Via TED’s Best of the Web Talks, I discovered J.K. Rowling‘s Harvard Commencement Address in June 2008 on The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination. The subject brings up an important concept — the fact that although we list only successes on our CVs, it is typically the failures that teach us more. Comparatively, success perhaps teaches us very little. When was the last time you judged someone as qualified because of the lessons learned in their last failure? Granted, this might not be the single best criteria, but someone who’s never failed may well be an underachiever stuck within the constraints of mediocre thinking.
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 succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, 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.
You might never fail on the scale I 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 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.
— full text of speech
The address runs about twenty minutes.
What did you learn from your last — or your greatest — failure? From your last (or greatest) success? Now, which lesson has been more valuable to you?