The first thing that crossed my mind when I found out about Very Good Lives was: “What? She has written another book? But Career of Evil will be released soon! I haven’t even read The Casual Vacancy! She positively wants to keep her readers surprised!” And so on… But then I found out that this is a commencement speech she delivered at Harvard, in 2008. Why did it take so long to be published, I do not know. I am thankful it finally got published anyway.
As the title suggests, she pointed out two things in her speech: the benefits of failure and the importance of imagination. Ms. Rowling undoubtedly is no stranger to failure; she endured a failed marriage, rejections from publishers, she knows what poverty means and how it feels. And yet she spoke of the benefits of failure. Seriously, what benefits can you gain from failing?
She wrote (and spoke):
“So why do I talk 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 into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeed in anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena where I believe 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.”
The second thing she pointed out was the importance of imagination. She was not talking about the magical world of Harry Potter here, but rather about “the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.” Here she shared her experience when she worked at the African research department of Amnesty International, where she caught glimpses of the cruelty, torture, and horrors some people has gone through, people who had the temerity to speak against their governments. She spoke about how the power of human empathy can truly save lives. That human beings have a choice between thinking themselves into other people’s places—the not so fortunate ones—or not to exercise their imaginations at all and close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally.
“If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful but with the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped change. We do not need magic to transform our world; we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.”
She encourages us to not shrink in the face of failure and to do more for our less fortunate neighbors. Truly, this is an inspiring piece of writing, one you can reflect upon, one that has the power to stay with you for years to come, even if you only need about 30 minutes to read it.
Very Good Lives: The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination, by J.K. Rowling
80 pages, published April 2015 by Little, Brown and Company
My rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