Learning from Failure

J.K.Rowling is now the wealthy and highly successful author of the Harry Potter series of children’s books. However, when she was asked to speak at Harvard University’s 2008 commencement, she spoke about  “the Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination.” It was an outstanding speech, though some of the English is not easy. (There’s a link at the bottom of this page if you want to try reading and listening to it.)

Her key thoughts about the benefits of failure are quoted below, followed by notes explaining a few expressions and then a small excerpt (selection or piece) from Steve Job’s 2005 Stanford commencement address. He also felt that failure had helped him in very important ways.

From J.K. Rowling’s Graduation Speech:
the Fringe Benefits of Failure

quote from Thomas Edison:
quote from Thomas Edison:

“...So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. (1) 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 (2), 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 (3) 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...

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.”

A Few Explanations

1 stripping away-- removing; to strip is to pull off clothes or whatever is on the surface

2 Here ‘had been realised’ means had happened-- was a reality. (The American spelling is 'realized.')

3 Rock bottom refers to getting down to the rock below the soil on the surface (or below the sand at the bottom of the sea) and means as low as a person can go emotionally-- so discouraged that (like the English saying) “there’s nowhere to go but up.”-- Things cannot get worse, so they must get better.

The second half of Rowling’s speech emphasizes the importance of imagination & the power of empathy. (Click here if you want to read it for yourself.)

From Steve Jobs' Stanford Graduation Speech

“I was a very public failure... But something slowly began to dawn on me — I still loved what I did...I had been rejected, but I was still in love. And so I decided to start over.

I didn't see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.“   

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