Through the Education Lens

"The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination"

CJ Westerberg, April 2, 2013 4:29 PM


Editor's Note revised:  The season of commencement speeches is upon us and I look forward to hearing the stand-outs.  I would rank the following speech by J.K. Rowling as my top-ranked tied with the Steve Jobs' commencement speech at Stanford.  Do not miss this one below - consider sharing it with your sons and daughters of a certain age.  This post was previously published by The Daily Riff in 2010 and is classic gold.
 - C.J. Westerberg

" . . .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. . ."            
- J.K. Rowling

Highly Recommended: 
J.K. Rowling's Commencement Speech at Harvard
Video Below

Excerpts from Rowling's speech, or just skip to video below:
"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
. . .

 . . . 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 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. . .

 . . .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. . ."

And her challenge to the Harvard class:

 " . .  .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. . . .

Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun.  . .

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  . . .

 . . .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.

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. . .

Rowling then moved toward her second theme - the power of imagination, the influence of the experience with Amnesty International on her life:

 . . .  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 empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared. . .

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. . ."


J.K. Rowling Speaks at Harvard Commencement from Harvard Magazine on Vimeo.

  • Charly McArdle

    I simply can't get enough of this speech. She is truly a humble and inspiring woman, and a great role model to both young and old. Please vote for her speech as the most inspirational commencement speech here!

  • CJWesterberg

    I've watched it more than once and it's all good

  • Incredibly inspirational. Thank you for sharing!

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