As part of my quest to find motivational role models, I stumbled upon this TED talk. I must be one of the few people who haven’t read any of the Harry Potter books but despite that, I admire Rowling’s perseverance and tenacity. This Harvard commencement address focuses on the two things that the author believes have been pivotal in her success: accepting the inevitability of failure and the power of the human imagination.
Overcoming the fear of failure
Famously, Rowling was a single mother living in poverty in Edinburgh. She wrote her first Harry Potter novel in cafes and in the free time she had when caring for her daughter.
Rowling doesn’t romantasise the reality of poverty, she acknowledges that it is a frightening and lonely place to be. We don’t know how far away the light at the end of the tunnel is, or if it’s even there at all. We can’t know for certain everything really will be all right.
For Rowling, her apparent failure – the breakdown of her marriage and her financially precarious position – enabled her to work out who she was and what she was really good at. Through experiencing her fears – that of real poverty – Rowling was able to rebuild herself. When she had nothing left to lose, she was able to focus on what truly mattered to her: writing. The germ of the idea that would later become Harry Potter was one of her most treasured possessions and it was nurtured and grown.
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.
Failing is part of the journey to experiencing something richer. Without experiencing failure, we cannot truly know what we are fully capable of. Of course, nobody wants to fail and that gut-churning feeling and lying awake all night contemplating the ‘what-ifs’ that comes with it is just awful. But as Rowling says, “failure meant a stripping away of the inessential” and with that we can really find our true potential.
When I look back on my own life, I can see many points where I failed. Like Rowling, I was also a single mother. I knew the fear and the loneliness first hand. And like Rowling, I also experienced a real freedom at this time, even though I didn’t recognise it at the time.
Really, my life couldn’t have been tougher at that point both from a practical perspective but also – crucially – from the perspective that I believed I had messed up so badly and the mistakes I made were irreversible. At night though, after my little boy was in bed, I was studying for a degree. In my education, I was free. The textbooks didn’t care what my salary was, whether I was wearing secondhand clothes or what I’d eaten for my lunch. It was just me and the ideas of those great minds.
I left university four years later with a first class degree but far more importantly, a real sense of self-worth that had been lacking.
I am such a huge believer in the transformative power of education. I actively enjoy and seek out new challenges and I am very much on the side of Carol Dweck’s Growth mindset.
But the thing that really motivates me to do better is that memory – the memory of the reality of what it was really like to fail. It was awful…. but I survived. I’ll fail again and I’ll survive again. Bring it on!
What have you failed at? How did it spur you on? I’d love to hear your experiences!