J.K. Rowling on the power of failure

CAMBRIDGE, MA - JUNE 5:  Author J.K. Rowling autographs a book for a student graduating from Harvard University's at commencement ceremonies June 5, 2008, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. J.K. Rowling, who wrote the popular Harry Potter books, was the commencement speaker.Image by Getty Images via DaylifeHarry Potter creator J.K. Rowling talked about what failure taught her at a recent commencement address she gave in Harvard:

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.

So, how many of you are working on an area that you succeeded in easily, but is not necessarily your primary passion? Co-incidentally, I had a similar discussion with a bunch of friends yesterday – i.e. those who did well in college and found well paying and mildly challenging jobs have the least motivation to do something truly interesting with their lives. It is the ones who did not do well who are now doing well.

Ever since I quit my job (six months ago) and started “goofing off” (i.e. working on a bunch of things that I feel passionately about), I’ve met more and more people who wish they could be doing the same, but are still unable to take the leap of faith required. I’ve also met more and more people who did take the leap of faith and are doing quite well. I’m fairly convinced that a lot of people in the first category should just bite the bullet and make an attempt at grabbing their dreams. Financial insecurity is often cited as a reason for not doing so, but I am not convinced. I think it is more of a comfort zone thing.

Think about it.

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4 thoughts on “J.K. Rowling on the power of failure”

  1. C’mon dude. Financial security is a VERY real concern, as is the ability to access capital if your passion happens to not involve low-startup-cost things like writing or coding.

    I like the strengths/weaknesses enjoy/don’t enjoy 2d plane though. Everybody needs to move to their strengths-enjoy quadrant. Strengths-don’t enjoy can pay the bills and keep you comfortably ahead, but is ultimately unsatisfying. I’ll admit I am straddling these first two. Being in the other two quadrants is torture, and nothing short of gunpoint or the threat of starvation should keep you there 🙂

    But getting out of ‘I am really good at it, but not particularly passionate about it’ roles is easier said than done — it takes significant thought and maneuvering. Cutting loose and going solo is not a solution for everybody, because going solo comes with a WHOLE lot of things that a lot of people like me don’t like to do at all 🙂


  2. Venkat, financial security is obviously a very real concern, and in some cases, is really preventing some people. However, I am convinced that there is a significant fraction of people who are in the “strengths/don’t enjoy” quadrant and the are just convincing themselves that financial security is the reason that keeps them there. They are not really taking a hard look at the finances. There are people who could really save up enough money for 6 months or 1 year (or have the household run on the spouse’s income) and give the “strengths/enjoy” quadrant a shot. And I don’t know about the US, but in India, the job market so easy that there will be a job waiting for them in case things don’t work out.

    Also, between the two of us, we seem to have hijacked J.K. Rowling’s main point, viz. that it is much easier to transition from the ‘not-successful/enjoying’ quadrant to the ‘successful/enjoying’ quadrant than it is make the same jump from ‘successful/not-enjoying’ quadrant.

    Also, it seems like you would need to do this in three dimensions: strengths/weaknesses, successful/not-yet-successful, enjoying/not enjoying.

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