Friday, June 27, 2008

The Fringe Benefits of Failure (JK Rowling's Harvard Commencement Speech 2008)

If you've got a few minutes, check out J.K. Rowling's Commencement Address, “The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination.” She has had her fair share of failure (before Harry Potter, of course) and certainly knows a little something about imagination. It's always reassuring to hear life lessons from the people who have made it big, remembering that they weren't always successful.

I've always believed that challenges and failure can offer great value in learning more about who you are and how you want to grow. It forces you to analyze and reassess, which is often overlooked as we race from one thing to the next. Failure offers an immense opportunity for growth (albeit painful), and when digested with a healthy perspective it can lead to even greater successes in the future.

You can find the full text or watch the video here, courtesy of Harvard Magazine. Excerpt below (emphasis mine).

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.

As overachievers, we may logically understand the benefits of failure but our aversion to it is so strong that it keeps us from taking that path. But as you're thinking about graduating, moving to a new city, starting a company, or changing jobs, remember that what you learn from failure will set you up for success. Hey, it worked for JK Rowling, didn't it?

No comments: