The awesomeness of failure
April 11, 2013 § 1 Comment
This evening I enjoyed a rich conversation with a student (a senior) about college, and about life after high school, and about the number of exciting opportunities that await next year. She is discerning her next steps and is torn. The options multiply daily. She has received some college acceptances to a few schools, but did not get acceptances into a few of the ones she most wanted. Over the last few weeks, she — like many students — has had to internalize the lesson that things don’t always go as planned. That often we get to a place where the road splits in each direction and each path seems viable. There is no sign that says, “Go here,” no voice that says, “Come this way.” Each option presents equal promise and peril. We consult our heart and mind, listen to a light breeze of intuition, and then push off into a horizon of uncertainty, hoping to land in a life-giving place.
The conversation tonight, like others over the past few weeks, veered into a discussion about failure. Not failure in a dire sense, but the more mundane failures of not achieving something we really want. Failure in the sense of feeling humbled and clueless. As I spoke tonight, my mind turned to one of my favorite speeches in recent memory: J.K. Rowling’s 2008 Commencement address at Harvard.
Her speech was on, as she called it, the benefits of failure. Rowling, as many know, endured some tough times before Harry Potter, and in her commencement address delivered some masterful thoughts on how to think of disappointment.
“A mere seven years,” she said, “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.” She continued:
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.
Full commencement address here.
Posted by Matt Emerson.