Rowling begins her speech by identifying its purpose: the exact words of the title. She reflects how upon graduating university, it was not poverty that scared her, but failure: she saw it as the ultimate humiliation. She describes how for her, failure was an immensely personal experience, and that for her, failure was a broken marriage, being unemployed, and raising a child by herself. It took her time to realise that it was only because of this state of ‘failure’ that she had the freedom to write the novel of her dreams, which led to her ultimate success. It was failure that led her to discover her resilience and ambition.
Imagination, then, is explained by Rowling as a tool that can be used to understand others’ pain and suffering, and to empathise with them. She recalls her experiences working for Amnesty International, where she researched the horrific things people suffer during wars and other humanitarian crises. It is our imagination, she says, that forms the basis of our power to enact positive change in the world. Her final message is that the quality of our life should not be measured in years, but in the contributions we make to the world around us.
The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination
By J.K. Rowling
Themes and techniques
The key ideas of Rowling’s speech are summarised within its title. The honest tone in “Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way” captures her changed perspective on the meaning of failure, and how she realised that it actually meant that she “was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive.” Failure, Rowling describes, means opportunity; a chance to reset, and to remake oneself.
One of the most important lessons she learned because of failure is that “Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know what will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.” It is failure that allows us to learn the true extent of our capacity to thrive and grow. As such, it is imagination that informs our empathy – “The power of human empathy, leading to collective action, saves lives, and frees prisoners.” Rowling urges us to use our minds to conceive of solutions to the world’s problems, and to resist the idea that we are immune to fate: “Talent and intelligence never yet inoculated anyone against the caprice of the Fates.”
‘Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.’
linkage of growth and knowledge to experience of life
‘I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised’
illustrates the impact of a shift of perspective on failure
‘Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way.’
honesty conveys view and offers support to listener
‘So they hoped that I would take a vocational degree; I wanted to study English literature.’
conveys importance of education to speaker appropriate to form
‘Now all I have to do is take deep breaths, squint at the red banners and convince myself that I am at the world’s largest Gryffindor reunion.’
literary intertextuality, humorous tone
lightens mood and connects with audience