Written by Sweety Vyas
J.K. Rowling (author of the Harry Potter series) delivered a beautiful commencement address at Harvard in 2008 titled ‘The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination.’ In the address, she stresses the value of failure and its ability to shape a person, as well as the power of imagination. In this article, Sweety Vyas shares excerpts from the speech and provides commentary on its key points.
Rowling reflects on her personal experiences, recalling that in her youth, she had a fear of failure. Her parents did not support her aspiration to become a writer, believing it would not provide financial stability. Just seven years after her graduation, she experienced a massive failure—divorced, jobless, a single parent living on benefits, and nearly homeless. However, her situation changed drastically later in life as she became a famous author with over 400 million books sold.
She describes the benefits of failure, stating, “…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 been realized, 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.”
Failure helped her realize her strengths—her abundant willpower and discipline. She discovered her true self and the value of genuine friendships. According to Rowling, some failure is inevitable, and those who have not experienced it have never truly experimented or taken risks. By going through tough times, she gained a better understanding of herself. She shares advice based on her experience, stating, “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.”
Often, people believe that their happiness is dependent on material acquisitions and accomplishments. Society often judges individuals based on these standards. However, it is crucial not to get caught up in what the world deems important. Rowling imparts her wisdom, saying, “So given a Time Turner, I would tell my 21-year-old self that personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a checklist 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.”
Rowling also emphasizes the importance of imagination. During her early 20s, while working for Amnesty International in the African Research Department in London, she witnessed the hardships faced by Africans fighting totalitarian regimes. They endured persecution, kidnapping, exile, and displacement. Despite her own poverty, she realized she was more fortunate than them. Through her imagination, she was able to empathize with those whose experiences differed from her own.
She highlights that some individuals become so consumed by their own existence that they fail to see the realities of others or put themselves in their shoes. She states, “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.”
By neglecting their imagination, their lives become unsatisfying, and they become more afraid. Rowling aims to inspire the graduates to support the disadvantaged and actively bring about positive change. According to her, “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 change. 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.”
She concludes her speech with an intriguing quote from the Roman philosopher Seneca: “As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.”
In conclusion, failure is sometimes inevitable, but it can provide wisdom and an opportunity for reflection to rebuild oneself. Individuals should focus on their strengths and avoid wasting time and energy on internal struggles. By harnessing the power of imagination, they can make a positive impact on others and themselves. Ultimately, life should be lived effectively, with its value lying in its goodness rather than its duration.