Life
2 May 2019 01:19pm

Book reviews: failures

It’s time, argues Elizabeth Day in her new book, to face up to our fears and see failure as a potentially positive force

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Caption: Books on how to handle fears and see failure as a potentially positive force

How to Fail: Everything I’ve Ever Learned From Things Going Wrong

Elizabeth Day, Fourth Estate

From the title, Elizabeth Day’s book How To Fail could be a manual for a start-up, or a self-help book for the office. In fact, it’s more holistic than that, diving into every part of perceived failure, from schoolyard isolation to doing the same job for years without promotion or pay rise.

Day is the host of an ironically successful podcast on the same theme, and she weaves in examples of celebrity failures from her interviews, but the bulk of her material is mined from her own life. She traces how sneering schoolgirls sent her into a downward spiral that affected her grades, and yet, when she did succeed in moving to a different academic environment, she won a place at Cambridge.

She draws a direct link between her childhood desire to please other people and her inability to carve out a specialism while in a supposedly “dream job”. A chapter on valuing her body is followed by one reflecting on the benefits of working for herself. Day found that, having resigned from her full-time job to go freelance, she was forced to value her own work as she hadn’t before, and if she valued it more, others did too.

Readers hoping for straightforward business advice will be left disappointed: while Day riffs on the Silicon Valley mantra that failing is good, she spends as long talking about friends as finance. But ultimately, Day’s target is perfectionism – the kind enforced by exams, Instagram, and society’s ideas about what the perfect career, family and relationship look like.

Striving to meet these impossible standards, she argues, is not only unrealistic but downright harmful. It makes us hard-wired against asking for help when we need it, and leaves others nonplussed about how to offer it. That’s a lesson no one can fail to remember.

Heida: A Shepherd at the Edge of the World

Steinunn Sigurðardóttir, John Murray Press

In 2015, James Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life brought the gritty realities of running a sheep farm in the Lake District to a pampered British public. Four years later, the translation of Steinunn Sigurðardóttir’s Heida: A Shepherd at the Edge of the World aims to do the same for Iceland.

Heida is a single woman who turned her back on a career in modelling to farm in one of the most remote parts of the volcanic island, a place where emotions are frowned upon and her participation in sheep shearing contests can lead neighbours to mutter that she’s drawing too much attention to herself.

Heida is told as a first person narrative, based on hours of countless interviews between the author and the farmer, and it captures the tension between Heida’s can-do attitude and her vulnerability. She came to Sigurðardóttir’s attention due to her opposition to plans to build a power plant, a battle that runs through the book. But while Rebanks’ memoir was also the story of an angry youth coming to terms with modernity, Heida seems as unchanging as the land she treads. One thing becomes clear by the end of the book: power plants or not, she isn’t going anywhere.

The reviewer Julia Rampen is a writer and editor specialising in culture, politics and finance