Rowling, J.K. – Very Good Lives: The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination
Rowling gave the commencement speech to the 2008 graduates of Harvard. This is the book bound format so her message can reach further because anyone can use this message. According to her speech, everyone needs to hear this message: “we have the power to imagine better.”
It’s a little self-deprecating (which is funny, ask any comedian) but that just sets the tone for the rest of the speech because her life is filled with life deprecating on her (which is hopeful, ask any successful (in any area) person).
The speech starts off funny, it gets the audience at ease and relatable. Then she sets off onto her biography. There are tidbits about her impoverish parents and childhood, but mostly it centres of her years at university and career and her epic failure of a personal life. As most know, Rowling was married, had a baby, the marriage was a stewing pot of bad and so a few years after graduation, she found herself a poor divorcee raising a small child as a single parent. As she succinctly puts it, “rock bottom became the solid foundation which I rebuilt my life.” This life changing realization echoed back profound knowledge and as these Harvard graduates have likely never been so challenged in life, she wanted to pay it forward. Actually as adults mostly in their early twenties successfully leaving one of the most prestigious universities in the world, they know hard work and success. . Learn from her realizations because the rest of their lives will turn and trail, loop de loop, rise and plummet, but hopefully they hold remember what this woman said about adulthood as much as they remember what she wrote during their childhoods.
24-25 “I do not for a moment suppose that everyone here has enjoyed an existence of unruffled privilege and contentment.”
26 “However the fact that you are graduating from Harvard suggests that you are not very well acquainted with failure. You might be driven by a fear of failure quite as much as a desire for success.”
32-33 “Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential… Had I succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one area where I believed I truly belonged…And so rock bottom became the solid foundation which I rebuilt my life.
34 “Failure gave me an inner security…I discovered that I had a strong will and more discipline that I had suspected.”
37 “The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks mean 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.”
41 “Imagination is…the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”
59 “Many prefer not to exercise their imagination at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are.”
61 “For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it through our own apathy.”
Plutarch: “What we achieve internally will change outer reality.”
67 “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.”
I have a friend named Duke and I have always felt inferior to him. He grew up rich, doctors for parents and step-parents, finished school, interned at the best, launched his career at the best. He could afford to live alone in the city. I always thought he lived a very privileged life and I once made a comment about that. I can’t recall the exact wording, but I vividly remember his reaction. He was offended, his face purposefully became blank, he turned his swivel chair and went to back to work on his computer so he wouldn’t have to look at me.
While Duke has seen so much success, he obviously had to work hard for it. He grew up with a silver spoon in his mouth, but the hands that fed him was disruptive. He had experienced divorced parents and stepparents and stepsiblings and death and depression. He was really young when this all happened. And I swept over that while I looked at his formidable view of the city from his living room and thought ‘He doesn’t even know how lucky he is.’
This doesn’t even take into account of the facts that I don’t know about him. Or like, his day to day stresses that, literally, happen to everybody.
I was a bad friend because I didn’t see the failures of his life. I only saw the successes of it and was bitter. This speech triggered that memory because while I can see the fruition of his hard work today, it was built on other successes (through trial and error) and many successes that I refused to acknowledge.
It was like scrolling through his Instagam feed and seeing all the beautiful pictures and saying, “Wow, your life is perfect. What do you have to complain about?”
Duke didn’t owe me anything. He didn’t need to prove that he deserved all he had in life, but I owe him an apology for taking him at face value. I am sorry Duke and I hope I can be a better friend to you.
No one is built on just one layer. Rowling had how many publisher rejections to her name before Harry was finally printed? She had no commas in her bank account before she racked up billions. When she first appeared on the book flap on a Harry Potter novel, Rowling appeared to be a very pretty blonde woman but it wasn’t until some unravelling that the public discovered the ugliness of her life that made her story so beautiful.
The second half of the speech is about imagination and it’s essentially about being a better human via empathy. If you can imagine how much pain a person is feeling, you’re already one step forward above the rest. If that empathy also moves you to take action, all the better.
Failures can look like shit. Brown, squishy, smelly, leaves behind a stain. But given enough time, enough imagination, that shit can be fertilizer for some magnificent gardens, holding strong and tall trees and flowers, a garden that maybe been has a formidable view of the city.
Rowling, J.K. Very Good Lives. Little, Brown and Company, 2015.