J. K. Rowling’s Harvard Commencement Address (2008)
I have a few reasons for including JK Rowling’s address here on this blog. First, we own like ten copies of each HP book and most of them are dog-earred. To say we are fans is an insult. We’re more like sea urchins suctioned to the side of Ms. Rowling’s hip.
So yes, of course, I must read her address. And memorize it. 🙂
The other reason, however, that this speech jumped out at me (besides the fabulous writing, the insight into the poverty of most commencement addresses and her British wit) is that she features her relationship to Amnesty International and discusses at length the genius of that organization and all the good they do. This particular aspect of her speech is especially significant to me. I’ve been a member of Amnesty for 8 years.
And just this last week, our daughter Johannah (who just completed her freshman year at Ohio State University) was elected president of the OSU chapter of Amnesty International! So we are all about Harry Potter and Amnesty around here. I had to share!
Enjoy as a “Special Sunday Edition of the Blog” treat.
The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination
Copyright June 2008
/As prepared for delivery/
President Faust, members of the Harvard Corporation and the Board of
Overseers, members of the faculty, proud parents, and, above all,
The first thing I would like to say is ‘thank you.’ Not only has Harvard
given me an extraordinary honour, but the weeks of fear and nausea I’ve
experienced at the thought of giving this commencement address have made
me lose weight. A win-win situation! Now all I have to do is take deep
breaths, squint at the red banners and fool myself into believing I am
at the world’s best-educated Harry Potter convention.
Delivering a commencement address is a great responsibility; or so I
thought until I cast my mind back to my own graduation. The commencement
speaker that day was the distinguished British philosopher Baroness Mary
Warnock. Reflecting on her speech has helped me enormously in writing
this one, because it turns out that I can’t remember a single word she
said. This liberating discovery enables me to proceed without any fear
that I might inadvertently influence you to abandon promising careers in
business, law or politics for the giddy delights of becoming a gay wizard.
You see? If all you remember in years to come is the ‘gay wizard’ joke,
I’ve still come out ahead of Baroness Mary Warnock. Achievable goals:
the first step towards personal improvement.
Actually, I have wracked my mind and heart for what I ought to say to
you today. I have asked myself what I wish I had known at my own
graduation, and what important lessons I have learned in the 21 years
that has expired between that day and this.
I have come up with two answers. On this wonderful day when we are
gathered together to celebrate your academic success, I have decided to
talk to you about the benefits of failure. And as you stand on the
threshold of what is sometimes called ‘real life’, I want to extol the
crucial importance of imagination.
These might seem quixotic or paradoxical choices, but please bear with me.
Looking back at the 21-year-old that I was at graduation, is a slightly
uncomfortable experience for the 42-year-old that she has become. Half
my lifetime ago, I was striking an uneasy balance between the ambition I
had for myself, and what those closest to me expected of me.
I was convinced that the only thing I wanted to do, ever, was to write
novels. However, my parents, both of whom came from impoverished
backgrounds and neither of whom had been to college, took the view that
my overactive imagination was an amusing personal quirk that could never
pay a mortgage, or secure a pension.
They had hoped that I would take a vocational degree; I wanted to study
English Literature. A compromise was reached that in retrospect
satisfied nobody, and I went up to study Modern Languages. Hardly had my
parents’ car rounded the corner at the end of the road than I ditched
German and scuttled off down the Classics corridor.
I cannot remember telling my parents that I was studying Classics; they
might well have found out for the first time on graduation day. Of all
subjects on this planet, I think they would have been hard put to name
one less useful than Greek mythology when it came to securing the keys
to an executive bathroom.
I would like to make it clear, in parenthesis, that I do not blame my
parents for their point of view. There is an expiry date on blaming your
parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old
enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you. What is more, I
cannot criticise my parents for hoping that I would never experience
poverty. They had been poor themselves, and I have since been poor, and
I quite agree with them that it is not an ennobling experience. Poverty
entails fear, and stress, and sometimes depression; it means a thousand
petty humiliations and hardships. Climbing out of poverty by your own
efforts, that is indeed something on which to pride yourself, but
poverty itself is romanticised only by fools.
What I feared most for myself at your age was not poverty, but failure.
At your age, in spite of a distinct lack of motivation at university,
where I had spent far too long in the coffee bar writing stories, and
far too little time at lectures, I had a knack for passing examinations,
and that, for years, had been the measure of success in my life and that
of my peers.
I am not dull enough to suppose that because you are young, gifted and
well-educated, you have never known hardship or heartbreak. Talent and
intelligence never yet inoculated anyone against the caprice of the
Fates, and I do not for a moment suppose that everyone here has enjoyed
an existence of unruffled privilege and contentment.
However, the fact that you are graduating from Harvard suggests that you
are not very well-acquainted with failure. You might be driven by a fear
of failure quite as much as a desire for success. Indeed, your
conception of failure might not be too far from the average person’s
idea of success, so high have you already flown academically.
