J.K. Rowling on the Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination

by Susan Leem, associate producer

I’m always curious to know what successful people really know about failure and mistakes. Not all captains of industry are holding up their failures to the light for didactic analysis. Is it possible that some successful people have never experienced failure (which is distinct from privilege as Rowling points out) and that success begets success? Or if they have failed at something that was deeply meaningful to them, how they have come through it without letting it define their abilities for the future?

In a 2008 commencement address, J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, warns the new Harvard graduates about the inevitability of failure and the necessity of risk for living:

"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."

Do all successful people value their failures as an essential experience or life lesson as J.K. Rowling does, or were they simply rendered inconsequential? Whether you’ve been in the winner’s circle or not, I’m curious to hear in what way your failure has been valuable to you, or if it was at all.

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