t the risk of sounding like a mediocre TED talk, failure is entirely in the eye of the beholder. One of its defining features may be an implied sense of loss, but if we reframe how we think about it, we can have control over how it impacts us. This ethos is one of the driving forces of journalist and author Elizabeth Day’s career, which has, rather ironically, found further success by way of a podcast called “How To Fail.”
Day’s chart-topping interview series – guests have included Killing Eve creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Lily Allen and Man Repeller contributor Pandora Sykes – is not a failure. And yet, it was born out of one: Day was nursing a particularly sore breakup in Los Angeles when the idea for the podcast came to her. It launched in 2018, has been downloaded more than a million times, and has just been released as a bestselling book. But when the idea to talk about failure first germinated in Day’s mind, she thought of herself as one.
“I was on the eve of my 39th birthday facing an uncertain future and I really did feel like that was the bleakest period of my life,” Day recalls. “I was so desperate at one point that I googled ‘How long does it take to get over someone?’”
The biggest lesson Day has learned from her own failures is that “heartbreak doesn’t kill you.” She believes there is something to be learned from every failure, colossal or insignificant. “The first thing you need to do is realize that you can learn,” Day says. “Failure is not an all-encompassing verdict on who you are as a person. Instead of your default being to react negatively to failure and think you’re hopeless, choose instead to see it as a lesson wrapped up in a mistake. That automatically switches your mindset into something you can own.”
Counselling Psychologist Dr. Sarah Davies agrees that learning from failure is entirely about reframing what failure means to you. “I don’t think it’s the actual failures or setbacks that have the biggest impact on our mental health,” she explains. “It’s the meaning we ascribe to them, and the beliefs we have about ourselves in response to what has happened.”
Learning from failure requires you to silence your harsh inner critic who’s dressed like Michelle Yeoh in Crazy Rich Asians and is whispering, “You will never be enough” in your ear over and over again. Davies suggests you ask yourself: What am I saying to myself about this failure? Am I beating myself up about it? Or am I able to be compassionate, kind and forgiving to myself?
There is a big difference between reframing failure and erasing it, though. There’s no point pretending failures don’t exist. “Of course there is [such a thing as failure], sometimes,” Emily Nagoski, co-author of this month’s stress manifesto, Burnout: The Secret To Unlocking The Stress Cycle, says. “If you’re applying for a job, either you get it or you don’t.”
But, Nagoski stresses, it’s crucial to understand that failing and quitting are not the same thing. “Sometimes we decide to walk away from one goal in order to pursue a different goal,” she explains. “Quitting isn’t failing. It’s deciding that you’d rather invest your time, energy and other resources in a goal that matters more to you and contributes more to your sense of connection with yourself and your sources of meaning and purpose.”
Dr. Sheri Jacobson, founder and CEO of Harley Therapy, agrees. “What about changing the way we divide everything into a win or failure in the first place?” she says. “It is a lonely way to look at things, as it intrinsically divides us into groups… where we are constantly judging ourselves. What if everything was just an experience? Or something that we tried that didn’t work out the way we planned?”
Like most things – sex, wine, Steve Carell – failure gets better with age. It’s only as you get older that you gain the perspective to look back on your setbacks and mistakes. “As soon as I turned 40, I felt really empowered,” Day says. “Like I had rocket boosters. Because I no longer had to fear it, and I realized I had accumulated all this experience and wisdom from living and owning my past.”
Short of aging overnight, Day says that the most important thing is to recognize that failure happens to everybody. “One of the things that makes us ashamed to admit failure is that other people appear to be living better lives than us,” she explains. “That is the curse and the gift of social media. Don’t believe the hype of someone’s projected life. I guarantee you that every single person who you admire or aspire to be has their fair share of failure. And that is a very democratizing and comforting thing.”
We all fail at different things. Chris Pine has failed spectacularly at unearthing my number and asking me out. I am certain that even Beyoncé has failed at something. (Failure itself, maybe.) And even now, I am failing at finishing this story. Perhaps I should have planned this better, but I suppose that’s a lesson for next time.
Animation by Madeline Montoya.