Leadership,  Publishing

Book Review: Very Good Lives by J.K. Rowling

With graduation coming for hundreds of thousands of students, what to give the future generation as inspiration, has been stale for a few years. Oh The Places You Will Go, by Dr. Seuss, is the go to book that all parents, grandparents and extended family give the young graduate (along with money).

But what if there was something more meaningful and inspiring?A book that is more relevant to the experiences and adventures they are about to face? Very Good Lives: The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imaginationby J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, was invited to deliver the commencement address to the graduating class of Harvard University in 2008. She told the story of her own commencement, and as she tried to reflect on the speech given to help her in the writing process, she came to one conclusion, she couldn’t remember a single word from it.

She did make a joke that some people might think that she was influencing them to be a myriad of things including a “gay wizard”. Since the publication of rumors of the character of Headmaster Albus Dumbledore as being homosexual, J.K. Rowling has taken a lot of bad press and navigated it with poise when she confirmed that, indeed, the character was gay. She then went on to quip that if the only thing that the students remembered was the gay wizard joke, then she was ahead of her own commencement speaker.

What I liked about the speech is that it didn’t focus on success. Even though this is normally the basis for most graduation speeches. Instead focusing on how far everyone has come, and then continuing onto the next chapter of their lives.

It talked about the benefits of failure.


It’s been said that we learn more form failure than we do from success. This is true. If we succeed we don’t know why we succeeded, or if the success will be short term or long term. But the key to learning from failure is that you know that the combination of things that lead up to the failure didn’t work. So you try a new combination. If that doesn’t work you keep putting new ideas into new combinations. When you do succeed, you have a clearer picture of why you succeeded and how to maintain it. She talks about some of her failures in life. What I was curious about is why she didn’t talk about the series of failures that ended up, after a series of tries, to be her biggest success. J.K. Rowling was rejected 12 times for her manuscript entitled Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone, before it was published.

She was even told by the publisher to get a day job because she wasn’t going to make any money as a children’s author. But to be rejected 12 times and then get published means that she submitted it 13 times. A true representation of learning from her failures to becoming successful. She used the failure of her marriage, living in poverty, and felt she was a disappointment to her parents because she was living a life that they worked hard for her not to have. As I stand on the cusp of my own change in paths, I’m leaving my full time job to focus on a career in writing (blogs, books and webinars), and being with my family, I found I felt like I was back at college again getting ready to step out in the world.

I was a little afraid. The longest that I have ever been unemployed was 1 month. In between this job that I’m leaving, which I have had for over 10 years, and the job that I had after I graduated college. Upon reading this book, I could see the possibility in everything that I was doing. How I have dreamt of writing my own books for decades, but never had the time to dedicate to it, or I found reasons to not write. This book helped me see that every day is a challenge, and that through learning from my mistakes and the power of my imagination, I am able to turn what I am passionate about, into something that I can succeed at.

The biggest point that I want to make to this generation that is graduating, is that J.K. Rowling was a part of their childhood. They grew up with Harry Potter and she is as relevant to their lives as Dr. Seuss was to my generation. Her words are inspiring, comforting and have the occasional touch of magic. If we aspire to what our true passions are, learn from the bad, and celebrate the successes, we will live very good lives indeed.