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   The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination
   June 5, 2008

   J.K. Rowling, author of the best-selling Harry Potter book series,
   delivers her Commencement Address, “The Fringe Benefits of
   Failure, and the Importance of Imagination,” at the Annual
   Meeting of the Harvard Alumni Association.

   Text as delivered follows.
   Copyright of JK Rowling, June 2008

   President Faust, members of the Harvard Corporation
   and the Board of Overseers, members of the faculty,
   proud parents, and, above all, graduates.

   The first thing I would like to say is ‘thank you.’
   Not only has Harvard given me an extraordinary honour,
   but the weeks of fear and nausea I have endured at
   the thought of giving this commencement address
   have made me lose weight.
   A win-win situation! Now all I have to do is
   take deep breaths, squint at the red banners
   and convince myself that I am at the world’s
   largest Gryffindor reunion.

   Delivering a commencement address is
   a great responsibility; or so I thought
   until I cast my mind back to my own graduation.
   The commencement speaker that day was
   the distinguished British philosopher Baroness Mary Warnock.
   Reflecting on her speech has helped me enormously
   in writing this one, because it turns out
   that I can’t remember a single word she said. This liberating
   discovery enables me to proceed without any fear that I might
   inadvertently influence you to abandon promising careers in
   business, the law or politics for the giddy delights of becoming a
   gay wizard.

   You see? If all you remember in years to come is the ‘gay
   wizard’ joke, I’ve come out ahead of Baroness Mary Warnock.
   Achievable goals: the first step to self improvement.

   Actually, I have wracked my mind and heart for what I ought to say
   to you today. I have asked myself what I wish I had known at my
   own graduation, and what important lessons I have learned in the
   21 years that have expired between that day and this.

   I have come up with two answers. On this wonderful day when we are
   gathered together to celebrate your academic success, I have
   decided to talk to you about the benefits of failure. And as you
   stand on the threshold of what is sometimes called ‘real life’,
   I want to extol the crucial importance of imagination.

   These may seem quixotic or paradoxical choices, but please bear
   with me.

   Looking back at the 21-year-old that I was at graduation, is a
   slightly uncomfortable experience for the 42-year-old that she has
   become. Half my lifetime ago, I was striking an uneasy balance
   between the ambition I had for myself, and what those closest to
   me expected of me.

   I was convinced that the only thing I wanted to do, ever, was to
   write novels. However, my parents, both of whom came from
   impoverished backgrounds and neither of whom had been to college,
   took the view that my overactive imagination was an amusing
   personal quirk that would never pay a mortgage, or secure a
   pension. I know that the irony strikes with the force of a cartoon
   anvil, now.

   So they hoped that I would take a vocational degree; I wanted to
   study English Literature. A compromise was reached that in
   retrospect satisfied nobody, and I went up to study Modern
   Languages. Hardly had my parents’ car rounded the corner at the
   end of the road than I ditched German and scuttled off down the
   Classics corridor.

   I cannot remember telling my parents that I was studying Classics;
   they might well have found out for the first time on graduation
   day. Of all the subjects on this planet, I think they would have
   been hard put to name one less useful than Greek mythology when it
   came to securing the keys to an executive bathroom.

   I would like to make it clear, in parenthesis, that I do not blame
   my parents for their point of view. There is an expiry date on
   blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the
   moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies
   with you. What is more, I cannot criticise my parents for hoping
   that I would never experience poverty. They had been poor
   themselves, and I have since been poor, and I quite agree with
   them that it is not an ennobling experience. Poverty entails fear,
   and stress, and sometimes depression; it means a thousand petty
   humiliations and hardships. Climbing out of poverty by your own
   efforts, that is indeed something on which to pride yourself, but
   poverty itself is romanticised only by fools.

   What I feared most for myself at your age was not poverty, but

   At your age, in spite of a distinct lack of motivation at
   university, where I had spent far too long in the coffee bar
   writing stories, and far too little time at lectures, I had a
   knack for passing examinations, and that, for years, had been the
   measure of success in my life and that of my peers.

   I am not dull enough to suppose that because you are young, gifted
   and well-educated, you have never known hardship or heartbreak.
   Talent and intelligence never yet inoculated anyone against the
   caprice of the Fates, and I do not for a moment suppose that
   everyone here has enjoyed an existence of unruffled privilege and

   However, the fact that you are graduating from Harvard suggests
   that you are not very well-acquainted with failure. You might be
   driven by a fear of failure quite as much as a desire for success.
   Indeed, your conception of failure might not be too far from the
   average person’s idea of success, so high have you already flown.

   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

   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.

