Tag: imagination

11/29/10 “The Benefits of Failure and Imagination”

Good day, team,
This week, I bring you part two of last week’s challenge, the second part of J.K. Rowling’s commencement speech to Harvard’s 2008 graduating class, about the importance of imagination. I’ve printed most of it below because, in all honesty, I couldn’t leave out anything she said: It’s so compelling and beautifully written. It’s lengthy, but worth it.

“You might think that I chose my second theme, the importance of imagination, because of the part it played in rebuilding my life, but that is not wholly so. Though I will defend the value of bedtime stories to my last gasp, I have learned to value imagination in a much broader sense. 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.

“One of the greatest formative experiences of my life preceded Harry Potter, though it informed much of what I subsequently wrote in those books. This revelation came in the form of one of my earliest day jobs. Though I was sloping off to write stories during my lunch hours, I paid the rent in my early 20s by working in the research department at Amnesty International’s headquarters in London.

“There in my little office I read hastily scribbled letters smuggled out of totalitarian regimes by men and women who were risking imprisonment to inform the outside world of what was happening to them. I saw photographs of those who had disappeared without trace, sent to Amnesty by their desperate families and friends. I read the testimony of torture victims and saw pictures of their injuries. I opened handwritten, eye-witness accounts of summary trials and executions, of kidnappings and rapes.

“Many of my co-workers were ex-political prisoners, people who had been displaced from their homes, or fled into exile, because they had the temerity to think independently of their government. Visitors to our office included those who had come to give information, or to try and find out what had happened to those they had been forced to leave behind.

“I shall never forget the African torture victim, a young man no older than I was at the time, who had become mentally ill after all he had endured in his homeland. He trembled uncontrollably as he spoke into a video camera about the brutality inflicted upon him. He was a foot taller than I was, and seemed as fragile as a child. I was given the job of escorting him to the Underground Station afterwards, and this man whose life had been shattered by cruelty took my hand with exquisite courtesy, and wished me future happiness.

“And as long as I live I shall remember walking along an empty corridor and suddenly hearing, from behind a closed door, a scream of pain and horror such as I have never heard since. The door opened, and the researcher poked out her head and told me to run and make a hot drink for the young man sitting with her. She had just given him the news that in retaliation for his own outspokenness against his country’s regime, his mother had been seized and executed.

“Every day of my working week in my early 20s I was reminded how incredibly fortunate I was, to live in a country with a democratically elected government, where legal representation and a public trial were the rights of everyone.

“Every day, I saw more evidence about the evils humankind will inflict on their fellow humans, to gain or maintain power. I began to have nightmares, literal nightmares, about some of the things I saw, heard and read.
And yet I also learned more about human goodness at Amnesty International than I had ever known before.

“Amnesty mobilizes thousands of people who have never been tortured or imprisoned for their beliefs to act on behalf of those who have. The power of human empathy, leading to collective action, saves lives, and frees prisoners. Ordinary people, whose personal well-being and security are assured, join together in huge numbers to save people they do not know, and will never meet. My small participation in that process was one of the most humbling and inspiring experiences of my life.

“Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s minds, imagine themselves into other people’s places.

“Of course, this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate, or control, just as much as to understand or sympathize.

“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 can lead 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 may enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy.

“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.
But how much more are you, Harvard graduates of 2008, likely to touch other people’s lives? Your intelligence, your capacity for hard work, the education you have earned and received, give you unique status, and unique responsibilities. Even your nationality sets you apart. The great majority of you belong to the world’s only remaining superpower. The way you vote, the way you live, the way you protest, the pressure you bring to bear on your government, has an impact way beyond your borders. That is your privilege, and your burden.

“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.”

Your challenge this week is to allow your imagination to envision how your life and the lives of others could be better. Give yourself free license to dream. When we spend most of our time checking off our to-do list as we get things done, we become efficient and boring. Take a moment to give your heart and mind free time to imagine what you would be doing if you were sublimely happy. Maybe you think about creating something beautiful for yourself and others, like raspberry tarts! Or maybe it’s something much larger, like the woman who decided that every child should have a pair of pajamas to wear to bed and at last count had collected 8 million sets to distribute to kids who didn’t own a pair.

Whatever it is, listen to your imagination and allow whatever flight of fancy you conjure up to take wing! Give the power of your imagination an opportunity to become reality.

Have a great week!


Kathleen Doyle-White

Pathfinders Coaching

(503) 296-9249

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

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.