Bestselling author JK Rowling knows better than most what global success feels like. She hit the literary jackpot twice – with the phenomenally successful Harry Potter series and as her crime-writing alter ego, Robert Galbraith.
But it was not always thus. In 2008, she told an audience of graduates during a deeply affecting commencement address at Harvard University that there were benefits in failing. And how learning those lessons was worth more than any qualification she earned.
Now, her speech, the most-viewed ever on the Harvard website, has been reissued as a book, ‘Very Good Lives. The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination’ with illustrations by Joel Holland.
You can read the speech online. You can even see JK Rowling deliver parts of it on YouTube and feel the goosebumps ripple all over your body when she says that rock bottom became the solid foundation on which she rebuilt her life.
However, it’s well worth investing in the book, a beautifully illustrated little gem (just 71 pages) that would make a thoughtful gift for anyone feeling the cruel brunt of life’s vagaries. Besides, all proceeds are going to charity.
But back to Rowling’s rock bottom.
“A mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale,” she told graduates at one of the most prestigious universities in the world.
“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.” In stark contrast to others who expound on the virtues of hard work and ‘getting on’ in the world, Rowling spoke to graduates about what it was like to see everything go utterly pear-shaped.
“Now, I’m not going to stand here and tell you that failure was fun. That period of my life was a dark one… So why do I talk about the benefits of failure?
“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 the price of rubies.” Rowling still believes that a willingness to embrace failure is key to having a good life, but so too is allowing the imagination run free.
That Rowling’s parents warned her overactive imagination would never pay the mortgage strikes her with the force of a cartoon anvil now, she says, as imagination gave her Harry Potter. But imagination, she said, is a power that can lead to empathy and collective action. It can save lives and free prisoners, she says, recalling a day at her former job at Amnesty International’s headquarters in London that has stayed with her all her life.
“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.
The man who screamed had just been told that his mother had been executed for her outspokenness against his country’s regime.
She realised then that humans can understand others without having experienced what they have been through – and that they can use that to help others.
And so, the secret to a happy life? Dare to imagine and recognise the fringe benefits of failure.
The Olympian: Sonia O’Sullivan
You only truly fail if you don’t learn from your mistakes, says Olympic silver medallist Sonia O’Sullivan (above).
“When you set lofty goals and targets, the only way to reach the highest level is to take a risk,” she tells the Irish Examiner.
“By taking a risk, we increase our chances of failure, but if you don’t take a risk you may never realise your potential,” she says.
And she thinks children should be taught that lesson too: “Children can be over-protected these days and never allowed to experience falling, or failing, because someone is always trying to prevent them having a negative experience. But life is full of ups and downs. We need to experience both to understand how to start again when things don’t always go to plan.”
The tech pioneer: Kevin Ashton
Imagination is the wellspring of humanity, says Kevin Ashton (left), the British tech pioneer who invented the phrase The Internet of Things.
His new book How to Fly a Horse: the Secret History of Creation, Invention and Discovery debunks the myth of genius and argues that it’s hard work, not genius, which leads to success.
“The simple fact is, nobody knows what you can do; not even you. The only way to find out is to do it,” he tells the Irish Examiner.
And, he says, there is no way to succeed without failing. Though he is quick to add that failure can be a bad thing if it kills you, or puts you out of business, or causes some other terminal calamity.
“So, you have to be willing and able to fail repeatedly, to fail small, so you can survive and learn and fail again.”
The novelist: Martina Devlin
Ask novelist Martina Devlin if she’s ever failed and she tells you straight-up: “Often.” “But I think I’ve learned more from my failures than my successes. Failure is a fair price to pay, provided you can profit by it and improve,” she says.
And the secret to learning those valuable lessons is to park your ego: “Ego obstructs learning. You also need to set aside any sense of shame you have at failing. I try to tell myself I ought to be more ashamed at not trying. I’m a little anxious about my next book (Sisterland Within, due out in September) which is set in the near future. It’s about a world ruled by women... and it all goes horribly wrong.
“There’s a real risk of failure here, but it was the story that called to me and so it’s the story I wrote. What’s the worst that can happen? The remaindered pile. In any case, there’ll be other stories, touch wood.”
Guardian of the Big House, Lady Sheelyn Browne
“Every now and then I wonder what it would have been like if I had been born into a house where Jack hadn’t been quite so ridiculously generous with those bricks, way back in 1730,” says Lady Sheelyn Browne (below right), referring to Westport House, the Browne ancestral home.
For her as joint managing director of Westport House, notions of success and failure have been wrapped up in the fortunes of an estate that has stayed in the family despite all the odds.
“I know during my time as one of her guardians the challenges of keeping her alive has been what’s kept me alive, but I have also learned in more recent times the importance of allowing myself to imagine life without her – and that it is actually okay for me to do that.
“I have learned, too, that the sayings “Nobody is indispensable” and “Life goes on” can be positives not negatives – and I thank goodness for them both.”