What J.K Rowling Should Have Told Harvard Grads About Success and Failure

By Jack Limpert

With the writer J. K. Rowling now dominating the best-seller lists every which way, her 2008 commencement address at Harvard on “The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination” continues to show up all over the Internet. Here’s some of what she told Harvard graduates about failure:

“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 fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.

“Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea then how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.

“So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

“You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all— in which case, you fail by default.

“Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.

“The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means 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. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.”

I wonder if most of the Harvard graduates were baffled by the idea that feeling poor and a failure could give you an inner security and a solid foundation for life. When I got out of the University of Wisconsin, I was dealing with what I saw as a string of failures and I was confused and scared. A Rowling-style commencement speech? Give me a break.
Looking back, the mistake I made was thinking that setbacks and detours were failures. What I had hoped to achieve didn’t happen and I saw it as my fault, not as what can happen when you’re trying to find your way in life.

I recently wrote about the panic of those early years and how a lucky break got me on track to a good career in journalism. What did I learn from surviving all the seeming failures? Sometimes you’re lucky—lots of successful people are good but also get a lucky break or two. I played sports, mostly basketball, through high school and college. The virtue of team sports—besides understanding the importance of teamwork—is finding out that you can lose and learn from it and come back and win.

One of the sayings that I kept telling myself as I tried to deal with setbacks was “Life isn’t fair or unfair; it’s a succession of opportunities.” I always believed it, told it to our kids, and attributed it to John F. Kennedy. Now I can’t find any evidence that he said it but it worked for me.
Phil Merrill, the publisher I worked with for many years, was very savvy about people and he looked at failure another way. He said he liked to hire people who had a failure on their resumé: Not so big a failure that it destroyed their confidence but enough of one that it replaced arrogance and hubris with a little caution and humility. That’s probably the message that should have been delivered to those Harvard graduates.

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