This is a fabulous commencement address given by J. K. Rowling to the 2008 graduating class of Harvard. Her speech has been watched by millions and has two themes: Failure and Imagination that she ties together in such a masterful way that only she can.
On Failure she says that it is unavoidable, “It is impossible to have lived and not failed at something. Unless you have lived so cautiously that you have not lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.”
So what does failure teach us? “Failure allows us to strip away all that is inessential.” When this happens, and we have managed to look beyond our ego, then and only then we emerge stronger from failure. “You will never know yourself and the strength of your relationships until both have been tested by adversity.” For J. K. Rowling this happened when she had failed completely and totally. 7 Years after her graduation, she was jobless and her short marriage had failed. She found herself as a depressed single mother in dire poverty living on welfare. When she allowed the lessons from failure to sink in she began to focus on the only thing that was truly important and that was her writing. She says, “Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”
Let us say you have learnt from failure and are successful. Now what? This is where “Imagination” come into play. She defines it in extremely broad terms, “Imagination is the power to empathize with humans whose experience we have never shared.” In a moving part of the speech she asks the Harvard graduates to live lives where they use the power of imagination to make difference in the lives of the poor and the powerless. For it is important to not allow others to define what success means to you. She warns against the notion that by chasing acquisitions and achievements one can attain happiness. She then quotes Lucius Seneca to conclude her speech, “As is a tale, so is life; not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.”
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