Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

J.K. Rowling on the importance of failure

with 10 comments

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, and 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…

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 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.

J.K. Rowling, in a commencement address at Harvard University

Written by nevalalee

May 30, 2011 at 8:56 am

Posted in Quote of the Day, Writing

Tagged with ,

10 Responses

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  1. She is brilliant… Thanks for sharing this. I hope you don’t mind, I’ve reblogged it as a link to your page.


    May 30, 2011 at 9:31 am

  2. Glad you liked it! And you’re off to a nice start on your blog, by the way—I look forward to hearing more from you!


    May 30, 2011 at 10:02 am

  3. She is so right – sometimes I think we need to strip away everything but the bare minimum in order to hone in on what matters. Thank you for posting this!


    May 30, 2011 at 10:07 am

  4. My pleasure! Obviously Rowling’s own case is an exceptional one, but I don’t think there’s an artist alive who can’t relate, on some level, to what she’s saying here…


    May 30, 2011 at 10:16 am

  5. “we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure… a marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and poor…”

    She’s right. We do have to decide it for ourselves.

    Because I would not have considered one of those things she listed as failure. It wouldn’t even ocur to me to think of them as such.

    So what??????…the marriage partner wasn’t right, the job was a joke and poor is in your mind. Even the richest people buy on credit.

    Soooo with that in mind.

    Good job, JK!!!!!


    May 30, 2011 at 4:27 pm

  6. This hits home for me, and I completely agree with her ideas. I had put it another way, though: nobody can change into anything other than what they are without being broken. You have to shatter that mirror to put it back together a different way. There’s no way around that.

    Good post. :)


    May 30, 2011 at 10:38 pm

  7. Or as R.H. Blyth, one of my favorite authors, puts it: “Our past painful experiences are our most valuable possessions, if only we know how to use them.”


    May 30, 2011 at 10:54 pm

  8. When my brother and I were debating last year on the subject of social responsibility in the political world scene, we quoted JKR’s speech. (See below) But I missed the point of what you posted (which was part of the speech). It really hits me when I read it now for the second time. Thanks for posting.

    ” The great majority of you belong to the world’s only remaining superpower. The way you vote, the way you live, the way you protest, the pressure you bring to bear on your government, has an impact way beyond your borders. That is your privilege, and your burden.

    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.


    May 31, 2011 at 5:39 pm

  9. Thanks for highlighting that part of her speech—it certainly bears repeating!


    May 31, 2011 at 11:14 pm

  10. Thanks for posting this. Puts things in perspective, doesn’t it? And thanks for liking my blog. Regards.


    June 4, 2011 at 8:26 am

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