The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination

J.K. Rowling, author of the best-selling Harry Potter book series, delivered her Commencement Address, The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination, at the Annual Meeting of the Harvard Alumni Association.

I've listened to it several times and downloaded it to my computer so I can listen to it often from now on. [Most of the transcript of the talk is included in the link]. I was touched by Rowling's words and her demeanor as she delivered them--how transparent and vulnerable she came across. The message she shares is priceless and timeless.

Here are some of the highlights of her talk, quoted from her speech:
  • Balancing ambition she had for herself and the expectations of those close to her.
  • Cannot blame parents for direction she took in life. The moment you're old enough to take the wheel responsibility is yours. There's an expiration date on blaming parents.
  • Poverty itself is romanticized only by fools. What I feared at your age wasn't poverty but failure. Your idea of failure might not be far from the average person's idea of success.
  • Seven years after my graduation I'd failed on an epic scale. The fears I'd had for myself had come to pass. I was the biggest failure I knew. Failure is not fun. That period of my life was a dark one. For a long time any light at the end of my tunnel was a hope rather than a reality. Failure meant the stripping away of the unessentials. I stopped pretending that I was anything but what I was. Had I really succeeded in other things I might not have tried the one thing I felt I really belonged in.
  • Rock bottom became the solid foundation upon which I built my life.
  • Personal happiness lies in knowing life is not a checklist of achievements. Life is difficult and complicated and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.
  • Imagination is not only the unique human capacity to envision that which is not...it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experience we have never shared.
  • Human beings can learn and understand without having experienced. They can think themselves unto other people's places.
  • Many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. Choosing to live in narrow spaces leads to a form of mental acrophobia and that brings its own terrors. The willful unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid.
  • "What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality." Plutarch
  • 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.
  • "As is a tale so is life, not how long it is but how good it is is what matters." --Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Rowling's message to the Harvard graduates applies to all of us. Whatever schooling we've received, whatever skills we've learned, whatever awards we've garnered, whatever blessings, privileges, capacities are ours to share with the world at large:
"We touch other people's lives simple by existing... But how much more are you, Harvard graduates of 2008, likely to touch other people's lives. Your intelligence, capacity for hard work, education you've earned and received gives you unique status and unique responsibilities. Even your nationality sets you apart. The great majority of you belong to the world's only remaining superpower. The way you vote, live, protest, the pressure you bring to bear on your government has impact beyond your borders. That's your privilege and your burden. If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice. If you choose to identify not only with the powerful but with the powerless. If you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose realities you have helped to change."
Watch the video, take her words to heart, and come back and tell me what you think about them.

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