How To Fail With Elizabeth Day – the podcast that celebrates the things that haven’t gone right – but teach us how to succeed better – fits perfectly with our 2020 #happyyouyear campaign, encouraging a focus on self-love over self-improvement. We’re thrilled the podcast had five million downloads last year. Did you ever imagine it would be such a huge success?
Not at all. And I am aware of the irony of a book and a podcast about failure becoming the most successful things I’ve ever done [laughs]. The podcast basically started as a result of me being dumped three weeks before my 39th birthday. I felt like a failure because during the decade of my 30s I had got married and divorced, I had tried and failed to have children using IVF, and then this new relationship had ended. I started having conversations with my friends and I realised that from all the toughness of that decade, I had ended up learning something of use. That’s how the idea of ‘How To Fail’ was born. I thought it would be great to open the conversation to a wider audience, but it was definitely a small passion project for me. As thousands began listening I realised we were all desperate for this kind of conversation.
How do your men and women interviewees differ when it comes to perceiving failure?
When I first started the podcast in July 2018, the men I approached would say to me, ‘I’m not sure I’m right for this because I’m not sure that I have failed.’ And generally speaking, the women would say, ‘I’ve failed so much that I can’t whittle it down to three.’ This wasn’t the men being arrogant, they had just been taught to believe that if you are white, middle class and privileged, if something goes wrong in your life you don’t take it as a verdict of personal failure, you take it as an obstacle to overcome on the path to your eventual route to success. Whereas women internalise and take failure personally.
Do you ever say no to people who approach you to come on the podcast?
Yes – I often receive generic pitches, rather than an extraordinary, relatable or personal story. Some people email me saying, for example, ‘Hello, my name is Kevin. I am 57 from Lancashire and I am running a marathon and I will be willing to share my story with you’. There are a lot of men thinking they’d be really great guests and I would be lucky to have them on. So yes, I am selective.
Out of all your guests so far, who surprised you with what they had to say?
Fearne Cotton, because she decided to use How To Fail as the space in which she was going to talk for the first time about the fact that she had lived with bulimia for much of her twenties. I think it was a perfect example of someone who was made stronger by sharing the time in their life when they had felt shame. Camilla Thurlow, a former Love Island contestant, was also phenomenally articulate about living with severe anxiety. After, someone came up to me in Sainsbury’s to say her explanation of anxiety helped them share their feelings with their family.
Who is on your wish list to interview?
Michelle Obama. She is calm, insightful, wise – and such an incredible role model. Ariana Grande, because she champions female strength, and has dealt with tragedies including the Manchester bombing and the death of an ex-boyfriend. Finally, Stormzy, because he is smart and has interesting things to say about mental health.
You have been incredibly honest about your ‘failure’, when it comes to marriage and becoming a mother. Would you be open to marrying again?
I would be massively open to it. I am an incurable optimist in the sense that I always have hope in life. Just because my first marriage went wrong it has in no way put me off the idea of it.
Would you still like to have a child?
I would. I feel jealous of women and men who don’t have to consider medical possibilities; who just have straightforward pregnancies and live in blissful ignorance of the trauma that a lot of people go through. I do see myself as a mother, but I also know that my life will be full and happy if I’m not, because I am lucky that my partner has three children and I have 10 godchildren and two nieces. If I don’t become a mother, maybe I can be part of a pioneering generation that reframes what a woman’s role in society is.
Is there a question you wish you were asked more?
I wish I got asked more about politics, because I’ve got so much to say!
That works for us – what are your thoughts on Boris Johnson and the Conservative party leading the country this year?
I have an issue with a Prime Minister who has had a record of lying, a record of casual racism in his newspaper columns, a record of slightly ambiguous dealings with women and who doesn’t publicly acknowledge how many children he has. Having said that, I really hope he proves me wrong and does a great job, because I worry about ordinary people who are facing a really difficult economic time. Meanwhile, the independently wealthy Prime Minister will not be touched by the economic devastation that I believe Brexit is going to bring.
Who did you vote for?
I voted Lib Dem. I couldn’t get my head around the ugly stream of anti-Semitism in the Labour party.
You’re good friends with epic scriptwriter Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Would you ever put pen to paper in this way?
It is not an interest of mine. I think scriptwriting is a really different skill to writing a book.
Do you have plans to release another book?
I do – I’m actually working on two at the moment. One is an accompanying book to How To Fail, called Failosophy, which covers the seven principles of failure that I developed during my book tour. This will be a very practical but inspirational book – released in autumn this year – with lots of quotes and advice from people who have been on my podcast. I am also writing a new novel, which I hope will come out in spring 2021.
Finally, do you enjoy social media and how it’s such a huge part of our lives now?
I enjoy using Instagram, but I keep perspective. I know that people aren’t necessarily portraying everything going on in their lives, and why should they? I choose not to post about the times I’m crying in the bath! One of my top tips on navigating our way through the social media forest is to curate who you follow. Only follow people who inspire, amuse, stimulate you or make you feel supported. Everyone else? Mute them.
How To Fail is now available to purchase in paperback from all good bookstores