees view failure vs the women? Do they consider similar experiences as failure?
Day: Generally speaking, in the first season, most of the men I initially approached felt they hadn’t failed, whereas most of the women felt they’d failed so much they didn’t know which failures to choose for discussion. That’s changed as the podcast has grown, but I thought it was interesting that a lot of white, middle-class men are born into a world made in their image so when something doesn’t go according to plan, it is viewed as a stepping stone to achieving their eventual goal whereas a lot of women are more culturally conditioned to believe they’ve done something wrong when they fail.
Again, this is a generalisation and does not hold true for everyone and actually, as the podcast is now in its fourth season, I’ve had lots of amazing male guests who completely engage with the concept and lots of kick-ass women who refuse to let failure define them.
Newnham: What “failure” in your life has taught you the most and what was the lesson?
Day: My failure to have children has taught me that I can accept and be at peace with something that causes me sadness, and that life is richer as a result of having that emotional texture.
Newnham: What does success look like to you?
Day: Knowing yourself. Truly, honestly being able to look yourself in the eye and honour your strengths and your weaknesses; your lightness and your darkness.
Newnham: For the women who feel failure will crush them, what’s your advice?
Day: I promise you that if you can cling on just that little bit longer, if you can find the strength to keep on going to find out what happens next, your failure will make you see the world differently and will present you with opportunities you never could have anticipated. You have not lost anything through your failure. What you have lost was not for you. Shedding yourself of the things that are not for you actually brings you closer to what is.
Newnham: What are you most proud of in your career/life?
Day: Being an empathetic person.
Newnham: If you could go back in time to a younger Elizabeth, what advice would you give her?
Day: Worry less. But also: love your impulse to worry because it means that you care.