Queens’ College alumna Elizabeth Day is a journalist, novelist and host of the hit podcast How to Fail with Elizabeth Day, and author of the subsequent memoir How to Fail: Everything I’ve Learnt from Things Going Wrong.

As someone who spends a lot of time talking about failure, Elizabeth’s wisdom on the topic is something we can all learn from. Despite graduating with a double first, she admits Cambridge sometimes made her feel like a failure. Cambridge’s challenging theatre scene, for instance, led her to lose confidence in her talent for acting. “I acted a bit at school, and I was like, well, I’m good at acting. So I went for one audition for an adaptation of Amadeus, and it was awful. I never heard back. Suddenly I realised I was nowhere near as good as other students. I never tried acting again. I felt like a failure. I was still such a perfectionist: if I wasn’t going to be perfect at something, then I didn’t want to do it at all. It’s such a ridiculous way to live.”

After graduating with a degree in History, Elizabeth, who has gone on to write for such publications as The Observer, the Sunday Telegraph and British Vogue, got a job as a columnist for The Evening Standard. “I was sort of oddly determined to be a journalist from a young age, and I started getting loads of work experience on local newspapers, and then when I was at Cambridge, I got really involved in Varsity and I edited my college magazine. I also had internships during the holidays. All of those things helped them me to make that into a living, as I know it’s so to try and get a job in media. Now, if you’re not lucky enough to come from a wealthy background, you can’t do endless unpaid internships, so my way of doing that was to get my experience up while I was studying. I actually went to a careers evening at Cambridge, and I absolutely hated careers evenings, but the first person that I ran into was the deputy editor of the ‘Londoner’s Diary’ on The Evening Standard. We got talking and then he offered me a week’s work experience in the holidays, which turned into a full time job.”

“I had a sort of romanticized vision I would be stalking the corridors of power.”

Journalism has become a notoriously competitive industry, and many people dream of reaching the kind of success that Day has found in her career, especially in the last few years with the vast success of her podcast. So, I ask her, has the journalism industry lived up to her expectations?

“Yes and no. I did have a very romanticised notion that it was going to be like, Lois Lane in The New Adventures of Superman, that I was going to be sort of stalking the corridors of power, and when I started my job was essentially a gossip columnist so it wasn’t like that. But it was very fun. I used to have to bowl up to celebrities and ask them something that would make for an entertaining titbit for the next day’s newspaper. I got to go to all of these extraordinarily glamorous parties, which in the normal course of events I would never have been invited to, all sorts of film premieres, book launches and even Cannes Film Festival. I learned a lot from that job too. One of the main things I learned was what makes a story, how to convey it in a minute minimal amount of words, and how to write it quickly to deadline. And all of those served me so well in the future. All journalistic experience, even if it’s not exactly what you want to be doing, is really useful for the future.”

“We need the unknown as a space in which to grow.”

“Now I have my own column (in You Magazine) and that is really beyond my wildest dreams. It’s just so nice to have a platform, to be given total freedom. And the one thing that really has lived up to expectation is the incredible people I’ve met along the way. When I was on both to The Sunday Telegraph and The Observer, I would be sent sometimes to interview people at really difficult points in their life and they would invite me into their homes to tell me their stories, and that’s an incredible honour.”

With newspapers selling fewer and fewer copies, and a trend towards a reluctance to pay for journalism, the future of the industry is often viewed with cynicism. Elizabeth, however, doesn’t share this sense of pessimism.

“I’m unfashionably extremely optimistic. I’m a huge believer in two things. I’m a believer in talent. Good work will always find an audience, in whatever format. I’m also a believer in the fact that people want increasingly well-curated content. Although there is so much information out there, and we’re constantly being bombarded online, there’s so much to be said for a really smart publication or website that has a consistency of tone, which curates quality content for its audience. I always cite The New Yorker magazine as an example of a print publication whose circulation is rising, and you may think The New Yorker, which is pretty dense looking, and doesn’t have photos, wouldn’t appeal in today’s world. You would think there would be no appetite for that because everyone wants a TikTok video now. But actually there’s loads of appetite for it. So, I think reports of [the journalism industry’s] death have been greatly exaggerated. The key is to keep evolving.”

These days, the thought of graduating into a full-time job at a newspaper seems like a miracle, yet, Elizabeth says, those leaving university now shouldn’t let their fears get the better of them.


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“I think a lot of young people are more worried than ever about failing, especially as they leave university. But I think the problem with a fear of failure is that it means that you often don’t take the opportunities that are presented to you, and you don’t take the risk because you’re so worried about what might go wrong and how you might be perceived. Keep trying, because eventually the right thing, I promise, will come to you, and you will look back and feel grateful for all the things that you learnt along the way. As Gloria Steinem said, (whom Day interviewed last year) fear is often a signifier of growth. What we’re fearful of is the unknown, but we need the unknown as a space in which to grow.”