“We do not need magic to transform our world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already.” – J.K. Rowling
Many people have heard of J.K. Rowling’s rags-to-riches story where she was “as poor as you can be without being homeless” only to become a multi-millionaire within the next five years as a result of writing the Harry Potter series, the best-selling book series in history! Needless to say, it would seem that if anyone one could talk about failure and imagination, it would be her. Even if you have not experienced her level of success, you have no doubt experienced failure. And as an artist, I’m sure you also have imagination?
In her commencement address to the Harvard graduates of 2008, she begins by making the audience laugh with witty jokes and self-deprecating humor. Then she begins to speak on failure, describing her pre-Potter history without the generous coats of sugar and romanticism that the media used.
Hitting Rock Bottom
Rowling describes herself as “convinced that the only thing I wanted to do – ever – was to write novels”. However, her parents being rather poor, wanted more for their daughter and desired her to take a vocational degree. They saw her strong imagination as a cute quirk, but nothing that would pay the bills… (cough, cough, one billion dollars later…)
Although Rowling ended up studying the classics, 7 years after graduation she found herself divorced, jobless, as poor as you can without being homeless, and a lone parent. She had become what both she and her parents feared most.
Rowling says that at her young age, what she feared most was not poverty, but failure. So when she did “fail” years later, she had realized her biggest fear. This is where the benefits come in. She describes four things that happened as a result of this “epic failure”:
- She was set free. Her greatest fear was realized and yet, she was still alive, she had her daughter whom she adored, and she had an old type writer coupled with a big idea.
- The failure meant a stripping away of the nonessential. She stopped pretending that she was anything other than what she was.
- She began directing all her energy into finishing what mattered most to her. If she succeeded in anything else, she may not have found the determination to succeed in the one arena where she felt that she belonged.
- Her rock bottom became the solid foundation on which she rebuilt her life.
Failure gave her an inner security – she could fall no farther. Failure can also act as a truth serum. Rowling discovered new things about herself. For example, she found that her will was stronger and she had more discipline that she thought. Truly, doesn’t every artist want to discover that about themselves? To know that they really do have tenacity to survive?
Rowling went on to describe how her job of researcher and bilingual secretary for Amnesty International changed her perspective on things. As she read the testaments of torture victims and people who lost their families, and worked with others whose courage lay in their ability to speak out against their oppressive government, she was filled with gratitude for her own life circumstances. She now knew much of the evil that humans inflict on other humans, but she also knew much of human goodness. This is where the power of imagination was introduced.
The Power of Imagination
She described imagination as the ability to think yourself into someone else’s place in life – to empathize. Humans can know and understand that which they have never experienced through imagination. Of course, there are some who would prefer to shut their mind to the all things that do not relate to them personally, but choosing to live in narrow mental spaces produces an even greater fear of the “outside world”.
The main idea behind this is that we cannot underestimate the power of imagination. With it, we can create better things. As an artist, you already are working and playing in the ocean of imagination – this is your joy and your burden – to imagine better and then to create it.
Watch the full commencement address below.