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J.K. Rowling’s Harvard Speech

posted by Nell Minow

One of my favorite authors spoke about one of my favorite subjects when Harry Potter author Joanne Rowling addressed the graduating class at Harvard University. rowlingspeech.jpg Many commencement speakers urge the new graduates departing from the ivory tower to succeed in the real world, but Rowling encouraged them to fail and not to neglect the importance of fantasy.

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 has 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.

Graduates are usually applauded for their achievements, but Rowling advised the hyper-performing graduates that it is a mistake to measure success or failure based on grades and awards. She was frank about the pain of her own failures and about what she learned from them.

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 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 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 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…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.

She spoke about her experience in working for Amnesty International and what she learned about the power of imagination to enable empathy, resistance to oppression, and the ability to envision a better world.

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 transform for the better. 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.



  • jestrfyl

    There is a link that allows for downloading the entire text. It is quite long and very impressive. One of the interesting points is that these graduates started reading Potter when both he and they were the same age. Now they are graduating at almost the same age – though Potter is supposedly, according to unofficial accounts, a couple of years older. Some of them thought Rowling is a “flash in the pan”, sort of like L. Frank Baum was for his generation. But I wonder if her books will endure as well as his – I’d like to think so. And just how many of these Ivy league scholars change change a mouse into a tea-pot and back, without incidents like spilled tea or a pot with a tail?

  • Alicia

    I definitely want to read the whole speech. I especially like this:
    “And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life…”
    That is so deeply true to me. The worst experiences of my life also became the foundation upon which I built a new life. Which, BTW, is why the Resurrection is so meaningful to me, even though I am an agnostic Christian.

  • Margaret Balyeat

    iNSPIRING WORDS FROM AN INSPIRATIONAL CELEBRITY. I definitely believe her Harry Potter series will endure AT LEAST as long as “Oz” has; in addition to her imagination, Rowling has masterful writing skills like tight characterizations and intertwining plots with subplots in a non-distracting manner. Viva le Harry! (I’m one of the adults whose read them all AND seen each film, and not at all ashamed to admit it!! I DO draw the line t all-night line-standing, howeve; not much is worth THAT tedium IMHO.)

  • Subodh

    You can read Rowling’s Speech as well as other interesting talks online at http://www.sharedtalks.blogspot.com ….I liked it!!

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