As I have mentioned a number of times previously, I enjoy listening to a podcast called “How to Fail with Elizabeth Day” in which minor celebrities discuss their battles with failure, how they have made peace with it and how it might have changed their lives. However, for a while now, there has been a niggle in the back of my mind about the whole premise of the podcast.
It bothers me slightly that all the people on the podcast are minor celebrities. It bothers me that all these discussions are with people who, by the reckoning of any “normal” person, would be considered to be significant successes. They have published books. They have topped charts in music. They have received recognition in their fields whether that be feminism or medicine.
It’s fine to only discuss failure when you can introduce the person first with a list of fabulous achievements so that the interviewee sits snug in her chair, knowing that she has been proved successful after all. But for the average listener the definition of the word success is less obvious, less quantifiable. So tonight I sent Ms Day the below email. I am very curious to see if she will reply. I don’t really expect her to.
I am Australian and a big fan of your podcast. Since last year, I have listened to nearly all the episodes.
But, although I love hearing people’s stories and relating to their troubles, I struggle with the one-sidedness of the discussion. All the people you interview are what an average person would call “very successful”. You can find something about pretty much all of them on the internet. They have made names for themselves in their fields. I (of course) include you in that list. So for the average person, living an average life, I think it’s kind of important that you address the question of what “success” is as well. One of your failures which you discuss a lot, is your “failure” to have children. I have had two children but I don’t consider that a success. I consider it to be my good fortune. I am a writer but not a published writer. I have had no career and have been a stay at home Mum for the last 8 years. Where do I look for success in my life? My point is, most people can list their failures. But some people find it pretty hard to list their successes. Don’t you think that’s an important second side to the work you have begun?
The two achievements in my life of which I am most proud are: going to China for a year to teach English; and having a second child. Both of those are related to overcoming fear. Going off to a foreign country where I knew only three words in the local language was terrifying. And having a second child after a pretty tough first birth was also a big deal for me. So those are two cases where I have overcome my fear and, in that sense, I suppose you could call them successes.
My only other way of defining success is to rate my own performance in areas I think are important. For example, I rate kindness very highly and would like to think that, in general, I am a kind person. Of course, that’s hard for me to judge. I am also incredibly anxious about Climate Change and like to think that I am doing my bit towards the fight against it. That is an ongoing battle in which I rate myself pretty harshly. And, of course, I would love to think that I am a good mother. But again, the rating system is a little hard to navigate.
What do you think? Do you think success for the average person is about pay rises, job offers and careers? Or can we find success at home as well? What defines success?