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 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 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 already 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
allâ€” 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 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 to me than
any qualification I ever earned.
Given a time machine or a Time Turner, I would tell my 21-year-old self
that personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of
acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your
life, though you will meet many people of my age and older who confuse
the two. Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone’s total
control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its
You might think that I chose my second theme, the importance of
imagination, because of the part it played in rebuilding my life, but
that is not wholly so. Though I will defend the value of bedtime stories
to my last gasp, I have learned to value imagination in a much broader
sense. 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.
One of the greatest formative experiences of my life preceded Harry
Potter, though it informed much of what I subsequently wrote in those
books. This revelation came in the form of one of my earliest day jobs.
Though I was sloping off to write stories during my lunch hours, I paid
the rent in my early 20s by working in the research department at
Amnesty International’s headquarters in London.
There in my little office I read hastily scribbled letters smuggled out
of totalitarian regimes by men and women who were risking imprisonment
to inform the outside world of what was happening to them. I saw
photographs of those who had disappeared without trace, sent to Amnesty
by their desperate families and friends. I read the testimony of torture
victims and saw pictures of their injuries. I opened handwritten,
eye-witness accounts of summary trials and executions, of kidnappings
Many of my co-workers were ex-political prisoners, people who had been
displaced from their homes, or fled into exile, because they had the
temerity to think independently of their government. Visitors to our
office included those who had come to give information, or to try and
find out what had happened to those they had been forced to leave behind.
I shall never forget the African torture victim, a young man no older
than I was at the time, who had become mentally ill after all he had
endured in his homeland. He trembled uncontrollably as he spoke into a
video camera about the brutality inflicted upon him. He was a foot
taller than I was, and seemed as fragile as a child. I was given the job
of escorting him to the Underground Station afterwards, and this man
whose life had been shattered by cruelty took my hand with exquisite
courtesy, and wished me future happiness.
And as long as I live I shall remember walking along an empty corridor
and suddenly hearing, from behind a closed door, a scream of pain and
horror such as I have never heard since. The door opened, and the
researcher poked out her head and told me to run and make a hot drink
for the young man sitting with her. She had just given him the news that
in retaliation for his own outspokenness against his country’s regime,
his mother had been seized and executed.
Every day of my working week in my early 20s I was reminded how
incredibly fortunate I was, to live in a country with a democratically
elected government, where legal representation and a public trial were
the rights of everyone.
Every day, I saw more evidence about the evils humankind will inflict on
their fellow humans, to gain or maintain power. I began to have
nightmares, literal nightmares, about some of the things I saw, heard
And yet I also learned more about human goodness at Amnesty
International than I had ever known before.
Amnesty mobilises thousands of people who have never been tortured or
imprisoned for their beliefs to act on behalf of those who have. The
power of human empathy, leading to collective action, saves lives, and
frees prisoners. Ordinary people, whose personal well-being and security
are assured, join together in huge numbers to save people they do not
know, and will never meet. My small participation in that process was
one of the most humbling and inspiring experiences of my life.
Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and
understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into
other people’s minds, imagine themselves into other people’s places.
Of course, this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is
morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate, or
control, just as much as to understand or sympathise.
And many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose
to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never
troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they
are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can
close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them
personally; they can refuse to know.
I might be tempted to envy people who can live that way, except that I
do not think they have any fewer nightmares than I do. Choosing to live
in narrow spaces can lead to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that
brings its own terrors. I think the wilfully unimaginative see more
monsters. They are often more afraid.
What is more, those who choose not to empathise may enable real
monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves,
we collude with it, through our own apathy.
One of the many things I learned at the end of that Classics corridor
down which I ventured at the age of 18, in search of something I could
not then define, was this, written by the Greek author Plutarch: What we
achieve inwardly will change outer reality.
That is an astonishing statement and yet proven a thousand times every
day of our lives. It expresses, in part, our inescapable connection with
the outside world, the fact that we touch other people’s lives simply by
But how much more are you, Harvard graduates of 2008, likely to touch
other people’s lives? Your intelligence, your capacity for hard work,
the education you have earned and received, give you unique status, and
unique responsibilities. Even your nationality sets you apart. 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 transform for the better. 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.
I am nearly finished. I have one last hope for you, which is something
that I already had at 21. The friends with whom I sat on graduation day
have been my friends for life. They are my children’s godparents, the
people to whom I’ve been able to turn in times of trouble, friends who
have been kind enough not to sue me when I’ve used their names for Death
Eaters. At our graduation we were bound by enormous affection, by our
shared experience of a time that could never come again, and, of course,
by the knowledge that we held certain photographic evidence that would
be exceptionally valuable if any of us ran for Prime Minister.
So today, I can wish you nothing better than similar friendships. And
tomorrow, I hope that even if you remember not a single word of mine,
you remember those of Seneca, another of those old Romans I met when I
fled down the Classics corridor, in retreat from career ladders, in
search of ancient wisdom:
As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is
I wish you all very good lives.
Thank you very much.