Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination

J.K. Rowling delivered the Commencement Address, “The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination,” at the Annual Meeting of the Harvard Alumni Association, May 2008.  Apart from being entertaining and witty, she offers great insights.

Speaking from her life’s experiences (prior to her success), J.K. Rowling said that apart from the fact that it stripped away the inessential….

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. 

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…

No-one could doubt that her imagination was instrumental in turning her failure into success.  However, this was not the point she wanted to make.  In her early 20’s, J.K.Rowling worked at the African research department at Amnesty International’s headquarters in London in order to pay for her rent.  During that time, she read many stories, saw many photos, met torture victims and this all greatly affected her (do listen to her account).  She concluded:

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.

For me, there were three immediate take-aways with regards to imagination:

  1. We can think ourselves into other people’s minds, imagine (our)selves into other people’s places, and therefore show empathy,
  2. Empathy has power; it can ignite collective action, and
  3. 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.

There are more gems within this speech for the finding (and here’s the link).