J.K. Rowling on Failure And Imagination

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On this first Monday of the New Year, I thought how powerful it would be to share J.K. Rowling’s marvelous 2008 Harvard commencement speech on failure and imagination, two things she illuminates in a way that brings fresh life to their power and impact as we look ahead.

Listen to her words, watch her energy as she speaks.

Fifteen years ago, she was unknown to the world, a young divorced mother living near poverty. In this speech, you’ll see a glimpse into what took her from there to being the creator of a series of books that have sold more than 400 million copies, earned her over a billion dollars and created the opportunity for her to do what she’s here to do.

Highlights include:

“…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…”

“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 leads to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that brings its own terrors. I think the willfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid.

What is more, those who choose not to empathize enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy…”

“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.”

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33 responses

33 responses to “J.K. Rowling on Failure And Imagination”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jonathan Fields, Anne Perschel, Casey McCann, Eric Haynes, Alisa Bowman and others. Alisa Bowman said: RT @JonathanFields J.K. Rowling on Failure And Imagination http://bit.ly/eebS3y [blog post] […]

  2. Dom says:

    Thank you Jonathan for sharing this awesome video clip.

    JK Rowling is truly an amazing person, and one of the lessons she teaches us in this speech that we all have the power to be amazing too, but only if we exercise our powers of imagination, willpower, and discipline.

  3. Geanine says:

    Thanks Jonathan. This is so inspiring on the first Monday of the new year. I’m fired up and ready to go! No more comparing or competing. I’m just going to do my thing full out! Let the chips fall where they may.

  4. Thank you Jonathan for sharing such a powerful speech: Love the words of the Greek Author: What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality….
    In gratitude,

    • You again Nancy! Twice in the same week! Hahaha

      So happy to hear your voice again and glad to see you and I keep good company! I love your quote from the Greek.

      As far as I know, changing the vibrations, feelings and pictures we make on the inside is the ONLY way to change the outside!

      The power of our internal reality is SO powerful! We can dream pictures of falling that are so vivid that they shock us awake. And we can live pictures that keep us asleep at the wheel, coasting along, skirting the outside perimeter of our potential because as JRR Tolkien of “The Hobbit” fame had one of his characters say… “Adventures make you late for dinner.”

      But adventures in transforming internal reality through living on your edge and stepping into unfamiliar territory so that you can expand your identity is the breakfast of champions.

      Long live Adventure, risk, and challenge!

  5. Heather Holm says:

    Wow, that got my day – my year – started with a clearer focus. Thank you.

  6. Happy New Year Jonathan and thanks for this. Can’t wait to watch it and keep the momentum flowing for 2011

  7. Chuck Frey says:

    Wow – very thought provoking! I can tell you, having endured and survived an unexpected job loss last year, that I’ve been able to put the whole job security issue largely behind me. I now have the freedom to pursue the opportunities I want, and don’t have to accept what any one employer is willing to “give” me.

    Another core message is giving yourself away to something bigger than yourself. In J.K. Rowling’s case, using your imagination to put yourself in the shoes of others, and then to devote yourself to not only reaching for your dreams, but devoting yourself to helping others less fortunate than ourselves as well.

  8. Thanks, Great post!
    Much needed words for the New Year.

  9. I happened to catch J.K. Rowling on Oprah, and they played a clip of this speech. Truly inspirational, and a message that resonates for people in all walks, professions and status. Most speeches are filled with fluffy, “motivational” stuff, but the fact that she spoke of how failure grew her was real. Thanks for posting this!

  10. Benita says:

    Needed this reminder…great speech!

    With Much Gratitude,

  11. caitlyn says:

    Thought I needed to comment because you end your excerpt with “the power to imagine better” and my website, quite independent of J.K. Rowling’s brilliance is named http://ImaginingBetter.com. For all the reasons of that final paragraph. Makes me want to go write – and so I will.


  12. This passage made the hairs literally stand up on my arms:

    “… 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… I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised…”

    What a wonderful reminder to not waste time on fearing “failure” but rather knowing that “failure” may well be one of the best things that can happen to you. Fear of “XXX” (fill in the blanks, there are so many to chose from 🙂 is something I struggle with more than I’d like as an entrepreneur and this beautiful post is one I will be revisiting frequently in 2011.

    Thanks for this great New Year juju, Jonathan!

