J.K. Rowling Harvard University 2008 Commencement Speech

Last Updated: May 16, 2024

J.K. Rowling Harvard University 2008 Commencement Speech

Title: The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination


President Faust, members of the Harvard Corporation and Board of Overseers, members of the faculty, proud parents, and graduates:

Thank you for this extraordinary honor. Delivering a commencement address is a great responsibility. Reflecting on my own graduation, I can’t remember a single word the speaker said, which allows me to proceed without fear of influencing you to abandon your careers for the giddy delights of becoming a gay wizard. Achievable goals are the first step towards personal improvement.

I have wracked my mind and heart for what I ought to say today. I have asked myself what I wish I had known at my own graduation, and what important lessons I have learned since then.

I have come up with two answers: the benefits of failure and the importance of imagination.


The Value of Failure

Embracing Failure:

  • 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 allβ€”in which case, you fail by default.

Learning from Failure:

  • Failure gave me an inner security that passing exams never did.
  • 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.
  • Emerging wiser and stronger from setbacks means you are secure in your ability to survive.

Personal Anecdote:

  • Seven years after graduation, 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 possible without being homeless.
  • By every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.

The Power of Imagination

Imagination’s Role Beyond Creativity:

  • Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation.
  • It is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.

Using Imagination to Affect 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.

In Conclusion:

  • Failure is inevitable but valuable.
  • Imagination is crucial for empathy and transformation.
  • Use your advantages to help others and create positive change.

Thank you, and congratulations to the Class of 2008.

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