Today was the first day of classes at many universities, so wondering who your commencement speaker will be doesn’t seem necessary. However, for those of us who have graduated, wouldn’t it be great if you could remember that important life lesson or wisdom the speaker bestowed upon you? A keepsake of the moment besides your diploma, tassel and pictures?
Harvard’s graduating class of 2008 was lucky enough to have J.K. Rowling as their commencement speaker. Even though the video is available on Harvard’s YouTube page, J.K. Rowling’s commencement speech was recently published into a short book, Very Good Lives: The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination.
There seems to be a format for all commencement speeches: the speaker thanks distinguished staff and faculty, congratulates parents and students, tells an ice breaker joke, then recites his/her resume before concluding in a roundabout way and stating it’s relevant to the graduates. (My last one wasn’t the best. I actually felt bad for the paralegal graduates in my college who had to listen to this woman talk about how she became a paralegal without a degree and that it would’ve been a waste of money, but look at how successful she is…!)
J.K. Rowling covers some of these bases, but rather than going into full detail, like other commencement speakers, of their rise to fame through hard work and some failure, she talks about how difficult yet motivating it can be to be at rock bottom and using imagination to bring yourself back up. She presented the idea of failure and imagination separately, in two different stories–first, her failure in a marriage at a young age and finding herself as poor as she could be without being homeless, and second, her first job working at Amnesty International’s headquarters in London made her realize that nothing in life should be taken for granted.
Just a few insightful quotes from her speech which I think is motivating enough to either listen or read her speech:
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. (p. 34)
The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. (p. 37)
Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes. (p. 39)
I found her speech to be insightful to her past but also full of motivation and insight to how we should lead out lives, by not take anything for granted in our lives, as so many live in fear. If there is a graduate in your life, recent or soon-to-be, I would recommend gifting this book to them, as I think they’d find it to be more useful than other graduation stories. Of course, I’m not knocking Oh! The Places You’ll Go!, but I wish I got a copy of this when I graduated from my undergrad.
If you want to watch J.K. Rowling’s 20-minute speech, here’s the video:
4.5 out of 5 stars
Copy from my local library