How epic fails in the world of dating, work and sport can make you a success

MANY of us fear failure, but what if it could be the making of you?

Elizabeth Day is behind the podcast How To Fail and has now written a book celebrating failing. She shares five lessons she has learned…


I was in a series of long-term relationships from the age of 19 to 36, culminating in a three-year marriage.

When I emerged, blinking, into the light of singledom after my divorce, I found that the world of dating had undergone aseismic change.

Apparently, you no longer met people in bars. You met people online, which seemed terrifying.

“What if they’re an axe murderer?” I asked my friend.

“You’re more likely to meet an axe murderer in the bars you go to,” she replied, which was a fair point. So I signed up to the apps and started swiping right.

I had a number of dates that were painfully mediocre. I also had sex with a man who allowed his dog to watch (and spoke to the pet throughout).

I went on a date with a guy who brought a camp bed round to sleep on. Once, I even matched with a machete-wielding midget.

My failures in dating, although bruising at the time, taught me much more about what I wanted in a romantic partner.

I came to see the rejections not as personal indictments of who I was but as a necessary process for me to go through in order to get to the right person. Failure, in this respect, was data acquisition.

And guess what? It worked. I finally met someone. He’s great.


I spent a lot of time being a people-pleaser in my twenties. It meant that, at work, I said yes to every single thing my bosses wanted me to do.

At one point, I even tried out an orgasm machine at the behest of a male editor (no, it didn’t work).

I never complained. I never asked for a pay rise. I was pliant and pleasant and worked overtime without a murmur.

And then, after eight years as a staff feature writer on a national Sunday newspaper, I realised my career had not progressed one iota.

By not asking, I had not got. So I quit my job and went freelance.

My failure taught me that the only way to get others to take you seriously is to start by taking yourself seriously.

It turned out to be the best professional decision I ever made.


I always thought I was rubbish at sport. At school I was never picked for any of the teams.

I hated hockey, was awful at tennis and was only part of the netball squad because my height meant I was OK in goal.

And then, when my marriage ended, something weird happened. For the first time ever, I felt the compulsion to go for a run.

I laced up my trainers and jogged around the park listening to angry hip-hop, panting and sweating as I went. As painful as that first run was, it also gave me a sense of achievement that I had propelled myself forward with my own physical strength.

For those 20 minutes, I had got out of my own mind and reinhabited my body.

It made me realise that although I had failed at school sport, this did not make me unsporty.

In fact, it turned out that although I didn’t like team sport, I loved exercise. It just had to be the right kind.

These days, I go to the gym and I enjoy the sense of physical ­wellbeing it gives me.


I was once commissioned to write a piece about living life as the Hollywood actress Gwyneth Paltrow.

This involved spending a week going for facials, eating macrobiotic food, working out and having my vagina steamed (yes, really).

By the end of that week, I realised two things: looking like Gwyneth was a full-time job and it cost a lot of money.

For us mere mortals to aspire to the impossible physical standards set by celebrities is absurd. That’s why my failure to be Gwyneth Paltrow made me feel much happier about my body and my life.

It was such a relief to go back to being me and having the time to do the things I really wanted that I truly didn’t mind there was no chance of my ever looking like her.


I always thought I’d be a mother, but it hasn’t worked out that way.

In my thirties, I had unsuccessful IVF treatment and a miscarriage at three months.

When I turned 40 last year, I decided to put those dreams to one side.

I am at peace, now, with the probability that I won’t have a biological child, but I’m extremely lucky to have lots of children in my life.

I’m an aunt and a godmother and I get a great deal of love from those experiences, without any of the bother of having to change nappies or enforce bedtimes.

My failure to have babies has also allowed me to forge new friendships with other women who find themselves in the same position.

I cherish the solidarity of these women.

Coming to terms with not being a mother has made me realise, in a profoundly beautiful way, how much life can offer you even when it doesn’t go according to plan.

  • How To Fail: Everything I’ve Ever Learned From Things Going Wrong by Elizabeth Day (4th Estate) is out now.

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