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ELIZABETH DAY:
ROMCOMS, ROCKY AND EMBRACING FAILURE

Elizabeth Day at ENGINE's Brilliant Women Network

For someone who’s known for failure, Elizabeth Day is the first to recognise the irony of her success. With a meteoric rise in public consciousness, her podcast How to Fail and subsequent book have placed her firmly in the heart of popular culture – and have given her a unique insight into how we perceive, deal with, and survive failure.

We were lucky enough to have Elizabeth as a guest speaker at our recent Brilliant Women meetup – a forum for women who don’t really like traditional networking groups – which quickly became one of our most popular events of the year. Speaking in conversation with ENGINE Transformation’s CEO and Founder of the Brilliant Women Network, Emma Robertson, Elizabeth discussed her perspective on life and how failure has radically reshaped the way she lives.

Earlier in the afternoon, our internal Stay Curious event with her drew a crowd that piled in to push the room’s capacity – with staff even sitting on the floor to make more space – to hear Elizabeth share lessons from her book and snag a copy for themselves.

 

The queues for book signings at both events gave another glimpse into the Elizabeth Day effect; almost everyone had a favourite moment or an episode that had helped them through a difficult time to discuss. There’s clearly a powerful connection in this community, which resonated even with first time audience members.

But how did she get to this point?

 

Following the format of her own episodes, Elizabeth lists her major failures as including the breakdown of her marriage and fertility struggles. Finding it impossible to listen to pop songs after the breakup, she turned to podcasts for distraction. As she became stronger and inspired by brutally honest conversations with friends, she tried her hand at making a series of her own.

It’s this perspective that drives her philosophy and work, which she’s happily candid about. A significant moment for her was realising that the failures she had endured were really what she perceived as being important; this was a pressure that she’d put on herself, influenced by what she thought she saw others achieve. While we’re naturally hardwired to compare ourselves to others (which can be a useful tool for driving ambition), we need to be cautious about the heightened effect of social media.

Are we comparing ourselves to reality or a crafted ‘other life’? After all, Elizabeth notes in one example, it’s not always about sitting in the bath eating hummus. 

It’s ok – and common! – to feel ‘less than’, but it’s got to the point where we are afraid to show that publicly. With our lives and actions shared more prominently than ever, we’re afraid to reveal failure. And, with the potential consequences of these failures being immediate, we are becoming increasingly hamstrung when it comes to showing vulnerability.

IF WOMEN MATCH SIX OUT OF TEN CRITERIA FOR A JOB LISTING, THEY FEEL UNQUALIFIED TO APPLY.

It’s here that we are introduced to Elizabeth’s key practice: authenticity. It’s no surprise that this is effective for getting the best reception from audiences, but it’s something we need to practice. Sure, there’s nothing less natural than sitting on Twitter agonising over having to craft an authentic 120 characters only for the moment to quickly pass. But an excellent (albeit tough) starting point is taking a chance and being honest – you’ll inevitably create your best-received work.

Thanks to this honesty, it’s been a year of exploring boundaries for Day, which is incredibly difficult when you’re a people pleaser!

 

 There’s a tendency to outsource your sense of self when you inhabit that role – particularly as a woman when you’re often taught to drown out your intuition – but always trust your gut to tell you the right thing. Being busy, in her experience, is a useful tool as you’re forced to say ‘no’ more often and define boundaries on the fly. There’s a fear that turning things down can make you feel less authentic, but she’s found it to have the opposite effect; you can give yourself the space you need to focus energy to places it’s truly needed.

 From Elizabeth’s story, there’s certainly a gendered element to how failure is processed. It’s a point that needs to be acknowledged, particularly when it comes to the ways in which we put ourselves in the position for failure. 

She cites research that notes that if women match six out of ten criteria for a job listing, they would feel unqualified to apply (something Elizabeth has encountered herself in her 14 years as a staff journalist, where she never asked for a pay rise after feeling unworthy and scared of rejection). Women are very familiar with how failure feels, while (traditionally) men are raised with the image of them inheriting the earth, with an inherent assumption of eventual success. Failure here, typically, is a minor obstacle rather than a personal disaster, whereas women are not accustomed to this way of thinking. We’re more comfortable with the idea of failure.

One of the other key points of discussion was the way we fear failure and how this holds us back. For Elizabeth, this was particularly true when it came to sport and is a great example of how we condition ourselves to think in certain ways. Since childhood, she saw herself as being rubbish at sport – but had really only trapped herself in that narrative. Following her divorce and the first time she saw her body as not doing what it was meant to do, she looked to get out of her head and back into her body through running. Breaking the cycle of her previous thinking connected Day with a new understanding of her own power. By previously not trying, she was denying herself the chance to discover it.

She raises the point of what we categorise as ‘failure’ – because a lot of things aren’t actually that. There’s an enormous power in the language we use, which we wouldn’t aim at our friends but find acceptable to apply to ourselves. We need to relearn our thinking. When things don’t go according to plan, question where that plan comes from and dig deep. Do you really care? Where is the pressure or influence coming from? In Elizabeth’s case, a lot is to blame on 1980’s romcoms.

WE NEED TO RELEARN OUR THINKING

This method of reframing can only lead to more resilience. In the words of Rocky, ‘it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.’ It’s with this (slightly unexpected) phrase of wisdom, courtesy of Emma Robertson, that leads us to Elizabeth’s concluding words of advice:

Failure just is.

Failure is a fact. You can’t avoid or control it – but what you can control is your reaction. You’re in charge of yourself and how you respond and, while not all failures can immediately be assimilated, it’s ok to just keep plodding on. By simply clinging on you survive. 

You are not your worst thoughts.

You are not defined by the random, intrusive things that can pop into anyone’s head (which we also tend to fixate on). You can ask your brain to replace negative thoughts with positive ones; don’t assume that we are defined by our lowest moments.

All failure is data acquisition.

Failure teaches you new ways of handling scenarios and eliminates what’s wrong for you. Look at it as a scientific way of getting closer to the truth and what’s right. Even breakups are lessons rather than tragedies, bringing you closer to what you ultimately need.

So, what’s next for Elizabeth Day? According to her, we’re promised more podcasts, columns, and fiction – as well as updates on her new cat. 

If you want to be on the right list for our next event, join our Brilliant Women Network and stay in the loop.

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