The Technium

The Power of Failure


The best presentations, the best speeches, the best advice are usually about what people learned from their failures. Steve Jobs’ legendary Stanford commencement address lifted so many hearts because he talked about his failures. A few days ago J.K. Rowling gave a commencement speech at Harvard that also emphasized the power of failure. It is a good read (watch or listen).

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The fact that you are graduating from Harvard suggests that you are not very well-acquainted with failure….

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 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.

Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.

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 already 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.

,…Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way….Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more to me than any qualification I ever earned….




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