When we think about the famous Harry Potter teenage books series we picture the elegant face of a British woman, who is roughly fifty years of age, a millionaire, a philanthropist and an appreciated and well-known speaker all over the world. Yet J.K. Rowling, before publishing the first book of the saga, used to simply be Joanne Rowling, a single mother that lived on the suburbs of Edinburgh, relying on benefits and nothing but the notes from which the most famous wizard in the world was about to be born.
In 2019, according to Forbes’ rankings, Joanne Rowling earned around 92 million dollars, becoming the second highest-paid author in the world. However, before fame she experienced what she defined, during her well-known Commencement speech at Harvard University in 2008, “the darkest moment of my life”. On that occasion she went through the years that preceded the publication of the first book of the saga. The author disclosed to the new Harvard graduates, “What I feared most for myself at your age was not poverty, but failure”. “So I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, 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 had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew”. As a Classics graduate, instead of getting the professional diploma that her parents wished for, Joanna lived exactly the condition that her family wished she would never have to know. “That period of my life was a dark one, I had no idea then how far the tunnel extended and for a long time any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.”
Why speaking about the benefits of failure then?
“Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential,” said the writer. “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”. The will to write novels became Joanne’s North Star to get her direction. Despite the determination, more than ten publishers rejected the first manuscript before she was able to find the right one, which contributed to create the literary phenomenon we all know. “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 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”. “The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks” she continues, “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”.
“So given a time machine- or (for the fans of the saga) 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 CV, are not your life, though you will meet many people of my age and older who confuse the two. Life is difficult, complicated and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes”.