Award-winning podcast presenter, journalist and author Elizabeth Day Jenny Smith with permission for Varsity

From Greta Thunberg to Rick Astley, Elizabeth Day has made it her life’s work to broadcast the failures of beloved public figures. More precisely, and in her own words, her award-winning podcast How to Fail “spins the conventional interview on its head […] deliberately seeking to understand what obstacles people have overcome and what they’ve learnt along the way.”

When Elizabeth started her podcast in 2018, she wanted to challenge the “era of curated perfection online, where it was vanishingly rare to see a real person on Instagram”. She recalls that the podcast market was far less saturated five years ago, and that “there was a space to talk about things that had gone wrong, rather than purely focusing on the external success everyone else seemed to be having.”

“I was lucky, and I know that’s not everyone’s experience of Cambridge”

She’s talked to Bernie Sanders about his failure to make his high school basketball team, Love Island’s Ovie Soko about being expelled from school, and the iconic Miriam Margolyes’ failure to “marry a nice Jewish doctor”. But she’s also been incredibly candid about her own so-called failures, such as experiencing fertility issues and going through divorce. “When we share our vulnerability, that is the source of all true connection, and connection for me is the most human and the most beautiful feeling.”

Elizabeth Day came to Queens’ College in 1998 and left with a double first in history, but, most importantly, her main activity was writing for Varsity. She has unequivocally fond memories of Cambridge, including her time in Queens’ ‘Betty Ford’ women’s drinking society, and spraining her ankle during a lacrosse game in Cripps Court, “having imbibed too many vodka jellies… I was wearing high heeled boots, don’t ask why…”

Her favourite part of Cambridge life was the history degree. A self-professed “massive geek”, she relished “being surrounded by books and thousands of years of learning”, and the academics who gave time to her “relatively stupid ideas”. Ents officer, President of the History Society, student journalism – Elizabeth could be one of those terrifyingly put-together ‘Sidge girlies’. But her self-awareness is palpable: “I was lucky, and I know that’s not everyone’s experience of Cambridge”. And she speaks of her own ‘failures’ while up at Cambridge: an unsuccessful bid to be a thesp, being far too scared of falling short of perfection, and of course the lacrosse, vodka jellies and high heels incident. Our failures are relative and subjective, but that doesn’t make them any less meaningful or worthy of learning from.

“Failing doesn’t have to be life-determining, and failure is not final”

The notions of failure and success are extremely salient for students at this university, and many have experienced what I call the ‘Cambridge paradox’, being objectively successful but continuing to be plagued by a sense of failure.

Elizabeth has a theory as to why Cambridge students are so preoccupied by impostor syndrome: “You’ve worked really hard, been put under pressure, and therefore dealt with stress and anxiety, and if you are intelligent in the way I believe Cambridge values – you’re curious about the world, you ask questions of it” – curiosity is not bliss.

Her driving philosophy is this: “Failing doesn’t have to be life-determining, and failure is not final. Failure is an opportunity to learn what to do differently next time”.

And she manages to put a positive spin on everything, without minimisation. There’s power in speaking to yourself kindly – something anyone with a good therapist will know. By the end of our interview, she’s corrected me several times: you’re not highly strung, you’re hard-working and think deeply about the world; you’re not “too much”, you have the capacity to share and be vulnerable. Talking to Elizabeth is therapeutic and there are pieces of advice we can all learn from: vulnerability is “the antidote to failure – sharing our experiences, and recognising that we are not alone.”

This philosophy is what enables her to share so much of herself with the world. “I’ve spoken very openly about my fertility journey. It’s very emotional. I knew that other women and men felt alone in this process, but selfishly, it was cathartic for me”. Being labelled as “brave” and “courageous” does not sit comfortably with Elizabeth: “I just think it comes naturally to me. If you were to sit next to me at dinner, I’d only be too willing to tell you everything, and I’d want to find out all about you too.”


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Day has a reassuring message for Cambridge students: “I promise you that you are doing brilliantly. If you are going through dark times, it will pass, and have faith that you will learn something meaningful from it once it has passed.” Most importantly, “University might not be the happiest time of your life, but that doesn’t mean your happiest days aren’t ahead of you […] Don’t be scared of ageing. I feel more myself at 44 than I ever did at 19.”

“Ooh! And drink as much as you can in the college bars!”. But perhaps not in high heeled boots with a mind to playing lacrosse – that is indeed, ‘How to Fail’.