Wednesday, July 23, 2008

J.K. Rowling Harvard Commencement Speech

Above: a screen capture of J.K. Rowling from her Harvard commencement speech.

Last month. J.K. Rowling gave a graduation speech at Harvard. Part of that speech was about failing. We all know, thanks to the HARRY POTTER books, the movies, the toys -- that Ms. Rowling is not a failure. She has touched people's lives by persevering and not letting rejection make her stop. As many know, there was a time when she was a single parent, "as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless."

"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.

"... 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 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 already 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 rubies."

Text is copyright Ms. Rowling.

I remember reading somewhere that one of the first criticisms of her HARRY POTTER manuscript was that it was set in a school and kids do not like school, therefore the market dictates that children will not buy a book set in a school.

No Hogwarts? Egads!

There must have been hundreds of moments when it was easier to set her writing aside -- put it in a drawer or in the fire -- and try for a regular, workaday life.

Making a living by your wits isn't easy, and the struggle to achieve it is not a "fairy tale." It's hard work, and there is, as Ms. Rowling puts it, no light at the end of the tunnel; just you and your ideas and your willingness to persist, persist, persist.

A big hat tip to my dear old Dad for the link -- and for standing by me, passing along advice, as I made mistakes, before finally achieving some success in what I wanted to do. Thanks, Dad!


George Coghill said...

Inspiring post. Looking at failures as opportunities is part of a good outlook for success.

patricia said...

What an amazing, uplifting speech. Thanks for sharing, Mike!

Marek Bennett said...

Mike --

Good link, good commentary. Here's a lateral link to NPR's coverage of some Harvard reactions...

The second part of her binary message (the part about her time working for Amnesty International) also sheds some interesting light on her fictional worlds:

One of the greatest formative experiences of my life preceded Harry Potter, though it informed much of what I subsequently wrote in those books. This revelation came in the form of one of my earliest day jobs. Though I was sloping off to write stories during my lunch hours, I paid the rent in my early 20s by working in the research department at Amnesty International's headquarters in London..."

-- Marek