Book Review: How To Fail by Elizabeth Day

How To Fail

My last book review was a gift off a sister – and so was this book after I put it on my birthday list (yes, I still write a birthday list at 46!!)

Here’s the blurb:

“Inspired by her hugely popular podcast, How To Fail is Elizabeth Day’s brilliantly funny, painfully honest and insightful celebration of things going wrong.
This is a book for anyone who has ever failed. Which means it’s a book for everyone.
If I have learned one thing from this shockingly beautiful venture called life, it is this: failure has taught me lessons I would never otherwise have understood. I have evolved more as a result of things going wrong than when everything seemed to be going right. Out of crisis has come clarity, and sometimes even catharsis.
Part memoir, part manifesto, and including chapters on dating, work, sport, babies, families, anger and friendship, it is based on the simple premise that understanding why we fail ultimately makes us stronger. It’s a book about learning from our mistakes and about not being afraid.

Uplifting, inspiring and rich in stories from Elizabeth’s own life, How to Fail reveals that failure is not what defines us; rather it is how we respond to it that shapes us as individuals.

Because learning how to fail is actually learning how to succeed better. And everyone needs a bit of that.”

I bloody LOVED this book.

I’d enjoyed Elizabeth Day’s novel The Party, and so had high hopes – and I was not wrong – it was great.  Some of it is definitely because we’re a similar age (actually I’m exactly the same age as her older sister) – and have some similar traits – but it was brilliant and really thought provoking.

As Ms Day has interviewed so many people for her podcast and other articles, there was lots of sharing of what celebrities would think about topics – and it felt almost like gossiping (in a nice way, as clearly all of the people interviewed had consented to it!) with a really well connected friend.

The first chapter is about Elizabeth’s life growing up – a chunk of which was in Northern Ireland.  It’s a place we’ve always visited – with family over there, and then one of my best friend’s heading to Belfast for Uni and not coming back (she married a local rather than disappearing, as I realise that might have sounded a bit sinister!)  I remember when we used to drive over as a family there were places we wouldn’t go in our English registered car – and clearly Elizabeth’s English accent marked her out as different too – something I’d never really thought about before.

Just like the author, this Elisabeth failed her first driving test too (I reversed round a corner and up the kerb……)  Having been a geeky girlie swot, it was the first thing I’d properly failed (although the B in GCSE Chemistry had felt like a failure in amongst all of the As the year before) and I didn’t like the feeling at all!  But it was a life lesson for the future.

The third chapter is about failing at your 20s.  I distinctly remember my 25th birthday, living alone in a bedsit on the edge of the red light district in Birmingham having recently split up from my first husband (second big failure time).  I was devastated – this is not how I’d imagined my mid 20s being.  In hindsight it was totally the right thing – and I then swanned off to work in Australia for a few months – without the baggage of people knowing I was a divorcee  – but it still felt like I’d failed big time.

This is turning into a confessional rather than a book review – sorry!

My mid / late 20s were then a minefield of dating.  Back then (thank goodness) there was no social media, camera phones and thus no permanent record of it!  And exactly as Elizabeth says – just when I’d decided I’d be happily single for a while, my second – and current – husband arrived on the scene…..

The failing at sport chapter includes a quote which describes me pretty much exactly.  Ms Day writes “I am an innately competitive person, which has some benefits in that it gives me monumental drive to do stuff, but it’s a trait that also manifests itself in negative ways:  I don’t like losing, and I don’t like being bad at things, especially if I can see no logical reason why I shouldn’t be good at them.” Yep – that’s me summed up right there!

A chapter I found particularly helpful was the chapter on failing at friendship.  I have a fabulous group of friends who I love very much and I know would drop everything for me in a crisis – but I’ve also experienced times when friendships I thought were for life have drifted apart.  This paragraph really resonated with me. “The challenge is taking friendship personally enough to invest your time and affection into it, but not so personally that you feel an emotional vortex when a friend goes through a different phase or wants to hang out with someone else for a while.  Most importantly:  a friend doesn’t owe you anything.  A friend has not made a commitment, has not signed a contract or walked down the aisle and promised to love you until death do you part.  A friend does not need to do anything or be anyone in order to make you feel better about yourself.  Of course, the greatest friends do this anyway, but it is not their job and you should not expect it of them,”

One chapter which I don’t have personal experience of is the failing at babies.  I recognise I’m incredibly lucky that I’ve been able to easily conceive 4 times, and give birth to 4 healthy babies.  Elizabeth writes so eloquently and emotionally about her ‘journey’ through IVF and a subsequent miscarriage.  It is still something that tends to go on behind closed doors for couples – so was a really thought provoking read.  I recently read Olive by Emma Gannon about someone who is childfree by choice – and that prompted me to think about this taboo – but those who are childless (the ‘less’ being such a painful part of the word) is also a taboo too.  Still.  In 2020.

The failing at anger chapter was another that rang very true – and again I think a lot of that is being a similar age.  To quote Ms Day, when talking about the #MeToo movement:  “It was, I think, an age thing.  I was thirty-eight at the time, and part of the sandwich generation of feminists.  We considered ourselves lucky to be standing on the shoulders of those pioneering women who fought the big legal battles again gender discrimination: for suffrage, for equal pay (ha!) and for workplace recognition.  But we also had to accept existing in an imperfect and sexist world.  We’d been raised with the societal assumption that ‘boys will be boys’ and that a bit of inappropriate behaviour on their part was par for the course.  ‘Trying it on’ was the phrase, as if sexual aggression were simply a matter of experimenting with a new look or hairstyle.”
This reminded me of an incident in the late 90s at a corporate dinner when I worked for one of the big accountancy firms.  A senior partner from the Manchester office put his hand down the back of my dress and asked ‘if everyone in the Birmingham office was as sexy?’  I didn’t feel I could be angry and kick him in the nuts or even say anything – he was in a position of power and I was a lowly trainee, so I just walked away.  Some years later he was fined a six figure sum and banned from being an accountant for a professional misdemeanour – but I have to say I was pleased!  A bit like when Al Capone was done for tax evasion – at least the baddie was done for something – but I definitely failed at being angry.

I think you can tell how much I enjoyed this book – I’ve quoted chunks, which I rarely do in reviews, but I want you all to see how great it is!

We actually discussed this book at our Zoom book club this week (like normal book club but not in the pub……..) and everyone who has read it raved about it – so it’s not just me!  I would definitely recommend it as a non fiction downstairs option #bookclubjoke #couldactuallybereadanywhere








3 thoughts on “Book Review: How To Fail by Elizabeth Day

  1. I found this surprisingly uplifting too. That anger chapter was especially good. I never even really thought about the fact that women are treated differently if they appear angry, but I think that’s probably true!
    I had similar experiences as you did with sexist bosses when I was in my 20s especially, and I’m really glad your guy got fired in the end. I once even had this kind of harassment from a guy who worked FOR me, at the company I personally owned at the time. There was a cabinet in the stock room that was really hard to squeeze past to get behind it, and I was alone in the stock room with this guy, and he pointed out that a woman wouldn’t be able to squeeze past “because of these” and then quickly grabbed my breast, as if it was a completely normal thing to do. I swear to god, I considered just kicking him in the balls as hard as I could, but I was just so shocked at the moment that I did nothing and kinda pretended it hadn’t happened. I thought it was a perfect example of this pressure not to appear angry that the book talks about, especially given I was his boss.


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