Elizabeth Day: Life lessons from a serial failure

From divorce to miscarriage, YOU columnist Elizabeth Day has been famously frank about the things she feels she’s failed at. And, she reveals here, this unconventional philosophy on life has brought surprising benefits…

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.

I can name the date so precisely because that is the day on which I launched a podcast called How To Fail.

Elizabeth Day
Shirt, Lisou. Earrings, Missoma. Rings (right hand), Pilgrim. Image: Dan Kennedy

I didn’t expect the podcast or the subsequent memoir that came out of it to be the most successful things 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.

How To Fail has had millions of downloads despite, or perhaps because of, its relatively simple  concept. Each week, I ask my guest to speak about three of their ‘failures’.

The idea is to make listeners who are scared of failure feel less alone and reassure them there might be hope on the other side.

It was based on the premise that most failures can teach us something meaningful about ourselves if we choose to listen.

I, too, have examined my own failures: the failure of my marriage; my failure to have children; my failure to resolve things with an ex-boyfriend who was killed six months after we broke up. All these failures have been an integral part of my life.

Elizabeth Day
Shirt, Lisou. Earrings, Missoma. Rings (right hand), Pilgrim. Image: Dan Kennedy

I have thought about more trivial failures, too. The mortifying occasion, as a seven-year-old on the way to the zoo, that my knickers slipped on to the pavement because of their loose elastic. The first date with my now fiancé where I sat down and promptly fell off my chair.

So, yes, I have spent a large portion of the past couple of years thinking incessantly about failure, and the weird thing is that it hasn’t been a negative experience.  On the contrary – I feel stronger, happier and more empowered as a result.

But what is failure? The definition I came up with was failure is what happens when something doesn’t go according to plan.

The problem with my definition is that it doesn’t fully tackle those cataclysmic life events that cannot be easily explained. As I was writing my second nonfiction book, Failosophy, my friend Clemmie [broadcaster and author Clemency Burton-Hill] had a brain haemorrhage and massive stroke at 38, something which she wrote so movingly about in this magazine last month.

Then, after undergoing a cranioplasty to replace half of her skull, she was diagnosed with Covid-19. Thankfully she survived.

Elizabeth Day
Shirt, Lisou. Earrings, Missoma. Rings (right hand), Pilgrim. Image: Dan Kennedy

It would be impossible to equate these life-altering episodes with, say, a failure to pass an exam. That’s why, for example, the Dutch have two words for failure. One is fale, which applies to your common-or-garden-variety failures, such as failing to get into university. The other is pech, which means a failure that is beyond our control.

But while there is little to be done to attack the failure itself, perhaps we do have the power to shape our reaction to times of crisis.

That’s why I’ve distilled everything I’ve learnt about failure into seven key principles to help you through life’s rough patches.

Elizabeth Day: My seven failure principles

1. FAILURE JUST IS It is a fact. It exists. And it happens to all of us. It gives us the opportunity to learn, if we choose to let it.

2. YOU ARE NOT YOUR WORST THOUGHTS Imagine switching off all your thoughts, one by one – would you still exist? Yes. In the past, I set great store by external markers of success – good exam results and job promotions – to prove myself worthy of love and approval. Yet it never seemed to work. Gradually I learned that the voice in my head is not who I am and to ignore the demands and expectations of the outside world.

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Fearne Cotton blazed the trail for podcasts like mine. When she launched Happy Place in March 2018, it went straight to the top of the iTunes chart and has seemingly stayed there ever since. It has done so much to bring discussions about mental health into the mainstream, partly because Fearne has also been honest about her own experiences with panic attacks and anxiety. When I started How To Fail in July 2018, I always knew Fearne would be top of my list of dream guests. A few months later, we ended up sitting next to each other at the British Podcast Awards (spoiler alert: neither of us won but embarrassingly, we both presented awards to other winners) and having a good old natter and then I was sent to interview her for @youmagazine and we got on so well that we hatched the idea of doing each other's podcasts and now HERE WE ARE. What makes Fearne so special is not just her impressive broadcasting career or her bestselling books. No, it's that she is unafraid to be honest. She believes, as I do, that true strength comes from true vulnerability. Fearne joins me to talk about failing most of her GCSEs, a failed engagement and, in one of the most powerful passages of any interview I've ever had the privilege of doing, about her failure to be herself in her 20s and how she lived with an eating disorder for years – and how she recovered. This is the first time she has ever spoken about it, and I am so grateful that Fearne felt this was a safe enough space to bare her beautiful soul. Thank you, Fearne. Your words and your courage will help a great many people. Also thanks for carrying on recording despite taking 587 deliveries while this interview was happening. Listen wherever you get your podcasts. Link in bio! ——————————————————— This season of How To Fail With Elizabeth Day is sponsored by @sweatybetty who are offering all listeners 20% full-price items with the code HOWTOFAIL at checkout. ——————————————————— #howtofail #howtofailwithelizabethday #writersofinstagram #fearnecotton #mentalhealth #podcast #interview #failure #success #wednesdaywisdom #inspo #eatingdisorderrecovery #sweatybetty #discountcodes #happyplace

