The Fringe Benefits of Failure and The Importance of Imagination

Updated: December 22, 2014

I remember about two years ago, I shared here the commencement address given by Apple’s CEO, Steve Jobs, to the 2005 graduating class of Stanford.

That post was entitled and was about: Connecting The Dots

It was a speech which encourages us to follow our dreams and trust that all the difficulties we experience in the past until the present will all make sense and have value in our future.

And for today, I am sharing with you another commencement address. This time given by Harry Potter author, J.K. Rowling, last 2008 in Harvard.

Her speech is about two things: failure and imagination.

In it, she shares how failure helped her focus on the things that mattered; and how imagination helped her understand the situation and empathize with the needs of others.

It’s quite an inspiring 20-minute speech which I encourage you to take the time to watch below:

If you asked me what I considered the most striking part of her speech, it would be this:

What I feared most… was not poverty, but failure.

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.

Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea then how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.

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 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.

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.

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.

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, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.

Indeed, our mindset towards failure is as important as our desire for success.

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  1. It really touched me to hear about how she worked for Amnesty International and helped so many people. She said that her experiences made her very humble and empathetic. It was also very inspiring to hear her talk about imagination. It’s so important to be creative and build your own experiences in this day and age.

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