Journalist, author, and broadcaster Elizabeth Day has become extremely well-known in recent years thanks to her popular podcast, How to Fail, and was this year's Sunday host for an in-person discussion all about failure. Introduced by Jude Kelly, the founder of the WOW Foundation, Day took to the stage to raucous applause before launching into a monologue about how women are often more harsh to themselves than others about their perceived failures, and discussed finding her success later in life. It was short, but Day didn’t waste any words before subsequently introducing her two guests: chef, presenter, and previous How to Fail guest Andi Oliver, and musician Jordan Stephens, formerly of the band Rizzle Kicks.
It was masterful how Day managed to turn the packed Royal Festival Hall in the Southbank Centre into an intimate space for deep and probing conversations with her guests; it was akin to being a fly on the wall in her podcast studio rather than a large auditorium. There was little time for small talk between the trio as Day firstly brought up Oliver’s episode, which has been one of the series’ most popular, in which she detailed her struggles with eating disorders, before talking to Stephens about his emotions as he pondered what his main failures in his life have been.
Considering it was the Women of the World Festival after all, the conversation of emotions and failures turned to one of gender, as Oliver felt that reasons for her mental struggles have largely been down to wanting to please everyone, which women often bear the brunt of in society. Stephens eloquently weighed in, discussing how being a man in the public eye means he still seeks self-validation from public opinion, and consequently struggles with being openly vulnerable.
To see such prominent figures in the media landscape be so open and honest about their own struggles was refreshing, and Day facilitated a welcoming space for them both. Still on the topic of emotions, Oliver broached the subject of racism, and talked about how even as a fifty-eight year old woman, she is still traumatised from racist abuse that occurred in her youth. One aspect of this that she reflects now on as an adult, is how she learnt to guard herself from it and tries not to let herself turn immediately to anger. She states that anger only affects her internally, not the other person, and this is especially the case in the age of social media and trolling as ‘everyone is ready for the fight’ currently.
Following on from Oliver’s sage advice, Stephens who himself recently turned thirty, also reflected on how he has gained a better sense of self-understanding as he aged. Day brings up his infamous article in The Guardian, published at the height of the MeToo movement in 2017, which detailed his experiences of toxic masculinity and his failure to separate himself from this. He confessed that he wrote it at his uncle’s place in Brazil after a particularly bad breakup, and reflected on the ways in which he had hurt his ex-partner and his personal shame at his failure as a partner. He admitted to being part of toxic masculinity in his youth, as despite being almost exclusively raised by women, he felt like he had been encouraged by society to always ‘get’ something which led to him not valuing himself sexually. Stephens’ frank introspection was fascinating to listen to, as his candour is not something which has often been echoed by his male counterparts.
His reference to his privileges as a man regarding failures then led to a conversation surrounding the racial elements of failure, and how some people are allowed to ‘fail upwards'; one’s life can still advance despite making mistakes. Oliver asserts that what people do with their privilege is their prerogative, and that there shouldn’t be an assumption that someone’s life is easy because of different privileges they may have - much like failure, privilege does not solely exist within a binary and intersectionality is needed. Stephens added that external privilege still doesn’t necessarily protect people from heartbreak and failure, referring to friends with poor family relationships despite having lives that are deemed externally good and happy.
Ultimately, the trio end with the idea that failure is a subjective idea, and humans can often be drawn to negative bias and so are more likely to perceive themselves as having failed than succeeded, especially in an age of constant comparison. Day was in equal measure caring and probing with her guests, and both Oliver and Stephens’ no holds barred approach made for an insightful discussion that was the perfect antidote for Sunday evening blues, and to start the ending of the 2022 WOW Festival.
The WOW Foundation was created by Jude Kelly CBE in 2018 to run the global movement that is WOW - Women of the World Festivals. The Festivals began in the UK in 2010, launched by Kelly at the Southbank Centre London, where she was Artistic Director, to celebrate women and girls, taking a frank look at what prevents them from achieving their potential, raising awareness globally of the issues they face, and discussing solutions together. You can find out about the work they do here.
Written and edited by Maisie Allen, Literature Editor