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3. ALMOST EVERYONE FEELS THEY HAVE FAILED IN THEIR 20S There is one recurring theme on the podcast: the majority of guests feel they failed at their 20s. Fearne Cotton talked about developing bulimia. Lily Allen struggled in the blinding glare of the limelight and had three children in quick succession, the first of whom was stillborn – a trauma that haunts her still. Phoebe Waller-Bridge went on a lot of bad dates. But here’s the thing: all those people who felt like failures in their 20s survived to tell the tale.

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Happy New Year! And what better way to usher in 2019 than with a whole new season How To Fail With Elizabeth Day? (Ok fine, there might be better ways but shhhh.) I am so, so thrilled that my first guest is the one and only Lily Allen, singer, songwriter, millennial chronicler and bestselling memoirist. I can’t quite believed this interview happened, but it did and Lily was so unflinchingly honest about everything from failing at fame to failing at money, self-belief and families. Along the way, we discuss body image, divorce and dealing with tragedy. And she reveals she might like to go into politics: ‘Imagine if Kanye was President and I was Prime Minister! It would be lit.’ Oh Lily, I am so grateful you chose to open up to me and yes you would definitely get my vote (Kanye, not so much). Link in bio! #podcast #howtofailwithelizabethday #failure #success #lilyallen #inspiration #musician #interview #selfhelp #inspo #wednesdaywisdom #noshame #mercuryprize #mythoughtsexactly #memoir #bookstagram #writersofinstagram

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4. BREAK-UPS ARE NOT A TRAGEDY They are horrible. I’ve had six serious ones, including a divorce, and each has well and truly sucked. But every single time, I’ve survived. And every time, I’ve ended up looking back and being grateful for the break-up I’d once wished out of existence.

5. FAILURE IS DATA ACQUISITION When I started the podcast, there was a gender split in how we viewed failure. All the women said they’d failed so many times while almost all the men said they weren’t entirely convinced they had failed. They saw failure as a perfectly overcome-able obstacle on the path to success. So what if we all started to view failure not as something that sinks us, but as something that will help us take our next step?

6. THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A FUTURE YOU I used to be someone with a five-year plan. There was only one problem: it never worked. It made me feel like a failure for not living up to my own expectations. What if, instead of planning for a future version of yourself that doesn’t exist, you pay attention to the present you; the one who does?

7. BEING OPEN ABOUT YOUR VULNERABILITIES IS THE SOURCE OF TRUE STRENGTH The most valuable thing I’ve learnt about failure is that when we are honest about our own vulnerability, we forge the greatest sense of connection with others – and the greatest strength in ourselves.

But do my failure principles work? Short answer: yes. I have put these principles into practice myself. Shortly after I came up with the idea for my book, I found out that I was pregnant. Miraculously, unexpectedly so.

Throughout my 30s, I had tried and failed to have children. During the course of one particularly bleak year, I had two back-to-back cycles of IVF – with both, I got to the final stage of having an embryo re-implanted and both times the pregnancies failed to stick. A few months later, a naturally occurring pregnancy ended in a miscarriage at 12 weeks.

I was flailing around in a sea of hormones, struggling to process emotionally what I now realise was a form of slow-motion grief. I miscarried in October 2015, turned 36 in November and that Christmas, faced the inescapable conclusion that my marriage had broken down. In February, I walked out of the home I shared with my husband. As I dated into my late 30s, any hope of having a biological child dwindled into a sliver of vanishing possibility.

Elizabeth Day
Shirt, Lisou. Earrings, Missoma. Rings (right hand), Pilgrim. Image: Dan Kennedy

When, at 39, I met my partner, we had conversations about trying for a family, but both felt it was healthier to let fate take its course. I didn’t hold out much hope. But then, two weeks after my 41st birthday: the unthinkable. My period was late. Not massively so, but enough for me to notice. I thought so little of it that I bought a pregnancy test at a pharmacy in a tube station then went for lunch.

Afterwards, in the toilets downstairs, I took the test. As I washed my hands, one strong pink line appeared. Well, I thought, that’s it. I’m not pregnant. It was disappointing but unsurprising.

