11/22/10 “Benefits of Failure & Imagination”

Good day, team,

At a client’s request, I’m resending a piece that I originally sent in 2008, from J. K. Rowling’s commencement address to Harvard’s graduating class. This is part one; I will send part two next week.

In 2008, J.K. Rowling, acclaimed author of the Harry Potter novels, gave the commencement address at Harvard University. She called her talk “The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination.” When I read it, I found it so inspiring that I wanted to share some of the best parts with you.

First, a bit about her background, as context. J.K. Rowling’s parents both grew up poor, so they insisted she study subjects in college that would land her a great, high-paying job. She, on the other hand, wanted to write fiction. The two parties compromised on her pursuing a vocational degree in modern languages. But once in school, Rowling quickly switched to majoring in classics.

Though the decision weighed heavily upon her, her passion was so great that she continued to write stories during her lunch hours. Unlike her parents, who feared poverty, Rowling feared failure, and she actually ended up attracting it in significant ways. Here is an excerpt from her speech:

“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. So I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. 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.”

However, the author found a light at the end of the tunnel when she ended up in the most dire conditions. And, in doing so, she was able to realize her destiny.

“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.

“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 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 to me than any qualification I ever earned.”

Your challenge this week is to face your fear of failure and decide not to let it overtake you. Take your fearful state of mind and heart and use it propel you into doing something you love or to find alternative ways to live. For example, a friend of mine and her neighbors recently planted a city garden to offset the cost of food. She never realized how much she loved getting up early in the morning and going out to plant or harvest what she grows. My neighbor has already lost 10 pounds and is feeling better than ever now that she bikes and walks to work. A client has finally quit a job she hated for years to pursue her dream of painting watercolors full time.

If we take Rowling’s words to heart, we can begin to see these changes in fortune as an opportunity to gain something new rather than to lose or to fail. Decide for yourself what path you would like your life to take based on your passion for it, rather than the fear of failing at it.

At the end of her speech, Rowling quoted from the great Roman philosopher Seneca. As you face your fear of failure this week, remember his words:

“As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.”

Stay tuned for next week‘s challenge for the second subject of her speech, the importance of imagination.

Have a great holiday week, everyone. We all have lots to be grateful for!


Kathleen Doyle-White

Pathfinders Coaching

(503) 296-9249

© Copyright 2010 Pathfinders Coaching, Scout Search, Inc., all rights reserved.

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