How to fail

Book Review

Elizabeth Day
2019, Fourth Estate, 352 pages.

Holly Rees

Award-winning journalist and author Elizabeth Day has, ironically, enjoyed huge success with her popular podcast entitled ‘How To Fail’. Day interviews well-known guests, including Jess Philips MP, Dame Kelly Holmes and Lily Allen, about what it has been like for them when things go wrong. Inspired by the podcast, her 2019 book of the same name, is part memoir and part-manifesto, offering personal stories of failure from dating and work to sport and tests.

As a trainee counsellor, it was the stories about fitting in, relationships, friendship, families and anger that drew me in, because every day, as counsellors, we are meeting clients who want to explore what it’s like to relate and be accepted. I was initially drawn to the book’s vividly colourful cover with its bold lettering of HOW TO FAIL (written upside down) at a particularly poignant time in my counselling training. It was just before the exam, and I was exploring failure and whether I was ‘good enough’ in my own personal counselling. I would wonder, ‘am I a good enough friend/daughter/sister/girlfriend/counsellor…and even client?’ Then there it was in a bookshop, calling out to me like a beacon of bright orange hope… I pondered, maybe I am not the only one feeling like a failure?

In her podcast, Day approaches each interview with emotion, love and humour. It is refreshing and humbling to hear about how even the most famous, successful people have experienced failure and vulnerability, but also triumph. Written as she approaches her fortieth birthday, the book is just as rich in its content; a tapestry of painfully honest but inspiring insights.

Written in an expressive and passionate way, the book is well structured with each chapter tackling a different area of failure. Day opens the book with the words, ‘one of my earliest memories is of failure’ (p.1); words that immediately struck a chord with me, that I understood from a personal perspective. But also, thinking of the counselling room, how often will we, as counsellors, be sat in front of a client who feels like they are somehow failing?

Day describes her first encounter with failure at three years old as being one of her most vivid memories of childhood, and how her failure to help her sister subsequently had a big impact on her life. This is something we hear – directly or otherwise – in almost every session from clients; how childhood has influenced their adult lives.

Although there were more failures to come for Day, the book teaches us as readers an important lesson, that learning to fail is ‘actually learning how to succeed better. And everyone needs a bit of that’ (foreword). Although the book doesn’t necessarily break new ground for me, it normalises the experience and feeling of failing and of not being afraid to learn from my mistakes. Being able to recognise this at my level of training, and accepting my own failures, will allow me to be better able to walk alongside my clients when they bring their own stories of failure and how it affects them emotionally.

The chapter, ‘How to Fail at Being Gwyneth Paltrow’ was one of my favourites, as it looks at the importance and pressure that society puts on appearance and how we ‘should’ look, setting a standard that is probably above what we can reasonably reach. Again, how often do our clients play the ‘should’ game? But it is the book's penultimate chapter that deals with how we, as women, often fail at feeling anger, at pleasing others, often overlooking our own needs, that I will keep going back to. This reminded me of another fantastic book, The Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner, which looks at how anger affects women's relationships, and offers advice on how to turn this often destructive influence into a constructive one.

Peppered with quotes from her podcast guests, this book is not just about the feelings of failure but also of grief, shame, resilience and, importantly, humility and courage. Day shows us that being true to ourselves, having meaningful relationships and making mistakes can help us evolve. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the counselling process when reading this book, and of the client’s journey, as well as my own, through counselling. And as Day so eloquently puts it herself, ‘out of crisis has come clarity, and sometimes even catharsis’ (p.5).

Day describes this book as ‘a book for anyone who has ever failed. Which means it’s a book for everyone,’ (p.341) a statement with which I wholeheartedly agree.

Holly Rees is currently studying for a Level 4 Diploma in Therapeutic Counselling at Farnborough College of Technology. She works as a Volunteer Counsellor at No5, a community- based organisation offering counselling and support to children and young people in Reading. Her theoretical approach is humanistic integrative; it is based on the Person-centred (PC) approach, with insights from Psychodynamic Theory. Find her @holly_uc / https://www.linkedin.com/in/holly-rees/
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