But then, a fainter pink line appeared, as if a figure were walking towards me through fog. I discounted it at first but the second line kept getting deeper in colour. Still, I left the restaurant unconvinced.

I bought another test, an expensive digital one that promised 99 per cent accuracy and when the screen flashed up ‘Pregnant’, I burst into simultaneous tears and laughter. It seemed such a magnificent, serendipitous thing, as if it were somehow meant to be.

Elizabeth Day
Dress, Temperley London. Boots, Jennifer Chamandi. Earrings, Motley x Scott Wilson. Rings (on right hand),
Pilgrim. Image: Dan Kennedy

Being naturally pregnant for the second time was a curious mixture of deep, happy calm and a near constant surface-level anxiety. Every time I went to the loo, I checked for blood. Every time my stomach gurgled, I felt panicked. I rejoiced in my sore boobs and the feeling of tiredness, and I tumbled into uncertainty when the symptoms seemed briefly to disappear.

I clung on for almost six and a half weeks, at which stage we went for an early scan with a lugubrious  consultant who seemed to be running late for something. He inserted the ultrasound probe and then tilted the screen towards me so that I could see what was happening. A semicircle of murkiness appeared. And then: a fuzzy white patch. I was pregnant after all. I hadn’t been imagining it. I breathed out.

The initial signs were good: there was a pregnancy, high up in the uterus, but he couldn’t get a clear look at what was going on within the gestational sac. he fiddled around with the probe, while I winced with discomfort. ‘This is a very small pregnancy,’ he said. ‘I can’t see an embryo.’

I started to cry, the tears leaking out and falling on the paper lining placed over the tilted-back chair. I gripped my partner’s hand tightly, and he returned the squeeze with equal force.

Afterwards, we discussed what it might mean. The consultant had not seemed positive, warning us that the chances of miscarriage were high, but I was still pregnant, wasn’t I? Perhaps it was all going to be fine. It had to be, I thought. The universe had decided this pregnancy was meant to be.

The next day I started spotting. It was Friday 13th. I miscarried on the day I was due to turn seven weeks pregnant, the blood coming slowly at first but then with irrefutable persistence.

Elizabeth Day
Dress, Iris & Ink. Earrings, Daisy Jewellery. Necklaces, Daisy Jewellery, Alighieri. Rings, Pilgrim. Image: Dan Kennedy

It was different from my first miscarriage, which had required a hospital stay to remove what is called, with bleak clinical precision, ‘early pregnancy remains’. Now, I was advised to stay at home and bleed it out. It was barbaric. I was told by male doctors to expect something akin to ‘a heavy period’. But it was much, much worse than that.

It is to be endured behind closed doors, even if that means you end up lying on the floor, as I did, clutching your stomach in pain with each jagged surge of cramping, a towel underneath your body in case you stain the carpet with your blood. I bled for days.

I was sad for a bit. Very sad. The kind of sad that doesn’t shift; that lies beyond your own internal landscape like an incoming blizzard that turns the sky glowering grey. I had failed at something I’d wished for beyond measure not because of a misjudgment or mistake, but because of a predestined quirk of biology that could not have been anticipated or altered.

It was the pech kind of failure and it was a direct challenge to put into practice the formula I had devised over the preceding months. Would the seven failure principles work? Spoiler alert: they did.

They worked primarily because they helped me to realise that this failure was something happening to me rather than swallowing me up whole. This gave me a strange sense of calm. I knew there was hope, that if I gave it time, the pain would either pass or become livable with. I attacked each of the principles, half expecting them to let me down. I had this secret, powerful, shameful fear that the failure principles wouldn’t work and that I’d spent all this time preaching an unintentional falsehood to other people.

Elizabeth Day
Shirt, Lisou. Earrings, Missoma. Rings (right hand), Pilgrim. Image: Dan Kennedy

But another side won out, the side that said I had a new way of being, seven principles to guide me, a philosophy – or a failosophy – which was asking me to take charge of how I wanted to live my life, to make different decisions.

It’s important for me to state that it’s only through genuine personal application that I can tell you these principles do actually work.

They continue to. One of the biggest things I learned was that we can fail and still be at peace. That if we work enough on our strength, our resilience and our acceptance of failure, we will be all right. More than all right, in fact.

This is an edited extract from Elizabeth’s new book Failosophy: A Handbook for When Things Go Wrong, which will be published by 4th Estate on 1 October, price £10. Order a copy for £6.49 until 27 September at whsmith.co.uk by entering the code YOUDAY at checkout. Book number: 9780008420383. Terms and conditions: whsmith.co.uk/terms