Text of the speech by J.K. Rowling (2023)

Text as delivered.

President Faust, members of the Harvard Corporation and Board of Supervisors, faculty members, proud parents, and most importantly, graduates.

The first thing I want to say is "thank you". Not only has Harvard bestowed upon me an extraordinary honor, but the weeks of anxiety and nausea I endured at the thought of delivering this inaugural address have made me lose weight. A win win situation! Now all I have to do is take a deep breath, blink at the red banners and make sure I'm at the greatest Gryffindor gathering in the world.

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Giving an inaugural address is a big responsibility; At least, that's what I thought until I thought back to my own degree. The keynote speaker on the day was the distinguished British philosopher Baroness Mary Warnock. Thinking about his speech helped me tremendously in writing this speech because it turns out I don't remember a single word he said. This liberating discovery allows me to move on without fear that I might inadvertently trick you into giving up promising careers in business, law or politics for the dizzying pleasure of becoming a gay magician.

You'll see? If all you're going to remember for years to come is the gay wizard joke, I'm ahead of Baroness Mary Warnock. Achievable goals: the first step to self-improvement.

Actually, I broke my mind and heart for what I was supposed to tell you today. I asked myself what I would have liked to have known when I graduated and what important lessons I learned in the 21 years between that day and this day.

I found two answers. On this wonderful day as we gather to celebrate your academic success, I decided to share the benefits of failure with you. And as you stand on the cusp of what is sometimes referred to as "real life," I want to emphasize the critical importance of imagination.

These may seem like quixotic or paradoxical decisions, but bear with me.

Looking back at the 21-year-old she was when she graduated, it's a somewhat uncomfortable experience for the 42-year-old she's become. Half my life ago I found a difficult balance between the ambition I had for myself and what the people closest to me expected of me.

(Video) Learn English | J. K. Rowling's Magical Harvard Speech (with Big Subtitles)

He was convinced that he only ever wanted to write novels. However, my parents, who came from poor backgrounds and were both out of college, found my overactive imagination an amusing personal quirk that would never pay off a mortgage or secure an annuity. I know irony now strikes with the force of a cartoon anvil.

So they expected me to get a professional degree; I wanted to study English literature. A compromise was found which afterwards did not satisfy anyone, and I went to study the New Languages. I had barely turned my parents' car around the corner at the end of the street when I gave up German and scurried down the Classics corridor.

I don't remember telling my parents that I'm studying classical philology; they might as well have found out on graduation day. Of all the subjects on this planet, I think they would have had a hard time picking one less helpful than Greek mythology when it came to securing executive bathroom keys.

I want to make it clear in parentheses that I don't blame my parents for their views. There is an expiration date for blaming your parents for leading you in the wrong direction; If you are old enough to take the wheel, the responsibility is yours. Also, I can't blame my parents for hoping I would never live in poverty. They themselves had been poor and I have been poor ever since, and I fully agree with them that this is not an uplifting experience. Poverty brings with it anxiety, stress and sometimes depression; means a thousand little humiliations and hardships. Getting out of poverty on your own is something you pride yourself on, but poverty itself is idealized only by fools.

What I feared most at your age wasn't poverty, it was failure.

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At your age, despite a pronounced lack of motivation at university, where I spent too much time writing stories in the canteen and not enough time in lectures, I had a knack for passing exams for years. , has been the measure of success in my life and that of my peers.

I'm not stupid enough to assume that because you're young, talented, and well educated, you've never experienced hardship or heartbreak. Talent and intelligence have not inoculated anyone against the vagaries of fate, and I do not suppose for a moment that everyone here has enjoyed a life of serene privilege and contentment.

(Video) J.K. Rowling Harvard Commencement Speech | Harvard University Commencement 2008

However, the fact that you are graduating from Harvard suggests that you are not very familiar with failure. They can be driven by both the fear of failure and the desire to succeed. In fact, his idea of ​​failure might not be too far removed from the average person's idea of ​​success, that's how high he's flown.

Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world will happily give you a set of criteria if you'll let it. I think it's fair to say that by conventional standards I failed on an epic scale just seven years after graduating. An extraordinarily short-lived marriage had collapsed, and I was unemployed, a single parent, and as poor as you can get in modern Britain without being homeless. The fears my parents had had for me and I for myself had been fulfilled, and by any standard measure I was the biggest failure I knew.

I'm not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was dark, and little did I know there would be what the press has since portrayed as some sort of fairy tale resolution. At the time, I had no idea how far the tunnel stretched, and for a long time any light at the end was hope rather than reality.

