Tuesday 10 June 2008

The Fringe Benefits of Failure

and the Importance of Imagination

I don't often get inspired by speeches but I was really taken in by the recent Commencement Address given by J.K. Rowling, author of the best-selling Harry Potter book series, to graduates of Harvard University. Rowling spoke about the fringe benefits of failure and the importance of imagination.

Rowling knows about both, having lived the proverbial rags to riches story. She was, at one point in her life, a single parent living on the breadline in the UK. Faced with a sense of personal failure, and the need to do something about her situation, she used her vivid imagination and her love of writing to pen her beloved Harry Potter books. The rest, as they say, is history.

Here is part of her speech and you can read or listen to the full speech here.

Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. So I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.

Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality. So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because 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. I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

You might never fail on the scale I did, but 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 gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. 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; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above rubies.

The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more to me than any qualification I ever earned.

Given a time machine or a Time Turner, I would tell my 21-year-old self that 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.

You might think that I chose my second theme, the importance of imagination, because of the part it played in rebuilding my life, but that is not wholly so. Though I will defend the value of bedtime stories to my last gasp, I have learned to value imagination in a much broader sense. 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.

If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped transform for the better. We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better. "

"And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life."
That sure is a powerful line to remember when riding the rollercoaster called LIFE!


  1. Lilly, thanks for sharing this. I would not have known of this beautiful speech with very powerful message if it isn't for your post. K. Rowling deserves everything she received from her hard work. Very good for her. I'm not a follower of her works, but my daughter is. I'm just not much into fantasy type. I enjoy watching them in the big screen, but for some reason, I just can't get myself into reading them.

  2. Funnily enough Tashabud I'm the same. I've started to read The Lord of the Rings several times and then my eyes cross.

    But J K Rowling is a phenomenon and an inspiration ~ I still can't bring myself to read Harry Potter though ~ I was the same with the Da Vinci Code. As soon as a 'craze' commences I tend to slope off in the opposite direction (misfit and loner that I am)


  3. @ Tashabud - I am the same. I read one of the books and that was it but I have watched them on the big screen. I just loved what she said in this speech and I loved the fact she was so nervous about giving the speech. She speaks to anyone who is going through a rough patch in their lives. I love inspiration no matter where it comes. Thaks for dropping by Tasha!

    Soulmerlin - he he about Lord of the Rings. Most of understand entirely. She certainly is a phenomenon and I really like the lessons she learnt. Thanks for dropping by Henry.

  4. What a fantastic fairytale this is. That's what they say, when you are at your lowest point you have the potential to do something truly fantastic. Now if I can just get out of the gutter I could go get a pen and paper and start my book. Maye thats the problem, you really need to have everything taken away from you to free you up to achieve your life's purpose. Do you think?

  5. That is some speech, and I am glad you posted it. Words of wisdom for us all. I have not read the books, but I have seen all of the movies. Loved them.

    I'm just about to finish up Stephen King's Dark Tower Series. Not his usual work, but I've never read any thing like them.

  6. I've always admired JK on her masterpiece - Harry potter. However, herself and her speech are much much more impressive

  7. @ Troublex2 - this is a spech to give to your kids except its probably not something we fully understand until we have lived a bit. I really got some good thoughts from it - she is clever with words after all. Wow I want to hear more aobut the series you have read - think about doing a post on it perhaps? Why so different? I am not intrigued enough to go have a read myself.

    @ Juicemag - I think JKR is impressive and anyone who knows what its like to be poor will never forget it. Her speech is also one that anyone of any age can understand and get something from. Thanks for dropping by and commenting. Appreciate it.

  8. Beautiful powerful, inspiring words

    I hope she sues her vast wealth to hep others not so fortunate turn their lives around.

  9. I'm a big fan of JK, her books and her attitude. She sets an example to us all and her success shows how imagination and persistence can pay off.
    How much you need and want success is a crucial factor in any writers life. There are those who give up without fulfilling their potential, hardly surprising really, writing can be a demoralising business especially with rejection slips coming almost daily in the post.
    But if you keep at, eventually you'll get to were you want to be.

  10. Lilly, you gotta come and read the next installment of my novel if you're still interested. It's getting fairly hot. He, he, he.


  11. baby~amore - I believe she does give a lot of her money away too. I just love the lessons she tells. Anything is possible.

    Jon - well as a writer she definitely would fuel your dreams. I cant imagine sitting down long enough to write a book only to face the slips in the mail. Takes courage amd perserverence as well as talent. But I guess when your work gets accepted it must be truly a wonderful feeling.

  12. Tasha - I thought you said you were not into fantasy types - but look at your novel. Rob is my ultimate fantasy, he he. Do you think you could introduce a Lilly as competion for Sandy? I am also 5 ft 9, blonde and green eyed, more Rob's type surely! Loved the latest chapter, and had me spell bound until the end. Have you sent it to Mills and Boon?


Thanks for your comments.