Lessons From JK Rowling’s 2008 Harvard Commencement Speech

Joanne K Rowling know something about failure because that was exactly the way she described herself after she became jobless with broken marriage. She however turned that failure into success and today she has become an authority in her domain, a well-respected woman, author, speaker and a philanthropist. There are definitely many things we can all learn from her. About two decades ago, Joanne Rowling, was an unemployed single mother who depended on welfare benefits, so she could take care of her 1-year-old daughter. She was clinically depressed and she contemplated suicide on different occasions. According to her, she was a failure.

Fast forward many years later, JK Rowling has become a renowned bestselling author who have sold over 500 million copies of Harry Potter series, making it the all-time bestselling book series. She found huge success as an author. It was not a meteoric rise to fame for her as over 12 publishers rejected her novel before the 13th one took a chance on her.

In her 2008 commencement speech at Harvard University, she shared several lessons on benefits of failure and the importance of imaginations to live a successful life. Here are some important lessons from her speech. These lessons can help you handle life’s disappointment and setbacks as you move forward in your own path.

  1. Follow your dream:Your dream is what will keep you going when you encounter difficulties on your path to the life you most desired. According to her “I was convinced that the only thing I wanted to do, ever, was to write novels. However, my parents, both of whom came from impoverished backgrounds and neither of whom had been to college, took the view that my overactive imagination was an amusing personal quirk that would never pay a mortgage, or secure a pension”. Assuming she followed her parents’ opinions, she might not have achieved the phenomenon success that the world knows today, she might just have settled for the road often travel and live her life just like everyone else. Always follow your dream and when your plans don’t work out, you need to persist, modify your dreams sometimes, but always ensure that you live the life you most desired.
  2. Take responsibility: Many make up excuses as to why they are unable to achieve their goals. To succeed in life, you have to start taking responsibility and not allow circumstances around you to dictate your results. JK Rowling said in the speech “There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you.” Don’t blame others for your current condition, don’t blame your teachers for bad grade, your business partner or customers for lack of sales, your spouse for issues around your home. Step up and take responsibility and learn how to create the outcome that you desire in all situations.
  3. Define your own success: In our society today, we have allowed the news media and Hollywood celebrity to define success for us. We have accepted that success is solely dependent on the amount of money in our bank account, the neighborhood where we live or the kind of car that we drive. In her speech she said “We all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it”. So, the fact that your high school friend became a millionaire at age 30 does not make you a failure if you made yours in your 40s, nor should the fact that most of your friends got married before you turn you into a failure. Don’t allow the world to define what success means for you. Find your path and define what really make you happy so that you can live in your own terms.


Success is never guaranteed. Most people wrongly assume that successful people find it easy in life. The story of JK Rowling is an evidence to proof otherwise. She was unable to get a publisher to accept any of her first twelve books, given that circumstance, most people would have given up on the second or third trial. She persevered and persisted towards her dream life and she achieved success at the end. Success can come to you if you are willing to put in the effort and work hard at what you do. If you can take a chance on yourself and explore the limitless possibilities that life brings to you, it may take some time, but you will be able to find your own path if you don’t give up.



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