  13. Edgar says:

    Thank you for sharing such an inspirational story, especially considering the challenges in her own life. Inspiring!

  14. Keith says:

    Thanks Jonathan… she is very inspiring and quite funny! Glad you found this and I had time to watch it!

  15. […] J.K. Rowling on Failure And Imagination. […]

  16. Karla Jackson says:

    Thanks Jonathan for this post.
    “… failure meant a stripping away of the inessential…I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised…”

    I will revisit these words throughout the year. In the sacred myths of the Divine Feminine, the inner journey involved a stripping away of all that was inessential, a naked assessment in the underworld, the realm of the psyche, of what is or is not true. Failure can certainly plummet one into the abyss of self criticism and fear. However when the fear is faced, even with your knees knocking, a little light shines through. We are able to really see, and claim our skills and gifts more honestly. Rising out of the underworld, the Divine feminine is reborn, as are we.

    If I am willing to fail, then I can more powerfully set my intention, determination, and desire toward a goal. The trick is not to see failure as the end, but as a possibility for change, rest, or improvement.

    Choosing to see life as a collection of experiences, I am more able to give gratitude for them all, even the one’s I think are negative. (Well, not immediately, but sometime after a momentary pity party) The power is in the rebound, the bounce-back, the get up and take an action, even if you don’t feel like it. The stories of other human triumphs are my guide, my lifeline.

    Imagination is the sunrise of possibility.

    Thanks for reminding me to stay connected to my ability to imagine, to take action, and trust in life’s creative process.

  17. Elle B says:

    What serendipity! I rewatched this last week for inspiration, thinking about a writer friend I hadn’t seen in several holidays.

    He met Rowling at a book fair in Edinburgh right after Harry Potter was published. She was at her booth, awkward and lonely, no one buying or even noticing her novel. He felt sorry for her, so he went over to chat with her.

    They talked about the writing life. She didn’t think she’d make much from the book, but didn’t care, getting it published was her dream (the initial run was only 1000 copies from a small press and her advance $1500). She been hawking it for nine months and was getting her teaching certificate as backup.

    Of course, he could kick himself for not buying a copy, since that initial run is worth a fortune now!

    People forget how hard she worked to promote Harry Potter before it got picked up by a US publisher. It certainly wasn’t an overnight success!

  18. Jeana Lawrence says:

    I love the authenticity with which she begins this speech. Even after such success, she still seems as approachable as ever. Her thoughts on the value of failure and the crucial value of imagination are believable because she’s been there and risen above it all. It’s an insightful video – one that all of us should watch. Thanks for sharing it.

  19. Michael says:

    I love reading your posts. Thanks for all the good articles. Keep it up!

  20. […] context, cliff-notes or highlights. My last post on J.K. Rowling;s Harvard commencement speech on failure and imagination is an example of adding value in the form of context (tie-in with New Years energy) and highlights […]

  21. Hooray for J.K.!

    Thanks for bringing that to our attention again, Jonathan.


  22. Marjory says:

    Hi Jonathan,
    I am sharing this in a post for my readers. I love how you ask us to watch her energy. It is really lovely. A true inspiration. Thank you!

  23. […] we are starting a new year, this video I found on Jonathan Fields’ blog, comes right on time at a moment in which many of us, are trying to get as much energy and […]

  24. […] And another inspiration post by : J.K. Rowling on Failure And Imagination […]

  25. […] J.K. Rowling On Failure and Imagination. Early this week, Jonathan Fields did a recap of J.K. Rowling’s 2008 Harvard commencement […]

  26. […] Read the rest and see video of the speech here! […]

  27. Rob says:

    There are far more people who relate to the struggles (enduring them currently), then the post Harry Potter era. It is never too late for a dream to be realized. Thanks Jonathon.

  28. […] role of vision in learning, which led me to recall a blog post I’d read in early January. That post from Jonathan Fields featured JK Rowling’s 2008 Harvard commencement address, in which she makes […]

  29. […] you can, I encourage you to watch the video on a link at Jonathon Fields’ blog.  It’s one of the most encouraging and heart-warming speeches I’ve seen in a long […]

  30. […] thanks to Jonathan Fields who posted this wonderful speech earlier this […]

  31. Evelyn says:

    I never tire of her words and wisdom, which has illuminated the world.
    Thank you for posting!