The 2015 graduation season has brought quite a few commencement speeches so far to the attention of the media, from the most serious notes delivered by First Lady Michelle Obama, who addressed the crowd at the Tuskegee University with her considerations about racial discrimination, to the “musical” speech performed by Jon Bon Jovi, guitar in hand, for the graduating class of Rutgers-Camden, to the most humorous message delivered by comedian Stephen Colbert to the young audience at Wake Forest University.
There is one commencement address from the past, though, that still makes the news today and that is the speech the best selling author of the Harry Potter saga, J.K. Rowling, gave during the 2008 graduating ceremony at Harvard. On that occasion, the popular author of fantasy novels didn’t bring up, as it might have been expected, tales of wizards and warlocks for the entertainment of the crowds, instead she bestowed upon her audience of graduating students a powerful speech about her most hard-won and valuable life lessons – the fringe benefits of failure and the importance of imagination.
Nothing can be more important than imagination to a writer of fantasy novels, but what does failure have to do with the best selling author of one of the most wildly popular franchises? Over the span of just a decade, Rowling’s books have sold 450 million copies worldwide; they have been translated in 77 languages, distributed in more than 200 territories, turned into eight blockbuster movies, and yet at some point in her life the British writer thought she was the biggest failure she ever met. “Having the courage to fail,” explained the author during her speech, “is vital to a good life as any conventional measure of success; imagining ourselves into the place of another – particularly someone less fortunate than ourselves – is a uniquely human quality that needs to be nurtured at all costs.”
Now published in print for the first time (Little, Brown and Company; April 2015; 80 pages), Very Good Lives: The Fringe Benefits Of Failure And The Importance Of Imagination records the darkest days of the fifty year old author’s life as a way to offer a perspective on what really means to live a “good life” and an eye-opening inspiration to those of us who find themselves at a turning point of their lives.
“A mere seven years after I graduated from college”, the British novelist confesses, “I had failed on a big scale”. Coming from an impoverished background, she found herself facing poverty once again in her adulthood. Her exceptionally short marriage had imploded, she was jobless, a single parent, as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain without being homeless. Although represented by the press as a rugs-to-riches story, that period of her life was a really dark one, one in which she experienced the entire spectrum of hardships poverty entails – fear, stress, depression, humiliations. So, why the benefits of failure?
Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. Rowling stopped pretending to herself that she was anything other than what she was and began to direct all her energy into finishing the only work that mattered to her: writing novels. “Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena where I believe I truly belonged. […] And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.” Failure gave J.K. Rowling an inner security and taught her things about herself she wouldn’t have learned otherwise: “The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive.”
Imagination obviously played an essential part in rebuilding her life, but the kind of imagination she talks about in her memoir has a much wider value: “Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not; […] imagination is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared”. On this front, the most formative experience of her life, which informed a good part of what she subsequently wrote in her Harry Potter novels, is her work experience at the African Research Department of Amnesty International headquarters in London. In that position, she had the chance to interact with a host of men and women who were risking imprisonment for exposing the totalitarian regimes of their native countries. She daily read about tortures, summary trials, executions, kidnappings, rapes – the blatant evidence of the evils humankind will inflict on their fellow humans to gain and maintain power. That experience literally gave her nightmares, but it also taught her how the power of human empathy leads to collective actions that save lives. Amnesty International mobilizes thousands of people to act on behalf of those who have been tortured or imprisoned for their beliefs.
Sales of Very Good Lives will benefit LUMOS, the children’s charity of which J.K. Rowling is founder and president. She supports a number of causes through her charitable trust, Volant, but LUMOS seems to be her most ambitious and momentous endeavor to affect the world. “I founded LUMOS to help end the incredibly damaging practice of institutionalization. As many as 8 millions children are currently being raised in institutions worldwide. The overwhelming majority are not orphans. A wealth of expert opinion agrees that institutionalization is extremely damaging to children’s mental and physical health and has a dire effect on their life outcomes. It is my dream that within our lifetime the very idea of institutionalizing children will seem to belong to a cruel fictional world.”
If you want to help millions of children worldwide to regain their right to a family, you can do so purchasing J.K. Rowling’s memoir, Very Good Lives, or make your donation directly to LUMOS. You can also visit the author’s website to learn more about her charitable initiatives.