So why am I talking about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant getting rid of the nonessential. I stopped pretending to be anything other than who I was and started devoting all my energy to doing the only job that mattered to me. If you had been truly successful at anything else, you might never have found the determination to succeed in the area where you thought you truly belonged. I was released because my greatest fear was realized and I was still alive and I had another daughter that I adored and I had an old typewriter and a great idea. And so the rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

You may never fail like I failed, but some failures in life are inevitable. It's impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so carefully that it's like you haven't lived at all, in which case you fail by default.

Failure gave me an inner security that I had never achieved through passing exams. Failure taught me things about myself that I couldn't have learned any other way. I found he was strong-willed and more disciplined than I had suspected; I also found that I had friends that were actually worth more than rubies.

Knowing that you emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means you are forever confident in your ability to survive. You will never really know yourself or the strength of your relationships until both of you have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, no matter how painful, and it was worth more than any qualification I have ever acquired.


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Faced with 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 resume, are not your life, although you will find many people my age and older who confuse the two. Life is difficult, complicated and out of anyone's total control, and the humility of knowing this will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.

Well, you might think that I chose my second topic, the importance of imagination, because of the role it played in reconstructing my life, but that's not entirely true. While I will personally defend the value of bedtime stories to my last breath, I've learned to value imagination in a much broader sense. Imagination is not only the uniquely human ability to imagine what is not and therefore the source of all invention and innovation. In arguably its most transformative and insightful capacity, it is the power that allows us to empathize with people whose experiences we have never shared.

One of the most formative experiences of my life preceded Harry Potter, although it influenced much of what I later wrote in those books. This revelation came in the form of one of my first day jobs. Although I wrote stories during my lunch break, I paid my rent in my early 20s when I was working in the Africa Research Unit at Amnesty International's London headquarters.

There, in my small office, I read hastily scrawled letters smuggled out of totalitarian regimes by men and women who risked imprisonment to let the outside world know what was happening to them. I saw photos of people who had disappeared without a trace, sent to Amnesty by their distraught friends and family. I read testimonies from torture victims and saw photos of their injuries. I opened handwritten eyewitness accounts of summary trials and executions, kidnappings and rapes.

Many of my collaborators were former political prisoners, people driven from their homes or into exile because they had the audacity to speak out against their governments. Visitors to our offices also included those who came to give information or to find out what happened to those they left behind.

I will never forget the African torture victim, a young man no older than myself at the time, who after everything he had experienced in his homeland had become mentally ill. He was shaking uncontrollably as he spoke to a video camera about the brutality inflicted on him. He was a foot taller than me and looked as frail as a child. I was assigned to escort him back to the subway station afterwards, and this man, whose life had been shattered by cruelty, took my hand with exquisite courtesy and wished me luck in the future.

And as long as I live, I will remember walking down an empty corridor and suddenly, from behind a closed door, I heard a cry of pain and terror such as I had never heard before. The door opened and the researcher stuck her head in and told me to run and make a hot drink for the young man who was sitting with her. He had just broken the news that her mother had been kidnapped and executed in retaliation for her own openness to the regime in her country.

Every day of my work week in my early twenties, I was reminded how incredibly fortunate I was to live in a country with a democratically elected government where legal counsel and a public trial were everyone's right.

Every day I saw more evidence of the evil that humanity will inflict on its fellow human beings in order to gain or maintain power. I started having nightmares, literal nightmares, about some of the things I was seeing, hearing, and reading.

Yet at Amnesty International I have also learned more about human kindness than I have ever had before.

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Amnesty is mobilizing thousands of people who have never been tortured or imprisoned for their beliefs to take action on behalf of those who have. The power of human empathy leading to collective action saves lives and frees prisoners. Ordinary people, whose well-being and personal safety are guaranteed, come in great numbers to save people they don't know and will never meet. My small role in this process has been one of the most humbling and inspiring experiences of my life.

Unlike all other living beings on this planet, humans can learn and understand without having experienced anything. You can think of yourself in other people's places.

Of course, like my brand of fictional magic, this is a power that is morally neutral. One could use such an ability to manipulate or control as well as to understand or sympathize.

And many prefer not to exercise their imagination at all. They choose to stay comfortably within the confines of their own experience and never bother to question what it would feel like to be born different than they are. They may refuse to hear screams or look inside the cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not concern them personally; they can refuse to know.

I might be tempted to envy people who can live like this, but I don't think they have any fewer nightmares than I do. Choosing to live in confined spaces leads to a kind of mental agoraphobia, and that brings its own horrors. I think the intentionally unimaginative ones will see more monsters. You're more afraid.

Additionally, those who choose not to empathize activate actual monsters. For without ever committing an act of utter evil ourselves, we go along with it through our own apathy.

