Monday, June 9, 2008

Imagination and failure

I'm a university geek, and therefore have a special fondness for commencement speeches (even though most are terrible), but I think J.K. Rowling's Harvard speech would be pleasurable even for normal folks.

The themes are imagination and failure -- but her treatment of them isn't what you'd expect:

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 so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.
Her thoughts on imagination, which I'll only hint at, are the most powerful part of her talk:

Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared.
Some other commencement speeches that I have enjoyed include Steve Jobs at Stanford (particularly powerful for people with cancer), Jon Stewart at William & Mary and Tony Kushner at Vassar. Oh, wait! -- some dude named Obama came up with a decent one when his friend Teddy Kennedy got sick. Told you I was a university geek.

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