On this wonderful day when we are gathered together to celebrate your academic success, I have decided to talk to you about the benefits of failure.... Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential.... personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of acquisition or achievement.
And as you stand on the threshold of what is sometimes called ‘real life’, I want to extol the crucial importance of imagination.... Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared.... Of course, this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate, or control, just as much as to understand or sympathise. And many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know.
If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped transform for the better. We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.
And tomorrow, I hope that even if you remember not a single word of mine, you remember those of Seneca, another of those old Romans I met when I fled down the Classics corridor, in retreat from career ladders, in search of ancient wisdom: As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.
Wednesday, June 11, 2008
The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination
JK Rowling gave the Harvard Commencement address this year on failure, imagination and life long friendships. Wish we had her at our commencement years ago! My favourite parts below.