J.K. Rowling on Failure and Imagination

Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling gave a stirring speech for Harvard’s commencement address recently and it is highly worth watching. I’m not really a huge Potter fan, and didn’t know much about Rowling’s early life other than the common idea she had a Cindarella story, so understanding her formative years of poverty and her time spent working for Amnesty International added great context.

Part One

Video below, here are some good quotes from this section:

“Not only has Harvard given me an extraordinary honor, but also the weeks of fear and nausea I have endured at the thought of giving this commencement address have made me lose weight. A win-win situation!” [Self-deprecation and humor at the start to take herself down a few notches, a nice touch as so many people idolize her.]

“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 is fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day I had failed on an epic scale.”

“Had I succeeded at anything else, I might have never found the determination to succeed in the one arena where I believed I truly belonged…. Rock-bottom became the bedrock on which I rebuilt my life….It is impossible to live without failing at something.”

Part Two

“Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of innovation, it is the power that enable us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”

“[At Amnesty International] I read hastily written letters from victims of totalitarian regimes who risked their lives to tell the outside world what was happening to them.”

“Everyday I saw more evidence of the evils that human kind would inflict on their fellow humans to gain or maintain power…. And yet I also learned more at Amnesty International about human goodness than I had ever learned before.

Part Three

“Many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to stay comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are.”

“How much more are you, Harvard graduates of 2008, likely to touch other people’s lives?… The great majority of you belong to the world’s only superpower. The way you vote, the way you live, the way you protest, the pressure you bring to bear on your government, has consequences way beyond your borders. That is your privilege and your burden. If you choose to use your status on behalf of those who have no voice…if you retain the ability to imagine yourself in the lives of those who don’t have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people who’s world you helped change.”

If you are interested in these themes, take a look at Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk also, if you haven’t seen it already. It similarly combines humor with poignancy.