One of the many things I learned at the end of this corridor of classics, which I ventured down at the age of 18 in search of something I could not then define, was this, written by the Greek author Plutarch: What We Achieve inside will change. outer reality.

This is an amazing statement and yet it has been proven a thousand times over every day of our lives. It expresses in part our inescapable connection to the outside world, the fact that we touch other people's lives just by existing.

But how much more likely are you, the 2008 Harvard graduates, to be able to impact other people's lives? Your intelligence, your ability to work hard, the education you have earned and received give you unique status and responsibilities. Your nationality also distinguishes you. The vast majority of you belong to the world's only remaining superpower. The way you vote, the way you live, the way you protest, the pressure you put on your government has an impact far beyond your borders. This is your privilege and your burden.

If you choose to use your status and influence to speak up for those who have no voice; when you choose to identify not only with the powerful but also with the powerless; If you retain the ability to empathize with the lives of those who do not have your perks, then it will not just be your proud families who will celebrate your existence, but the thousands upon millions of people whose reality you have transformed. We don't need magic to change the world, we already have within us all the power we need: we have the power to imagine something better.

I'm almost done. I have one last hope for you that I had when I was 21. The friends I sat down with on graduation day were my friends for life. They are my children's godparents, the people I could turn to in difficult times, people who were kind enough not to sue me when I took their names as a Death Eater. As we graduated, we were united by tremendous affection, our shared experience of a time that could never come again, and of course the knowledge that we had some photographic evidence that would be invaluable if either of us were to run for Prime Minister. .

(Video) ENGLISH SPEECH | JK ROWLING: The Benefits Of Failure (English Subtitles)

So today I wish you nothing better than similar friendships. And I hope that tomorrow, even if you don't remember a single word of mine, you will remember those of Seneca, another of those ancient Romans I met while fleeing through the Corridor of the Classics and me searching through the ranks of ancient wisdom:
Life is like a story: what matters is not how long it lasts, but how good it is.
I wish you all a good life.
Many thanks.


What are the key lessons in JK Rowling's speech? ›

So, she decided to convey the lessons she learned the hard way, and advice she wished someone had given her when she was a graduate. She came up with two core lessons: appreciate the value of failing and recognize the importance of imagination.

What is Rowling's graduation speech about? ›

The novelist urged the graduates to use their status and influence to raise their voices “on behalf of those who have no voice,” to “identify with not only with the powerful, but with the powerless,” and to “retain the ability to imagine [themselves] into the lives of those who do not have [their] advantages.”

What is the value of imagination according to JK Rowling? ›

"Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation," Rowling said. "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."

What is the central idea of The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination? ›

Rowling aptly named the speech “The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination”. In this speech Rowling tries to convey the message that failing can be beneficial or an individual and that people should not be afraid to use their imagination.

What is the most important thing about JK Rowling? ›

What is J.K. Rowling famous for? J.K. Rowling is the British author who created the popular and critically acclaimed Harry Potter series (seven books published between 1997 and 2007), about a lonely orphan who discovers that he is actually a wizard and enrolls in the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

What is the most important theme in Harry Potter? ›

Death. Death is one of the most major themes in Harry potter's books. The author J.K.Rowling once stated, 'My books are largely about death.” There are various deaths throughout the story. It makes the readers understand and feel the emotions and the pain of losing loved ones.

What is JK Rowling's most famous quote? ›

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 have failed by default.

What is a famous quote JK Rowling said? ›

If you want to know what a man's like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.” “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.”

What is an inspirational quote from JK Rowling? ›

Inspirational J. K. Rowling Quotes

"Youth can not know how age thinks and feels. But old men are guilty if they forget what it was to be young." "Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light." "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death."

What can we learn from J.K Rowling life? ›

While J.K. Rowling's books taught us the importance of friendship and determination, the way she lives her everyday life teaches that you can always keep the magic going through kindness, generosity, and humor. It really doesn't get much better than that!

What lessons we learned from Harry Potter? ›

9 things we can learn from Harry Potter
  • Talk about things. ...
  • Friendship is important. ...
  • It's okay to turn to your parents for help. ...
  • It's important to believe in yourself. ...
  • Community is important. ...
  • Never give up. ...
  • You can find help in unexpected places. ...
  • Face your fears.

What is the moral lesson of Harry Potter? ›

Love is a strong theme throughout the books; if you love someone completely it can never be undone. Lily's love for Harry granted him protection and Snape's love for Lily shaped his path after her death. True love lasts forever.


1. Power of Imagination Speech by J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter Author
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4. ENGLISH SPEECH | JK Rowling: The Fringe Benefits of Failure (English Subtitles)
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5. JK Rowling Harvard Commencement Speech Part 1 - June 5 2008
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