J.K. Rowling on Failure & Imagination


J.K. Rowling gave a killer speech at the Annual Meeting of the Harvard Alumni Association last year. This speech is very much worth your time. How did J.K. Rowling go from an unemployed, near-destitute single parent to one of the richest women in Britain? By failing, giving up on others' dreams for her, and embracing her own. "Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I built my life," says Rowling around the 9:30-mark in the speech. Here's a bit more:

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. ... 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.

Just watch. And then lose your job and write the Harry Potter books!

J.K. Rowling Speaks at Harvard Commencement from Harvard Magazine on Vimeo.

Read the full text of the address from Harvard Magazine.