I don’t know why it took me so long to read JK Rowling’s 2008 commencement address at Harvard. Possibly because a printed, bound version of it was only recently published by Little, Brown in April 2015. I’d read snippets of it before, most notably this quote, “We do not need magic to transform our world. We carry all the power we need inside ourselves already.” But having recently been thinking a lot about failure, I stumbled upon the book on Amazon and decided to splurge $12 on it. It’s a life-changing little book.
The speech was titled by the publisher “Very Good Lives,” after JK Rowling’s parting wish for the students. The entire speech is colored by two themes, which is also the tagline: “The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination.” By now, you probably know the “failure” part of Rowling’s personal saga. But her definition of “imagination” may surprise you. Jo (as she’s known to fans) isn’t referring to a person’s capacity to create Hogwartses, Middle-earths or Death Stars, but rather, imagination is the ability to “empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.” She cites her time with Amnesty International and leaves the students with the wish that they will use their privileges, brainpower and clout to help others.
I adore Jo’s take on imagination, but it’s the rhetoric about failure that truly stuck with me. It’s a common feeling among twenty-somethings, especially in this current economy, to feel like failures for not having what everyone else has, or what everyone else is expected to have. The feeling like I’d failed at life has been plaguing me since graduation, because I feel like I’m not where my peers are. It was the fear of failure that gives me motivation to work and it was the fear of failure that was instrumental in beginning this blog. That fear of failure is both blessing as a motivator and a definite disadvantage—because I’ve come to realize that failure itself has its advantages. Its “fringe benefits.”
In the words of Jo, who, at twenty-eight, found herself divorced, a single mother, and “as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain without being homeless,” failure taught her to strip away everything that was nonessential. Failing means you have nothing to be afraid of anymore. Failure means you’ve hit rock bottom, and have nowhere to go but up. Now, Jo truly had nowhere to go but up, but what about smaller failures, everyday roadblocks, and constant, continuously occurring setbacks? What about those?
For me at least, these small roadblocks have taught me that if nothing else, I may take pride in failing, because I have tried. And I’ll keep trying. This is my favorite quote from the speech, save perhaps for the magic one included above:
“Some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you have lived so cautiously that you may as well not have lived at all—in which case, you fail by default.”
Small failures have made me less afraid of life.