McKella Sawyer
May 17, 2023

The Power of Failure and Imagination: JK Rowling’s Harvard Commencement Speech

The Power of Failure and Imagination: JK Rowling’s Harvard Commencement Speech

The Power of Failure and Imagination: JK Rowling’s Harvard Commencement Speech

In 2008, J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, gave a powerful commencement speech at Harvard University. Her speech, titled "The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination," has become one of the most widely discussed and inspiring graduation speeches of all time. 

We love this speech because it presents a counterintuitive approach to failure and extols the value of imagination. At Redmond, we’re all about the journey, and these are two key elements of any personal growth path.

Watch the speech here!

Main takeaways:

  • Failure is inevitable and can be incredibly liberating. 
  • Imagination is the basis of empathy and compassion.
  • When you have empathy for others, you can take action to create positive change.
  • Know who your friends are, and keep them close.

Let’s talk about those…

Failure, Friends, and Why Imagination is Everything

Someone looking frustrated or like they failed

The Power of Failure

One of the central messages of Rowling's speech is the importance of failure. 

Now, when you think of failure, you probably don’t think of a self-made billionaire whose books smashed records. 

Rowling actually penned the beginnings of the wildly successful Harry Potter series when she was experiencing extreme poverty, “as poor as it was possible to be in modern Britain without being homeless.”

As she says, “Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.” Failure is not only a natural part of the learning process but also an essential one. 

Failure isn’t fun. None of us wants to fail. But failure is unavoidable, and an opportunity to learn and grow. As Rowling says in her speech, “The only way to avoid failure is to live so cautiously you may as well not have lived at all, in which case you fail by default.” Failure is a consequence of living and trying things, but it’s not the end of the world. In fact, failure is often a redirect, a turn in our path that leads us exactly where we need to go. 

That’s powerful stuff!

In order to embrace failure, you need to be willing to take risks. When you take risks, there’s always the chance that you might fail. However, it’s important to remember that failure is not the end of the road. 

Our core value of Reflection can come in handy here! 

When you fail, take some time to reflect on what didn’t go so well and why, but don’t beat yourself up about it. Use your failure as an opportunity to learn so you can move forward.

The Importance of Imagination

Rowling spoke about how the power of human imagination is the key to unlocking our potential. Imagination can help us to overcome obstacles and find solutions to problems that may seem impossible. In other words, imagination allows us to create a better world.

Cultivating your imagination requires time and practice. Give yourself permission to think outside the box and explore new ideas. 

“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 empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”

This leads us to empathy.

The Role of Empathy

Someone helping someone else

Imagination allows us to empathize, and empathizing allows us to take action. “The power of human empathy, leading to collective action, saves lives, and frees prisoners.”

Rowling says, “Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s places.”

In her early twenties, Rowling worked for the African research department at Amnesty International, where she read and heard stories of people who’d endured incredible hardship and brutality at the hands of their own governments. Her work there inspired much of what she wrote in Harry Potter as well as her philanthropic efforts.

She explained that it is not enough to simply talk about making a difference, we need to take action to create positive change. Even if that’s helping our neighbor with yard work, listening to someone, or giving a few bucks to a cause you care about.

Imagination and empathy are also a big part of Ubuntu, another core value at Redmond. Ubuntu means seeing other people and yourself clearly, and embracing the interconnectedness of humans. This is a lot easier to do when we can put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and imagine what it’s like to be them.

Value Your Friends

Rowling mentioned the power of good friends several times in her talk, from those who helped her at rock bottom, and those she graduated with who have been her close friends ever since. 

We need each other. Know who your people are and what they mean to you, and always keep them close.

Go Forth and Live Meaningfully

People enjoy each other's company

Failure is something we try to avoid at all costs. Imagination might seem unnecessary or like a cute quirk. It’s easy to lose our empathy if we’re afraid or angry. And it’s so easy to take our friends for granted. 

But these things are all important parts of a meaningful life, and we can’t ignore them and truly learn and grow. These are key to being helpful in the world, being happy, and finding the meaning and purpose we all seek. 

And that’s what it means to Elevate the Human Experience, which is our mission here at Redmond. 

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