JK Rowling's Commencement Speech at Harvard

July 14th, 2008

Entrepreneurship, starting an internet business, product creation, authoring a book, affiliate marketing requires a certain dedication…or passion to see the project to completion. Sometimes, we may feel that certain tasks are too difficult to learn, that we want to stop.

But when we stay stagnant in the mud and get comfortable for too long, the only way is down, slowly but surely.

Given that if we struggle, sink faster we may…but wouldn't you trade that for just 1 shot at achieving a target, a goal that could change your life?

Below is the Harvard commencement speech by JK Rowling. With a good dose of reality, she recounts her journey from a single parent of 1 & near poverty to… what I like to call her, the $2 billion dollar lady.

I hope this 20 minute video will inspire you to never stop pushing towards your entrepreneur endeavours…whatever it may be. Enjoy :)

JK Rowling's Commencement Speech at Harvard Part 1

JK Rowling's Commencement Speech at Harvard Part 2

Copyright of JK Rowling, June 2008

President Faust, members of the Harvard Corporation and the
Board of Overseers, members of the faculty, proud parents,
and, above all, graduates.

The first thing I would like to say is ‘thank you.’ Not only
has Harvard given me an extraordinary honour, but the weeks
of fear and nausea I’ve experienced at the thought of giving
this commencement address have made me lose weight. A
win-win situation! Now all I have to do is take deep
breaths, squint at the red banners and fool myself into
believing I am at the world’s best-educated Harry Potter
convention.

Delivering a commencement address is a great responsibility;
or so I thought until I cast my mind back to my own
graduation. The commencement speaker that day was the
distinguished British philosopher Baroness Mary Warnock.
Reflecting on her speech has helped me enormously in writing
this one, because it turns out that I can’t remember a
single word she said. This liberating discovery enables me
to proceed without any fear that I might inadvertently
influence you to bandon promising careers in business, law
or politics for the giddy delights of becoming a gay
wizard.

You see? If all you remember in years to come is the ‘gay
wizard’ joke, I’ve still come out ahead of Baroness Mary
Warnock.

Achievable goals: the first step towards personal improvement. 🙂

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 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.

These might seem quixotic or paradoxical choices, but please
bear with me.

Looking back at the 21-year-old that I was at graduation, is
a slightly uncomfortable experience for the 42-year-old that
she has become. 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 was convinced that the only thing I wanted to do, ever,
was to write novels. However, my parents, both of whom came
from impoverished backgrounds and neither of whom had been
to college, took the view that my overactive imagination was
an amusing personal quirk that could never pay a mortgage,
or secure a pension.

They had hoped that I would take a vocational degree; I
wanted to study English Literature. A compromise was reached
that in retrospect satisfied nobody, and I went up to study
Modern Languages. Hardly had my parents’ car rounded the
corner at the end of the road than I ditched German and
scuttled off down the Classics corridor.

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 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.

I would like to make it clear, in parenthesis, that I do not
blame my parents for their point of view. There is an expiry
date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong
direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel,
responsibility lies with you. What is more, I cannot
criticise my parents for hoping that I would never
experience poverty. They had been poor themselves, and I
have since been poor
, and I quite agree with them that it is
not an ennobling experience.

Poverty entails fear, and stress, and sometimes depression;
it means a thousand petty humiliations and hardships.
Climbing out of poverty by your own efforts, that is indeed
something on which to pride yourself, but poverty itself is
romanticised only by fools.

What I feared most for myself at your age was not poverty,
but failure.

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.

I am not dull enough to suppose that because you are young,
gifted and well-educated, you have never known hardship or
heartbreak. Talent and intelligence never yet inoculated
anyone against the caprice of the Fates, and I do not for a
moment suppose that everyone here has enjoyed an existence
of unruffled privilege and contentment.

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 academically.

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.

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.

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.

Given a time machine or 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.

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 empathise 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 African 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 speak against their
governments. 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 back 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 mobilises 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 sympathise.

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 wilfully 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.

I am nearly finished. I have one last hope for you, which is
something that I already had at 21. The friends with whom I
sat on graduation day have been my friends for life
. They
are my children’s godparents, the people to whom I’ve been
able to turn in times of trouble, friends who have been kind
enough not to sue me when I’ve used their names for Death
Eaters. At our graduation we were bound by enormous
affection, by our shared experience of a time that could
never come again, and, of course, by the knowledge that we
held certain photographic evidence that would be
exceptionally valuable if any of us ran for Prime Minister.

So today, I can wish you nothing better than similar
friendships. And tomorrow, I hope that even if you remember
not a single word of mine, you remember those of Seneca,
another of those old Romans I met when I fled down the
Classics corridor, in retreat from career ladders, in search
of ancient wisdom:

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

I wish you all very good lives.

Thank you very much.

~JK Rowling 


Closing thoughts: A remarkable woman with the power to imagine better. If you want to spread the word and learn how you can help, please visit http://www.oxfam.org/en/getinvolved

 

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