Inspiring Advice About Failure and Imagination from J.K. Rowling

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Written for In Care of Relationships by Terri Crosby

It’s a little after 6:30  am and I’m looking out at a magical mystical view that could be a scene from Harry Potter or the Mists of Avalon.  It happens often here.  I especially like the watercolor pink that’s barely there.  Such morning beauty!

Recently, I got a surprise gift in the mail from my daughter, MacKenzie.  She sent me a teensy-tiny book called “Very Good Lives” by J.K. Rowling.  You can read it in a few minutes — with it’s small size, big type, double spacing, full page illustrations, and lavish spacing. 

It’s J.K. Rowling’s 2008 Harvard commencement address.  It’s worth reading.

J.K. Rowling is, of course, the author of the Harry Potter series of seven books, which have sold over 450 million copies, were translated into 78 languages, and became eight blockbuster films.  She is also the founder and president of the children’s charity “Lumos” which works to end the institutionalization of children globally.

In “Very Good Lives” she says, “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, I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain without being homeless.  The fears that 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.”

She goes on to say that she would never claim that failure is fun, and that that part of her life was a dark one, but standing in the middle of failure, you have no idea there could possibly, be what others would call, a fairy tale outcome.

J.K. Rowling refers to failure as a “stripping away of the inessential.”  When she was at the bottom of the barrel, she stopped pretending to be anything other than what she was and began to direct all her energy into the only thing she cared about, which was writing Harry Potter.  Had she succeeded in anything else, she may never have had the determination to succeed in the one area in which she truly belonged.

Basically, she had three things:  a daughter whom she adored, an old typewriter and a big idea. 

So, according to J.K. “rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”

“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 the price of rubies.”


She describes how she came to appreciate the value of imagination in a broader sense — that humans can “envision that which is not” which allows us to understand and relate to an experience of another person, in which we have never actually shared.  One of her day jobs while writing Harry Potter was working in the African Research department of Amnesty International headquarters in London.  The short story is that she was exposed to information which changed her life.

We can imagine, relate to others, expand our knowing — or we can simply refuse to know.  We can not imagine.  We can sit still in our world and live as if our world is the only world.  

One is not better than the other.  It’s a personal choice.

She says, “I might be tempted to envy people who can live that way [without imagination], except that I do not think they have any fewer nightmares than I do.  Choosing to live in narrow spaces leads 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.”

And further: “We do not need magic to transform our world; we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already; we have the power to imagine better.”

And when we imagine better, and focus on the positive aspects of things, magic often appears…


For more info: my three minute video blog Failure, Empowerment and Taking Responsibility





2008 Harvard commencement address, failure, imagination, In Care of Relationships, J.K. Rowling, relationship, Terri Crosby, Very Good Lives

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