Placeholder Image

Subtitles section Play video

  • 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 is "T hank you."

  • Not only has Harvard given me an extraordinary honor,

  • 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 the 'gay wizard' joke,

  • 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 called "real life,"

  • I want to extol the crucial importance of imagination.

  • These may seem quixotic or paradoxical choices, but 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 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 the irony strikes with the force of a cartoon anvil now. But...

  • 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 parent's car rounded the corner at the end of the road

  • then 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.

  • Now, 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 criticize 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 1,000 petty humiliations and hardships.

  • Climbing out of poverty by your own efforts,

  • that is something on which to pride yourself,

  • but poverty itself is romanticized 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.

  • Now, I am not dull enough to suppose that because you are young, gifted,

  • and well educated, you have never sh.. known heartbreak, hardship, or heartache.

  • 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 removed from the average person's idea of success,

  • so high have you already flown.

  • Ultimately, we will 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'm 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 where I believed I truly belonged.

  • I was set free because my greatest fear had been realized.

  • 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 all──in 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 checklist 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 empathize 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 of 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, eyewitness 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 who 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