I watched this video a long time ago but it came to mind recently that I should watch it again. J. K. Rowling shares valuable insight on the virtues of failure. There's so much in this speech that speaks directly to my experience and I wish I could adequately express my inspiration and gratitude, but my brain has been failing me for several months now. I hope to one day regain that rich imagination and poetic fluidity that came so naturally to me. For now, here are my favorites passages from the speech:
Looking back at the 21 year old I was at graduation is a slightly uncomfortable experience for the 42 years old she has become. Half my lifetime ago I was striking an uneasy balance between the ambition I had for myself and what those closest of to me expected of me. I was convinced that the only thing I wanted to do, ever, was write novels. However my parents, both of whom came from impoverished backgrounds and neither of whom had been to college, took the view that my overactive imagination was an amusing personal quirk that would never pay a mortgage or secure a pension. I know the irony strikes with the force of a cartoon anvil now, but then...
So they hoped that I would take a vocational degree. I wanted to study English Literature. A compromise was reached, that in retrospect satisfied nobody, and I went up to study Modern Languages. Hardly had my parents car rounded the corner at the end of the road than I ditched German and scuttled off down the Classics corridor. I cannot remember telling my parents that I was studying Classics, they might well have found out for the first time on graduation day.
Of all the subjects on this planet I think they would have been hard put to name one less useful than Greek Mythology when it came to securing the keys to the executive bathroom...I do not blame my parents for their point of view, there is an expiry 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. What is more, I cannot criticize my parents for wanting me never to experience poverty. They have been poor themselves and I have since been poor. And I quite agree with them that it is not an ennobling experience.
Poverty entails fear and stress and sometimes depression. It means a thousand petty humiliations and hardships. Climbing out of poverty by your own efforts, that is something on which to pride yourself. But poverty itself is romanticized only by fools. What I feared for myself most at your age was not poverty, but failure. At your age, in spite of a distinct lack of motivation at university - where I had spent far too long in the coffee bar writing stories and far too little time at lectures - I had a knack for passing examinations and that, for years, had been the measure of success in my life and that of my peers...
Ultimately we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. So I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere 7 years after my graduation day, 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.
The fears that my parents had had for me and that I'd had for myself had both come to pass. And by every usual standard I was the biggest failure I knew. Now I'm not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun, that period of my life was a dark one. And I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairytale resolution. I had no idea then how far the tunnel extended and for a long time the light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.
So why do I take about the benefits of failure? Simply because 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 in finishing the only work that really mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one area where I believed I truly belonged.
I was set free. Because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life...
Some failure in life is inevitable. 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've failed by default. 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. I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.
The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from set backs 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 had been worth more than any qualification I have ever earned.
So given a time turner I would tell my 21 year old self that personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a checklist of acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life, though you will meet many people of my age or older who confuse the two. Life is difficult and complicated and beyond anyone's control. And the humility to know that will enable you to survive it vicissitudes.Image credit: Maricor & Maricar.