• Sarah Yoo

5 Inspirational Lessons of Failure - What J.K Rowling’s Harvard Commencement Speech Can Teach Us



When we hear the name, J.K Rowling, our thoughts immediately turn to her extraordinary success as the world’s first billionaire author.


Yet few of us are aware of her difficult past.


She came from a family where her imagination and love for writing was seen as "an amusing personal quirk that would never pay a mortgage, or secure a pension.”


In her mid-twenties, she struggled with depression as she experienced the lowest points of her life:


“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.”

But in her inspirational Harvard commencement speech, she shared that it was through her failures that she gained valuable knowledge about herself and the courage to face adversity and turn it into success.


Maybe it was fate but I came across her speech at a time that I needed to hear it the most.


Recently, I’ve been struggling with the discrepancy between my current reality and where I was hoping (*expecting*) I would be in my life. I had this idea that I would be incredibly successful in my career, have had achieved all my dreams with a ton of money in three years.


Rowling’s story helped me see that anything worthwhile takes time to build.


I learned that Rowling got the idea of Harry Potter when she was 25, published the first book 'Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone' when she was 32 and completed the series when she was 42.


It was a 17-year journey.


The words in her brilliant yet vulnerable speech went beyond the cliches of careers advice and helped to ease the anxious and struggling mind of lost souls like mine.


Here are 5 of my favorite takeaways.




Lesson #1 - Failure shows us what's truly important.



Rowling found herself living the “fears that my parents had for me and that I had for myself, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.”


She 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.”


But it was only when she found herself in her darkest moments that she decided to turn to her typewriter, determined to finish the only thing that mattered to her. Jumping between cafes and looking after her daughter, she began writing the first Harry Potter book.


"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."

Most of us are afraid of failure, not because of failure itself, but because we are terrified of standing out and making this potential failure public - out for display to critique. Because of our innate need to be accepted by our fellow humans, we often base our decisions by fear or avoidance of failure more so than the desire to succeed.


You see, people don’t like it when others do something that makes them feel insecure. Pushing ourselves beyond our comfort zone to reach our fullest potential threatens the complacency of others and their own unmet dreams.


It makes them question themselves or feel like they’re being left behind which is uncomfortable for most to handle.


However, it is when we pursue our dreams despite the chance at failure, that we gain the powerful truth: the only life we are meant to live is our own, not anyone else’s.


It is only when we experience failure and have nothing more to lose, we shine the light on things that truly matter to us.


It is only when we experience failure, we are able to truly let go of our fears of failure because it highlights our power beyond measure when faced with adversity.


Because it is just when we think we are going to drown and cannot get back up from the bottom, we find ourselves launching into our salvation.




Lesson #2 - Rock-bottom is temporary, not a permanent conclusion.





A consequence of psychological rock-bottom is defining ourselves as a failure. We get so caught up in defeat that we cease to see the temporariness of that rock-bottom.


The truth is that this isn't really where it ends.


The third law of physics tells us that "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”


The act of failing comes with a beautiful, unintended side-effect: liberation.


With nothing to lose, we are provided with a clear canvas to rebuild ourselves.


We must remember that success doesn't come to those who never fail but to those who experience failures as temporary glitches and see them as part of a mysterious puzzle that is there to teach us beyond our comprehension.




Lesson #3 - Failure is inevitable - so, don't fight it, instead embrace it.






Failures are often the biggest and most powerful teachers of our lives.


However those who lived a life without many become accustomed to a life of carefully curated “success.” This leads them to stay within their comfort zone and avoid doing things that have the potential to bring failure into their lives.


Rowling emphasized the importance of embracing the experiences of failure:


"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."
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."




Lesson #4 - Life is not about the destination. It's about the journey.





Most of us grow up with an image of our perfect future: how much money we'll have, the places we'll visit, where we'll be in our career and the perfect partner we will share our lives with.


Having a dream list is great but it becomes problematic when we don’t allow flexibility and equate our happiness to the achievement of these goals.


We get so caught up in ticking off the rigid checklist that we become blind to the fact that our happiness lies in the journey, not the destination.


It is about the person we become in the rollercoaster ride of constant struggles and challenges.


It is about the people that we fall in love with and share our most vulnerable moments with.


We are ultimately defined by the mistakes, tears and the laughter we experience along the way, as we move towards our dreams.


We think we want the achievements that we can see with our eyes.


But what we truly desire is the feeling of accomplishment and fulfillment that comes from overcoming the uncertain and uncomfortable journey that our dreams take us on.


Abraham Lincoln said,

"In the end, it is not the years in your life that count.

It is the life in your years that count."




Lesson #5 - Good things take time to build.



Rowling didn't always have the easiest time convincing others the beauty of the Harry Potter series.


She was rejected by 12 major publishers in the U.K and it took her an entire year of trying before Harry Potter and The Philosopher's Stone was recognized as a tale worth printing.


When asked by a fan what kept her motivated, she tweeted in reply:




Another fan asked, "How do I get the courage to risk it all for the things that I love when I don't have enough of a support system if all fails?"




The real lesson here is that persistence matters.


Rejection and failures are difficult to swallow but if you have a reason to believe that what you have to offer the world is of value, then showing up to try again and again is perhaps the most important job that we would ever have and therefore is critical for success.







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