I don’t know how I found my way there, I was browsing around different websites I’d never been to before and there was a link someone had posted because they wanted to remember it. I clicked it, if they wanted to remember it, it had to be worth remembering right?
The link went to the commencement address that J.K. Rowling delivered at the Annual Meeting of the Harvard Alumni Association. It was entitled “The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination“.
My attention was immediately peaked, not because it was J.K. Rowling that was delivering the speech, but because there were fringe benefits of failure. I had to think about this a moment, I try incredibly hard not to fail. Because it hurts, because people get disappointed, because if we fail, we’re not good enough. Failure is something I like to avoid like the plague, sadly, often I catch it. Failure is not something I take well to. There are times, I feel, that death itself would be better than failure. What kind of benefits could there possibly be to failure?
I was going to find out.
As she began, I thought back to when I graduated and the commencement speech given there. Like her, I can’t remember it, unlike her, I can’t even remember who gave it (she could). I remember that Laurie Schatzberg spoke, she was my favorite professor during my stint as a business student at the Anderson School of Management at the University of New Mexico. And there was exactly one thing I remembered that she said (it’s probably the only thing I heard because we couldn’t really hear what anyone was saying), and it was from Dr. Seuss. She told us:
“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. You are the one who’ll decide where to go.”
We had sat there for several hours listening to different people speak, Laurie was the last one, and that was close to the last thing she said, and out of all the things that may have been said that night, that’s all I remember, Laurie and Dr. Seuss.
As I sat and listened to J.K. Rowling as she delivered her speech, I wondered how much of it I would’ve gotten if I had been there in real life, present for what she had to say. Probably not much. I think tonight me stumbling upon the link was a blessing, because I could listen and take in and pause her and make notes and continue on when I was ready. She had a lot to say, and all of it well worth listening to. My favorite thing though that she said came at about 1/3 of her way through, and it was probably what struck me most.
“So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential.”
I wouldn’t have ever of thought of failure in this light, the stripping away of the inessential. Failure, if I had to translate it so that my little mind could understand the great words of a great writer, takes us to the very core of our being and forces us to focus on who that person is instead of the person we’ve made ourselves into. I would say it is where the onion layers are peeled away but I have no clue what is at the center of an onion other than…more onion. So, to me, it is more like an artichoke where the inessential is the leaves, and when failure has come to that artichoke, all that’s left is it’s heart. The heart, the greatest part of the artichoke. To me, that is what was being expressed in that single statement. And if you were to ask me, I’d say that’s a strong statement.
Her whole section on failure hit me deeply, there is much to learn from it, at least for me there is:
“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.
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 to me than any qualification I ever earned.
Given a time machine or 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.”
If you would like to read the rest of her speech, or watch it even, you can do so at Harvard Magazine.