J. K. Rowling’s address “The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination” (watch below, begins at the 3:24 mark; read the text here), which she delivered at Harvard University in June 2008, might be the most celebrated and inspiring commencement speech available on the internet.
Generously interspersed with expressions of humour yet not even for a moment frivolous or sluggish, the speech is mainly filled with the renowned author’s experiences from the period beginning with her enrollment at university (she attended Exeter for a BA in French and Classics from 1983 to 1986) up till her initial planning and writing of the Harry Potter series (the first was published by Bloomsbury in the UK in 1997).
PART I: THE FRINGE BENEFITS OF FAILURE
Why did she choose “failure”? – in April 2015, while in New York, she was interviewed by TV journalist Matt Lauer, the host of NBC’s The Today Show. Her response (1:39-2:25):
I don’t think we talk about failure enough. It would’ve really helped to have someone who had had a measure of success come say to me, “You will fail! That’s inevitable. It’s what you do with it.” I really put my heart and soul into that because I took it seriously. I thought they’ve asked me so I need to give an honest answer.
At Harvard, to tell the story of her own encounter with failure, she goes back almost half her life. She speaks of the uneasy balance she had to strike between “her ambitions for herself” and “what those closest to her expected of her.” Her parents, both of whom came from impoverished backgrounds and neither of whom had been to college, insisted that she take a vocational degree (instead of Literature) that would give her a secure and stable future. According to them, her “overactive imagination was an amusing personal quirk that would never pay a mortgage nor secure a pension.” Seven years after her graduation, Rowling says she had failed on an “epic scale”. The fears of her parents had come to pass. Her short-lived marriage had imploded. An unemployed single mother, she was “as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless.” This “rock-bottom” situation, which, although was far from fun and should not be romanticised, liberated her and became “the solid foundation on which she rebuilt her life”. Left only with a old typewriter and a big idea, she could now be face to face with her real self, work hard and climb out of poverty by her own efforts.
Words of wisdom:
I would like to make it clear, in parenthesis, that I do not blame my parents for their point of view. There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you.
Talent and intelligence never yet inoculated anyone against the caprice of the Fates…
…failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged.
…some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.
Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected…
…personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life, though you will meet many people of my age and older who confuse the two. Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.
PART II: THE IMPORTANCE OF IMAGINATION
Second, why “imagination”? There are two reasons. The exercise helped her rebuild her life, that’s one. Another – she has seen how the power of human imagination helps free prisoners and save lives. To explain this bit, she recounts instances from her brief stint at the African research department of Amnesty International in London. There, on a daily basis, she would hear stories of torture victims in totalitarian regimes. But with that, witness how one human being could relieve the sufferings of another merely by “thinking themselves into the other’s place”.
Words of wisdom:
Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared.
Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced.
Of course, this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate, or control, just as much as to understand or sympathise.
Choosing to live in narrow spaces leads to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that brings its own terrors. I think the wilfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid.
…those who choose not to empathise enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy.
What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality. (Rowling quotes the Greek author Plutarch)
As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters. (Rowling quotes the Roman author Seneca)
In April 2015, the speech was published by Little, Brown and Company as an illustrated 80-page book titled “Very Good Lives” (the last three words), the sales of which will benefit Rowling’s charity Lumos that works to end the institutionalisation of children worldwide.
Featured: The Elephant House café in Edinburgh, Scotland, which Rowling frequented while writing the very first drafts of Harry Potter (cropped and enhanced) by User “City.and.Color”, CC BY 2.0, Flickr