By anybody’s standards she is a remarkable woman. Her Harry Potter series is the best selling book compilation  in history. It has sold more than 450 million copies and has been translated into  70 languages. In October 2010 the Guardian newspaper declared her the most influential woman in Britain. She is now one of the world’s richest women.

This short 21 minute speech that J. K. Rowling gave to the graduating class of Harvard University in 2008 gives a fascinating glimpse into her life and the experiences that have moulded her.

Her speech covers two main areas. In this post we will cover the first – the benefits of failure. So what can such an apparently successful woman teach you and me about failure?

In spite of all her incredible success, Rowling was no stranger to failure:

“…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 for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.”

It was at this time that she went to seek professional help. She was diagnosed with clinical depression and seriously contemplated suicide.

Although this was an incredibly dark time for her, what she was able to find was that it led to a stripping away of everything that was not essential to her life. She was now free to express her true self fully and completely:

“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 becaeme the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”

During this time she had separated from her first husband and was living in a cramped apartment with her baby daughter. She was able to afford the rent only after a friend paid the £600 that she needed.

“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 was truly above the price of rubies.”

Even after producing the first Harry Potter manuscript, she had to contend with rejection from 12 different publishing houses. It was eventually accepted by the publisher Bloomsbury. The decision to publish the first book apparently owes much to Alice Newton, the eight-year-old daughter of Bloomsbury’s chairman, who was given the first chapter to review by her father and immediately demanded the next. However, Rowling was advised to get a day job as it was felt that she had little chance of making money in children’s books!

So what can J K Rowling teach us about failure? In her words:

“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 acquisitions 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.” 

Such experiences and analysis powerfully illustrate the issues raised in previous posts – How to Fail and Lose Well Part 1 and Part 2. There is also the importance of looking at our failures through the eyes of faith.

What questions and issues does Rowling’s experience raise for you?