JK Rowling gave the Harvard commencement speech in 2008. I love the way she wins over the audience by speaking about her own life. She speaks powerfully about the greatest lessons that she has learnt – always from her failures.

What would JK tell her 21 year old self? “Life is not a checklist; a CV is not life. Life is difficult and complicated and beyond anyone’s control.”

“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”.

“You might never fail on the scale that 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.”

According to the author of the Harry Potter books and the current twelfth richest woman in Britain, failure gave her something that you cannot learn in any school, through any course, but only through facing the abyss of seeing everything you thought was important taken away from you:

  • security in her ability to survive
  • strength because she saw her ability to survive really tough times
  • discipline to focus on the important
  • friends who really care, who have come through adversity

I put the video here (you will need to click through if viewing via RSS).  The full text of her speech is available at the Harvard Magazine.


She finishes with ancient words of wisdom from Seneca “As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.”


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