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  • President Faust, members of the Harvard Corporation and the Board of Overseers, members of the

  • faculty, proud parents, and, above all, graduates.

  • The first thing I would like to say isthank you.’ Not only has Harvard given me an extraordinary

  • honour, but the weeks of fear and nausea I have endured at the thought of giving this

  • commencement address have made me lose weight. A win-win situation! 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.

  • Delivering a commencement address is a great responsibility; or so I thought until I cast

  • my mind back to my own graduation. The commencement speaker that day was the distinguished British

  • philosopher Baroness Mary Warnock. Reflecting on her speech has helped me enormously in

  • writing this one, because it turns out that I can’t remember a single word she said.

  • This liberating discovery enables me to proceed without any fear that I might inadvertently

  • influence you to abandon promising careers in business, the law or politics for the giddy

  • delights of becoming a gay wizard.

  • You see? If all you remember in years to come is thegay wizardjoke, I’ve come

  • out ahead of Baroness Mary Warnock. Achievable goals: the first step to self improvement.

  • Actually, I have wracked my mind and heart for what I ought to say to you today. I have

  • asked myself what I wish I had known at my own graduation, and what important lessons

  • I have learned in the 21 years that have expired between that day and this.

  • I have come up with two answers. 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. And

  • as you stand on the threshold of what is sometimes calledreal life’, I want to extol the

  • crucial importance of imagination.

  • These may seem quixotic or paradoxical choices, but please bear with me.

  • Looking back at the 21-year-old that I was at graduation, is a slightly uncomfortable

  • experience for the 42-year-old that she has become. Half my lifetime ago, I was striking

  • an uneasy balance between the ambition I had for myself, and what those closest to me expected

  • of me. I was convinced that the only thing I wanted

  • to do, ever, was to write novels. However, my parents, both of whom came from impoverished

  • backgrounds and neither of whom had been to college, took the view that my overactive

  • imagination was an amusing personal quirk that would never pay a mortgage, or secure

  • a pension. I know that the irony strikes with the force of a cartoon anvil, now.

  • So they hoped that I would take a vocational degree; I wanted to study English Literature.

  • A compromise was reached that in retrospect satisfied nobody, and I went up to study Modern

  • Languages. Hardly had my parentscar rounded the corner at the end of the road than I ditched

  • German and scuttled off down the Classics corridor.

  • I cannot remember telling my parents that I was studying Classics; they might well have

  • found out for the first time on graduation day. Of all the subjects on this planet, I

  • think they would have been hard put to name one less useful than Greek mythology when

  • it came to securing the keys to an executive bathroom.

  • I would like to make it clear, in parenthesis, that I do not blame my parents for their point

  • of view. There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong

  • direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you.

  • What is more, I cannot criticise my parents for hoping that I would never experience poverty.

  • They had been poor themselves, and I have since been poor, and I quite agree with them

  • that it is not an ennobling experience. Poverty entails fear, and stress, and sometimes depression;

  • it means a thousand petty humiliations and hardships. Climbing out of poverty by your

  • own efforts, that is indeed something on which to pride yourself, but poverty itself is romanticised

  • only by fools. What I feared most for myself at your age

  • was not poverty, but failure.

  • At your age, in spite of a distinct lack of motivation at university, where I had spent

  • far too long in the coffee bar writing stories, and far too little time at lectures, I had

  • a knack for passing examinations, and that, for years, had been the measure of success

  • in my life and that of my peers.

  • I am not dull enough to suppose that because you are young, gifted and well-educated, you

  • have never known hardship or heartbreak. Talent and intelligence never yet inoculated anyone

  • against the caprice of the Fates, and I do not for a moment suppose that everyone here

  • has enjoyed an existence of unruffled privilege and contentment.

  • However, the fact that you are graduating from Harvard suggests that you are not very

  • well-acquainted with failure. You might be driven by a fear of failure quite as much

  • as a desire for success. Indeed, your conception of failure might not be too far from the average

  • person’s idea of success, so high have you already flown.

  • 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. So I think it fair to say that

  • by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed

  • on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless,

  • a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless.

