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.