A week ago, I watched J.K. Rowling’s commencement address at Harvard, from 2008 (the unsubtitled video is here, with a transcript underneath it but there is also a subtitled one here). What she said spoke to me – her speech reminded me of the times I have failed, or have come close to failing. It also reminded me of the power of imagination – not just the kind of imagination we use when reading or writing, but the imagination that lets us imagine what it is like to be in another person’s shoes – empathy. To empathise is part of imagination.
‘Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s places.’ – J.K. Rowling.
It can be hard to empathise with people at times. It can be painful to acknowledge and learn about the pain of others. However, learning and trying to understand the pain of other people means that we work on our inner selves – and empathy is something that allows us to use imagination to change the world. Whether that is through activism or art, or by working towards a better world in some way, or by making someone’s day that little bit brighter – there are so many possibilities that require a small leap of imagination.
Failure teaches us resilience. In the face of failure, we learn more about ourselves and the people around us, about relationships and inner strength. For me, failure is a very strong word – it implies no possibility of getting back up and starting again, but that is what happens – we get back up and start again. Every day is a new day. Some days are harder than others, but there is always a new day, always the possibility of something different – that you can do something, make small changes or work towards your dream.
‘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 reality.
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.’ – J.K. Rowling.
She also mentions that you are not a list of achievements – that we are not our CVs, our qualifications or other such measurements of success. People’s ideas of success vary. You don’t have to have a tick list where you have to achieve certain things by the time you are 30. I’ve discovered this the hard way – that my education, whilst giving me the tools to analyse, and think for myself – is not necessarily about achievement. It means a lot to me that I worked that hard for my education, but you learn every single day of your life. So much of what I’ve learnt in the years following my formal education has been about vulnerability, resilience and what it means to be human. You learn those lessons by living.
‘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.
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.’ – J. K. Rowling.