In 2008, J.K. Rowling delivered a deeply affecting commencement speech at Harvard University. Now published for the first time in book form, Very Good Lives offers J.K. Rowling’s words of wisdom for anyone at a turning point in life, asking the profound and provocative questions: How can we embrace failure? And how can we use our imagination to better both ourselves and others?
Drawing from stories of her own post-graduate years, the world-famous author addresses some of life’s most important issues with acuity and emotional force. (Goodreads)
Toward the end of last year, I visited the library and unsure of what to get, I grabbed whatever caught my eye. Very Good Lives was one of the three books I left with.
Very Good Lives is the published copy of a speech J.K. Rowling gave at Harvard’s commencement in 2008. It’s not the first that I’ve encountered it. I watched a video of Rowling giving the speech a couple years ago on Brain Pickings. There were several other commencement speeches in that post, including one by Steve Jobs, and all were uplifting.
The same could be said of this speech. Very Good Lives is quietly inspiring. It’s message is simple and obviously based on Rowling’s life experiences. She emphasizes the value of failure, an advice that is often touted today after years of emphasis on success. It’s a message that I think needs to be broadcasted more widely and told to more young people, especially those embarking on adulthood.
According to Rowling, failing helped her to discover her strengths and know who her true friends are. She doesn’t say that everyone should experience being brought low in order to succeed, but rather that failing is not the end and that it’s beneficial to us too.
As the celebrated author of a popular fantasy book series, Rowling, of course, spoke on the value and need for imagination. Imagination can be entertaining and it helps us to think creatively and consider various solutions for problems, but Rowling mentions it as being an ability that helps us to empathize with those whose experiences we do not share. With this she mentions her time working at Amnesty International and the need for empathy in society.
The speech is short and she touches on a few other topics, but does not linger on them as she did with her main subjects, and, of course, there were some Harry Potter-related jibes toward the end, which I enjoyed
It was a quick, inspiring read. Her message is one many need to hear and some who read this or listened to the speech might be uplifted by her words.
For more on the benefits of failure, I suggest checking out Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better by Pema Chödrön.
Quotes from the book:
“There is an expiration 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.”
“Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential….Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena where I believed I truly belonged.”
“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.”
“You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity.”
“What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.” — Plutarch