December 5, 2016

Why you’ll be Stoked on Failure after Listening to J.K. Rowling’s Harvard Commencement Address {Video}

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“One of the many things I learned at the end of that Classics corridor down which I ventured at the age of 18, in search of something I could not then define, was this, written by the Greek author Plutarch: ‘What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.’ That is an astonishing statement and yet proven a thousand times every day of our lives. It expresses, in part, our inescapable connection with the outside world, the fact that we touch other people’s lives simply by existing.” ~ J.K. Rowling, 2008 Harvard University Commencement Address


J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, is one of my personal heroes.

Not only because she wrote something that captured the imagination of millions worldwide (a personal goal of mine), and not only because she now has more money than God, but because she truly understands the value of “failure and imagination.”

This was the theme of her Harvard University commencement address, and she delivered it with great humor, humility and poignancy.

Before I saw the video evidence of her words, I read them while loitering at my local book store, in Very Good Lives: The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination. This small gem of a publication holds the entirety of her speech, and I sat spell-bound (pun intended) until I had read the whole thing right then and there.

Later, I searched the internet for the actual event, because I wanted to hear what I had read and absorb it again with the intonations of her voice and the charm of her delivery.

She said many things that struck a chord with me, but one most important idea was that: after her greatest fear in life was realized—to be a failure—she was still alive. There was opportunity for more!

She still had her imagination, which lifted her to the level of success she has achieved as a novelist.

There are many definitions of success, all of them imparting some kind of wisdom, but what I like about Ms. Rowling’s take is that failure creates space for our imagination to grow.

I used to be afraid of both, failure and success. I wasn’t sure which sounded more horrifying. Failure sounded painful, and success more so—what would be expected of me if I did succeed?

I could see that the audience at the Harvard graduation ceremony were nodding and smiling as they listened, a great many of them older, parents and grandparents of the graduates. No doubt they had already met both success and failure. Most of us hope that we can outsmart failure, if we’re diligent enough, self-disciplined enough, or smart enough.

I used to think this way—but after a few years of failing at a variety of endeavors, I can see that what Ms. Rowling is saying is truly inspiring! Failure is a gift.

After failure, we are so much more expansive—or can be, if we desire it. We can say, “Right, done that.” And anyway, failure is quite subjective. What one person may deem as failure can seem like brilliance to another. As long as you’re following your heart, can you really fail? If your imagination is still firing on all cylinders, have you failed?

“If I have not understood failure will I understand success?” They are like light and dark, one is integral to the other it seems.

Right now, I am grateful for all of my “failures.” I am over the moon excited to fail some more. If failure is to be my teacher, then I am a willing student.

But have a listen for yourself—and see why failure is a most exciting thing, indeed.

One last thing. I just adore that Harry Potter was born in a café in Edinburgh called “Elephant House!”



Author: Monika Carless

Image: Wiki Commons

Editor: Yoli Ramazzina


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