A few years ago JK Rowling delivered an amazing commencement speech at Harvard University. Titled “The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination”, Rowling describes how seven years after graduating from University her marriage had broken down and she found herself an unemployed, single parent living in poverty. She was, in her mind, an abject failure. But hitting rock bottom brought a clarity that changed her life.
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…
Steve Jobs sounded a similar note in his 2005 commencement address at Stanford University. He described the pain of being kicked out of the company he founded, Apple. When he and the CEO he had recruited disagreed sharply over the future direction of Apple, the Board sided with the CEO and Jobs was fired. He felt humiliated and an utter failure. But like Rowling, it was an inadvertent blessing.
I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life
I find Rowling’s and Jobs’ perspectives tremendously helpful. Like all human beings, I have experienced failure. My initial reaction is to deny that any failure has occurred and to get angry. I have been helped by the insight of Rowling, and have found that I can receive failure as a gift, an opportunity to gain a fresh view of myself, to honestly evaluate my strengths and my weaknesses, and to focus on what I want my life to be about.
So yes, JK Rowling, I appreciate your insight. Failure does have fringe benefits.