The importance of failure and imagination

Yesterday I read a great post from Deborah Bryan about JK Rowling’s Harvard speech from 2008. I’ve never heard this speech before and as I read the transcript Deborah linked us too, I completely agreed with Deborah that her words were magic. The speech in full can be read here.

Ms Rowling mainly talks about the importance of failure and imagination. I never really thought about how vital they can be but you can’t fail to be inspired by how important they were in her life and how important they could be for ours.

These extracts stood out for me:

 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.

This is a pretty freeing statement. JK Rowling failed in her mind when she was a single parent, jobless and poor but she turned this into extraordinary success. She felt free because she had got as low as she thought she could get so the only way was up and she turned to her writing dreams. I agree that we all fail at some point in our lives and we need to so we can learn from our mistakes, learn to take control and survive.

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

It’s amazing to me when people don’t give up in life, when they turn tragedy into success. When they take what life throws at them and turn it into something wonderful. We all have setbacks but I agree that it’s how we deal with them that shapes who we are and what we can be.

 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.

I of course agree that imagination is important. What struck me was that Ms Rowling talked about imagination not just in terms of writing and imagining fantasy worlds but in imagining our world as different and better and working to change it. Such imagination is surely priceless.

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.

This is a pretty inspiring sentence. Believing that we can all make changes and do great things if we just use the power we all have. Of course, she was talking to Harvard students who potentially could be running countries one day but maybe we all need to remember we can do great things if we want to. That is magical.

As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters (quote from Seneca)

Here she used her Classics degree to impart wisdom that wasn’t fully her own but it summed up her speech brilliantly. I think we all want to live good lives but we rarely think about what that means and what we actually want to achieve with our lives. We have to remember that we have the power to write the endings for our own stories – our lives.


Reading Harry Potter gave me the bug to write my own stories. I am inspired by JK Rowling’s story, how she turned failure into success and how she tries to use her success to raise awareness and do good. She will leave a brilliant legacy behind her. I wonder what legacy we will leave. 





23 thoughts on “The importance of failure and imagination”

  1. Very inspiring speech. I printed it at put it in my ‘inspirational’ notebook where I keep all the pieces of inspiration I’ve found that keep me going when I don’t think I can go on anymore. Thank you for sharing.

  2. I have no doubt you will be a brilliant success! Her words are not just words, but actions displayed in her life. I, too, live by the belief that everything in life is a blessing. The good and the bad.

  3. I watched her commencement speech not too long ago and I found it absolutely riveting also. So inspiring. Thank you for reminding me about this speech and her fantastic quotes.

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