Failure as Incentive, Imagination as Conduit
Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling’s imagination is world renowned, but her failures – and her meteoric rise from the ashes of a seemingly broken life – are equally celebrated. The author used these guiding themes from her own life to inspire this year’s Harvard graduating class in a lively, thoughtful commencement speech on Thursday, June 5, 2008. “These may seem quixotic or paradoxical choices,” she admitted, but she asked her audience to “please bear with me.” Bear with her they did.
Rowling first emphasized how her own failures freed her to chase her dreams, unhindered by expectations and untethered from the need to jealously protect any accumulated respect, possessions, or rungs up a corporate ladder. “Had I succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believe I truly belonged” she explained, going on to describe her own “rock bottom” as the foundation upon which she rebuilt her life.
The famed English story-teller explained that even Harvard graduates, who have proven themselves against high expectations, can expect to experience a certain amount of failure. As she explained, overcoming those failures – becoming more “secure in [their] ability to survive” – can be an important step towards an ultimately successful career.
Rowling delved into her early career with Amnesty International, demonstrating how a vivid imagination can not only conjure up magical bedtime stories, but build empathetic bonds with strangers never met, from places never seen. Imagination, as she explained, allows “[humans to] think themselves into other people’s lives” where they can “learn and understand, without having experienced” their lives directly.
She shared details from her Amnesty International work, where she read “hastily scribbled letters smuggled out of totalitarian regimes” written by people who could be jailed or even killed for writing them. She shared how she read testimony of torture and met torture victims, one of whom, “despite a life that had been shattered by cruelty took my hand with exquisite courtesy.”
Many Amnesty employees were political refugees from tyranny, who often painted all-too vivid pictures of horrific abuses to their stunned co-workers, placing them at scenes of heartbreaking tragedy. As the award-winning novelist so eloquently expressed it, the purpose of Amnesty International is to “mobilize … thousands of people who have never been tortured or imprisoned for their beliefs to act on behalf of those who have.”
In the end she advised her audience to hold onto the friendships they have made, sharing with them that “the friends with whom I sat on graduation day have been my friends for life.” She implored them to “identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless.” She closed with a quote from Roman philosopher Seneca: “as is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.”