“The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination;” J.K. Rowling Addresses Harvard Graduates

I have two intelligent, confident, and talented sons. Jack will start his first year as a freshman this fall attending the University of Minnesota. Nick, my oldest, will be finishing his degree from the same college remotely from California, taking a few online courses in the fall to complete his degree in basically a short three years.

Am I happy for them? Of course, who wouldn’t be? Am I proud of them? I long ago stopped searching for the adjectives that would describe the pride I have in what my two little boys have accomplished in their short lives and the young men that they have become. I stick to the cliche’s and trite phrases, hoping they and others understand that there are no words for those and many other emotions. It’s a parental love that transcends any form of communication, but I will disclose the closest I’ve ever found has been through music; much, much music.

So now the three of us, the “Soden Guys,” as I like to affectionately refer to us as, are heading out in different directions from what our journey has been to date. I, for one, am extremely excited for all of us! But as a self-proclaimed bragger of my boys and their accomplishments, my intent has always had a much deeper agenda than being a braggart, but I happily accept that label if you should choose it. Their personal achievements are their own and make no mistake, the greatest source of my pride in them is very real, but comes from a place of humble beginnings and thoughtful and challenging parental decision-making, and certainly not by me alone. For that reason, I have no plan of abandoning my praise for any past, present, or future accomplishments that they have or will receive.

Nick and Jack could and probably would easily express to you of how often I have praised them in their successes. I also have no doubt that they would not hesitate for a moment to tell you that their dad doesn’t dole out empty praise or constructive criticism without purpose. Being their dad has been and will always be the greatest accomplishment of life, for me, personally. If that comes across as conceit, please know that my personal pride in being their father has been most evident in the time immediately following one of my many personal “failures.” Both personally and as a teacher and father I have learned and tried to teach that failures don’t exist…ever – if you don’t allow them to.

I’ve always been an advocate of heroes in that I believe everyone should have at least a few. A person can waste a lot of time and energy by not having heroes. They teach us so much. And what is a common thread, I’ve found, in the heroes that I have chosen for myself, is that for the most part, they have all “failed” miserably, many multiple times over. What’s so appealing about failure? The resolve to rebound, resist, get back up, learn, improve, and share. If I had a bucket list, and I don’t, at least not a written one, every listed desire would come attached without mention to the modern definition of the word “failure” and the irony I have learned that reality to be.

Because I love stories about my definition of failure, I am always extremely intrigued to watch and listen to people talk about theirs. In this video clip and others that I plan to share in a series of “failure-related” speeches and stories here on BillySoden.com, J. K. Rowling,  author of the best-selling Harry Potter book series and human being pre-Harry Potter, Rowling expresses her thoughts on failure in a commencement address to a graduating class at Harvard University. And, she nails it.

Read and share this quote by Rowling, and then listen to her speech. When I hear her words, I am reminded of how many times I have wished for my own sons to “fail” so they have a solid foundation in the idea that failure is nothing less than success unmasked. I hope you enjoy it.

“Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure. But the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. [F]ailure means a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself to be 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 where I believe I truly belonged. [R]ock bottom became the solid foundation on which I built my life.” ~ J. K. Rowling

J.K. Rowling Speaks at Harvard Commencement from Harvard Magazine on Vimeo.

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