The Benefits of Failure

In her 2011 Harvard Commencement Speech, author J.K. Rowling gave some powerful insights on the benefit - and gift - of failure.

An Epic Failure

A mere seven years from her graduation day, J.K. Rowling had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short lived marriage had imploded. She was jobless, a single parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless.

The fears that her parents had had for her, and that she had had for herself had both come to pass. And by every usual standard, she was the biggest failure she knew.

Now she won't stand there and tell you that failure is fun. That period of her life was a dark one. And she had no idea there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairytale resolution. She had no idea, then, how far the tunnel extended. For a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope, rather than a reality. So why does she talk about the benefits of failure?

The Benefits of Failure

Failure is a stripping away of the inessential. She stopped pretending to herself that she was anything other than what she was. And she began to direct her energy into the only work that was important to her. Had she really succeeded at anything else, she might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena she felt she truly belonged.

She was set free.

Her greatest fears had been realized. And she was still alive. And she still had a daughter who she adored. And she had an old typewriter, and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which she rebuilt her life.

Failure is Inevitable

You might never fail on the scale she did. But 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 fail by default.

Failure gave J.K. Rowling an inner security she never gained by passing examinations. Failure will teach you things about yourself you could learn no other way. You might discover that you have a strong will, and more discipline than you had suspected. You may also find that you have friends whose value is truly greater than their weight in gold.

The knowledge that you have emerged stronger and wiser from setbacks 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 they both have been tested by adversity. And that knowledge is a true gift.

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