Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling gave the commencement speech at Harvard this year. Harvard Magazine lists the full text of the speech as well as a Quicktime video. Rowling focuses on two themes – failure and imagination. On failure,
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.
Most of us super-achieving types don’t like to dwell on failure. We “reframe it”, ignore it, work around it on our resume, focus on the positive, and focus on success. But utter failure can truly be liberating. We no longer have to be what we thought we should be. We have already shattered that illusion. When I had lost my company to bankruptcy, my health and therefore my ability to work, my roommate to cancer, when I could no longer support myself and I could barely function through the day, that’s when most everything that I thought mattered didn’t matter any more. My family mattered. My closest friends mattered. That was it. As self-pitying as I wanted to be, I couldn’t. My dear friend had died. I was still alive. I was grateful every moment for having two loving, living parents, who could help me as I worked on regaining my health. I got rid of every single thing in my life that caused me stress. I only put energy into things that nourished me back. I became brutally impatient with everything that was stupid or superfluous. Priorities became crystal clear.
This is the gift of complete failure. Stripping away everything except what truly is important.
On the importance of imagination, Ms. Rowling had this to say:
Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s minds, imagine themselves into other people’s places.
Of course, this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate, or control, just as much as to understand or sympathise.
And many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know.
I might be tempted to envy people who can live that way, except that I do not think they have any fewer nightmares than I do. Choosing to live in narrow spaces can lead to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that brings its own terrors. I think the wilfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid.
What is more, those who choose not to empathise may enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy.
What wonderful insight into the power of imagination. It is through our imagination that we can even have empathy; it’s what make us human.
This is a fabulous speech, by the one of the most read writers of our age. If you listen to it or read it, please let me know, what are the parts that resonate the most with you?