   Now you might think that I chose my second theme, the importance
   of imagination, because of the part it played in rebuilding my
   life, but that is not wholly so. Though I personally will defend
   the value of bedtime stories to my last gasp, I have learned to
   value imagination in a much broader sense. Imagination is not only
   the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and
   therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its
   arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the
   power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences
   we have never shared.

   One of the greatest formative experiences of my life preceded
   Harry Potter, though it informed much of what I subsequently wrote
   in those books. This revelation came in the form of one of my
   earliest day jobs. Though I was sloping off to write stories
   during my lunch hours, I paid the rent in my early 20s by working
   at the African research department at Amnesty International’s
   headquarters in London.

   There in my little office I read hastily scribbled letters
   smuggled out of totalitarian regimes by men and women who were
   risking imprisonment to inform the outside world of what was
   happening to them. I saw photographs of those who had disappeared
   without trace, sent to Amnesty by their desperate families and
   friends. I read the testimony of torture victims and saw pictures
   of their injuries. I opened handwritten, eye-witness accounts of
   summary trials and executions, of kidnappings and rapes.

   Many of my co-workers were ex-political prisoners, people who had
   been displaced from their homes, or fled into exile, because they
   had the temerity to speak against their governments. Visitors to
   our offices included those who had come to give information, or to
   try and find out what had happened to those they had left behind.

   I shall never forget the African torture victim, a young man no
   older than I was at the time, who had become mentally ill after
   all he had endured in his homeland. He trembled uncontrollably as
   he spoke into a video camera about the brutality inflicted upon
   him. He was a foot taller than I was, and seemed as fragile as a
   child. I was given the job of escorting him back to the
   Underground Station afterwards, and this man whose life had been
   shattered by cruelty took my hand with exquisite courtesy, and
   wished me future happiness.

   And as long as I live I shall remember walking along an empty
   corridor and suddenly hearing, from behind a closed door, a scream
   of pain and horror such as I have never heard since. The door
   opened, and the researcher poked out her head and told me to run
   and make a hot drink for the young man sitting with her. She had
   just had to give him the news that in retaliation for his own
   outspokenness against his country’s regime, his mother had been
   seized and executed.

   Every day of my working week in my early 20s I was reminded how
   incredibly fortunate I was, to live in a country with a
   democratically elected government, where legal representation and
   a public trial were the rights of everyone.

   Every day, I saw more evidence about the evils humankind will
   inflict on their fellow humans, to gain or maintain power. I began
   to have nightmares, literal nightmares, about some of the things I
   saw, heard, and read.

   And yet I also learned more about human goodness at Amnesty
   International than I had ever known before.

   Amnesty mobilises thousands of people who have never been tortured
   or imprisoned for their beliefs to act on behalf of those who
   have. The power of human empathy, leading to collective action,
   saves lives, and frees prisoners. Ordinary people, whose personal
   well-being and security are assured, join together in huge numbers
   to save people they do not know, and will never meet. My small
   participation in that process was one of the most humbling and
   inspiring experiences of my life.

   Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and
   understand, without having experienced. They can think 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

   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 leads 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 enable real
   monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil
   ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy.

   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

   That is an astonishing statement and yet proven a thousand times
   every day of our lives. It expresses, in part, our inescapable
   connection with the outside world, the fact that we touch other
   people’s lives simply by existing.

   But how much more are you, Harvard graduates of 2008, likely to
   touch other people’s lives? Your intelligence, your capacity for
   hard work, the education you have earned and received, give you
   unique status, and unique responsibilities. Even your nationality
   sets you apart. The great majority of you belong to the world’s
   only remaining superpower. The way you vote, the way you live, the
   way you protest, the pressure you bring to bear on your
   government, has an impact way beyond your borders. That is your
   privilege, and your burden.

   If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice
   on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify
   not only with the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain
   the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not
   have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families
   who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people
   whose reality you have helped change. We do not need magic to
   change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves
   already: we have the power to imagine better.

   I am nearly finished. I have one last hope for you, which is
   something that I already had at 21. The friends with whom I sat on
   graduation day have been my friends for life. They are my
   children’s godparents, the people to whom I’ve been able to turn
   in times of trouble, people who have been kind enough not to sue
   me when I took their names for Death Eaters. At our graduation we
   were bound by enormous affection, by our shared experience of a
   time that could never come again, and, of course, by the knowledge
   that we held certain photographic evidence that would be
   exceptionally valuable if any of us ran for Prime Minister.

   So today, I wish you nothing better than similar friendships. And
   tomorrow, I hope that even if you remember not a single word of
   mine, you remember those of Seneca, another of those old Romans I
   met when I fled down the Classics corridor, in retreat from career
   ladders, in search of ancient wisdom:
   As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is,
   is what matters.
    I wish you all very good lives.




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