One of the big fears (and realities) that can keep us from trying things out, taking them to the next step, or persevering with an idea, has to do with failure. We can judge ourselves like crazy for having failed at something in the past OR be terrified that we will fail in the future; both of those notions stymy improvisation and creativity and LIFE.

So, we’re always heartened when we hear the stories of real people who have failed terribly, learned a lot, found their way AND put incredible things into the world…like J.K. Rowling’s story of her “epic failure” years before writing the Harry Potter books, and what she learned from it, the unexpected gifts it brought. She shared it in her commencement speech at Harvard in 2008, which seemed to surprise everybody.

Here’s the video of the whole thing, and our edit of the essentials to read:

“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.

So given a Time Turner, I would tell my 21-year-old self that personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life, though you will meet many people of my age and older who confuse the two. Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.

…One of the many things I learned at the end of that Classics corridor down which I ventured at the age of 18, in search of something I could not then define, was this, written by the Greek author Plutarch: ‘What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.'”

(You’ll find the whole transcript here.)

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2 replies on “j.k. rowling on the fringe benefits of failure

  1. I so believe this. After selling a cafe that was open for 2 1/2 years. I felt like a failure. But after 6 months & alot of soul searching, I feel like I am in more control of my life. I feel like because I said “I do not want this” even th many people thought I should want it, that I could do anything, be anything, be myself. That it was ok to be myself. After 6 months of being lost I am excited to be starting a new venture, one that could not have happened unless I had opened & closed the cafe.

  2. Melissa, thank you for your words. We need to hear these stories over and over…”that could not have happened unless I….”
    We hope your new venture will be bring wonderful things.

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