  • The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come

  • to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.

  • Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my

  • life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since

  • represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea then how far the tunnel extended,

  • and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.

  • So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away

  • of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was 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 I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest

  • fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored,

  • and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation

  • on which I rebuilt my life.

  • 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 allin which case, you fail by default.

  • Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure

  • taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that

  • I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had

  • friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.

  • The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you

  • are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself,

  • or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge

  • is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification

  • I ever earned. So given a Time Turner, I would tell my 21-year-old

  • self that personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of acquisition

  • or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life, though you will meet

  • many people of my age and older who confuse the two. Life is difficult, and complicated,

  • and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive

  • its vicissitudes.

  • Now you might think that I chose my second theme, the importance of imagination, because

  • of the part it played in rebuilding my life, but that is not wholly so. Though I personally

  • will defend the value of bedtime stories to my last gasp, I have learned to value imagination

  • in a much broader sense. 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.

  • One of the greatest formative experiences of my life preceded Harry Potter, though it

  • informed much of what I subsequently wrote in those books. This revelation came in the

  • form of one of my earliest day jobs. Though I was sloping off to write stories during

  • my lunch hours, I paid the rent in my early 20s by working at the African research department

  • at Amnesty International’s headquarters in London.

  • There in my little office I read hastily scribbled letters smuggled out of totalitarian regimes

  • by men and women who were risking imprisonment to inform the outside world of what was happening

  • to them. I saw photographs of those who had disappeared without trace, sent to Amnesty

  • by their desperate families and friends. I read the testimony of torture victims and

  • saw pictures of their injuries. I opened handwritten, eye-witness accounts of summary trials and

  • executions, of kidnappings and rapes.

  • Many of my co-workers were ex-political prisoners, people who had been displaced from their homes,

  • or fled into exile, because they had the temerity to speak against their governments. Visitors

  • to our offices included those who had come to give information, or to try and find out

  • what had happened to those they had left behind.

  • I shall never forget the African torture victim, a young man no older than I was at the time,

  • who had become mentally ill after all he had endured in his homeland. He trembled uncontrollably

  • as he spoke into a video camera about the brutality inflicted upon him. He was a foot

  • taller than I was, and seemed as fragile as a child. I was given the job of escorting

  • him back to the Underground Station afterwards, and this man whose life had been shattered

  • by cruelty took my hand with exquisite courtesy, and wished me future happiness.

  • And as long as I live I shall remember walking along an empty corridor and suddenly hearing,

  • from behind a closed door, a scream of pain and horror such as I have never heard since.

  • The door opened, and the researcher poked out her head and told me to run and make a

  • hot drink for the young man sitting with her. She had just had to give him the news that

  • in retaliation for his own outspokenness against his country’s regime, his mother had been

  • seized and executed. Every day of my working week in my early 20s

  • I was reminded how incredibly fortunate I was, to live in a country with a democratically

  • elected government, where legal representation and a public trial were the rights of everyone.

  • Every day, I saw more evidence about the evils humankind will inflict on their fellow humans,

  • to gain or maintain power. I began to have nightmares, literal nightmares, about some

  • of the things I saw, heard, and read. And yet I also learned more about human goodness

  • at Amnesty International than I had ever known before.

  • Amnesty mobilises thousands of people who have never been tortured or imprisoned for

  • their beliefs to act on behalf of those who have. The power of human empathy, leading

  • to collective action, saves lives, and frees prisoners. Ordinary people, whose personal

  • well-being and security are assured, join together in huge numbers to save people they

  • do not know, and will never meet. My small participation in that process was one of the

  • most humbling and inspiring experiences of my life.

  • Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having

  • experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s places.

  • 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.

  • I might be tempted to envy people who can live that way, except that I do not think

  • they have any fewer nightmares than I do. Choosing to live in narrow spaces leads to

  • a form of mental agoraphobia, and that brings its own terrors. I think the wilfully unimaginative

  • see more monsters. They are often more afraid.

  • What is more, those who choose not to empathise enable real monsters. For without ever committing

  • an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy.

  • One of the many things I learned at