J.K. Rowling on failure and imagination

J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter book series, delivers a commencement address on June 5, 2008, to Harvard University’s Class of 2008. During the ceremony, Rowling received an honorary Doctor of Letters. (Photo used by permission of Getty Images)

Hoping to impart wisdom upon me before I leave their home in less than a year, my parents presented me with a small book for my eighteenth birthday. Its title? Very Good Lives: The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination. The author? J.K. Rowling, who also wrote the seven Harry Potter novels.

The book contains a transcript of the commencement speech that Rowling delivered at Harvard University on June 5, 2008. In her address, she reflected on failure and imagination, two concepts that have shaped her life.

Today, over 10 years later, Rowling’s words remain relevant to not only college graduates but also to people of all ages, including us high school students. So what can we learn from her speech?

Do not fear failure.

Failure can help us focus on what is important and come to new realizations.

“Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential.”

At one point, Rowling had no job, had just divorced her husband, and had to raise their child on her own. This experience gave her a chance to reevaluate her life and focus on writing, her passion. If Rowling had succeeded at another job, would we have the Harry Potter novels today? Instead of viewing failure as the end of our world, we need to view shortcomings in our own lives with a new perspective; when failure comes, we need to take it as a chance for a fresh start and an opportunity to concentrate on what is most important to us.

Failure is natural.

“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.”

It is better to take risks than to live life in fear of failure. We all fail at some point in our lives, so why should we waste time trying to avoid the unavoidable? To ensure success, we high schoolers take the safe route. We enroll in classes in which we know we will succeed; we participate in extracurriculars that we know we are already good at. We should not fear challenges; instead, we should seize the day and learn from failure when it arrives.

One failure prepares us to deal with future failures.

“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.”

Up until her late twenties, Rowling had found success from passing her examinations in school. However, failure gave Rowling more self-confidence than those so-called “successes” ever did. From failure, she learned about her own ability to persevere and discovered which friends would stick by her side. The best part about failure is that once you experience it and learn these lessons for yourself, you will not be afraid to meet it again head-on. Why should we fear failure—in school, in sports, and more—when it presents unique learning opportunities?

We must use our unique imaginations to create a more humane world.

Imagination creates empathy.

“Unlike any other creature on this planet, human beings can learn and understand without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s places.”

According to Rowling, imagination does not include just fantasy worlds and bedtime stories; we can use it to invoke empathy. Rowling herself learned the power of empathy when she worked for Amnesty International. There, employees helped total strangers who had experienced unthinkable violence and trauma. Empathy is a buzzword these days—we high schoolers are told we need it, but we do not always know how to use it. The simple answer? Imagination. Let’s take a moment to imagine ourselves into someone else’s shoes.

Apathetic people might as well commit crimes themselves.

“Those who choose not to empathize enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it through our own apathy.”

We high schoolers often become caught up in our own problems: an argument with a friend or an upcoming due date, just to name a few. Dismissing our place in the collective human race, we only concern ourselves with our daily lives. Sometimes, we need to take a step back and put our problems into perspective, for we easily forget about the issues facing people around the world. When we become content with our own daily lives, we also become complicit in atrocities plaguing our fellow humans.

Imagination grants us the power to change the world.

“We do not need magic to transform our world; we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.”

A belief that we do not possess the power to take action often causes inaction. Nevertheless, according to Rowling, we have more than we need to make the world a safer, more peaceful, more humane place: our imaginations. So why should we hold back? Like Walt Disney said, “If you can dream it, you can do it.” Since we possess the unique ability to imagine infinite possibilities, we also possess the ability to make many—if not all—of those dreams into reality. We Leesville Road High School students must use our privilege, our statuses in society, to, in Rowling’s words, “raise [our voices] on behalf of those who have no voice…to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless.”

So how do you better yourself while also making the world a more compassionate place to live? Two words: failure, imagination. Rowling challenges both you and I to use our experiences of failure and our unique imaginations to our advantage—and to the advantages of the people around us.

Here is a video of Rowling’s speech, courtesy of Harvard Magazine:

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