This week I celebrated perhaps the most notable milestone a Harvard graduate can have in marking the successes and failures of their life…the 25th Reunion. The event is a five day affair complete with cocktails, games (the rowing team convened for a ceremonial row down the Charles River), presentations and assorted gatherings. The university produces an 1,134 page “25th Anniversary Report” where everyone in the class submits an update on their life’s journey usually replete with quite humbling achievements.

And in and amongst this celebration of success and accomplishment rang out J K Rowling’s sterling Commencement Address espousing the embrace of failure (video link above and excerpted highlights below)…

“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…

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…

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.

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 already 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 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 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 to me than any qualification I ever earned.”

Speaking with classmate Gwen Knapp about how the address was just as apropos to the 25th reunion class (which is honoured by processing into the ceremony and given their seats actually on the stage with Rowling) noting, “At this point everyone has experienced some sort of loss, and it has made them better people.” It was an inspiring week between Rowling’s wizardly words and reconnecting with so many long time friends in the prime of their lives coloured by both proud accomplishments and enriching failures.

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Fellow housemates and crewmates at joining in the 25th celebrations

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