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Practice English Speaking&Listening with: ENGLISH SPEECH | JK ROWLING: The Benefits Of Failure (English Subtitles)

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President Faust, members of the Harvard Corporation and the Board of Overseers, members of the

faculty, proud parents, and, above all, graduates.

The first thing I would like to say isthank you.’ Not only has Harvard given me an extraordinary

honour, but the weeks of fear and nausea I have endured at the thought of giving this

commencement address have made me lose weight. A win-win situation! Now all I have to do

is take deep breaths, squint at the red banners and convince myself that I am at the worlds

largest Gryffindor reunion.

Delivering a commencement address is a great responsibility; or so I thought until I cast

my mind back to my own graduation. The commencement speaker that day was the distinguished British

philosopher Baroness Mary Warnock. Reflecting on her speech has helped me enormously in

writing this one, because it turns out that I cant remember a single word she said.

This liberating discovery enables me to proceed without any fear that I might inadvertently

influence you to abandon promising careers in business, the law or politics for the giddy

delights of becoming a gay wizard.

You see? If all you remember in years to come is thegay wizardjoke, Ive come

out ahead of Baroness Mary Warnock. Achievable goals: the first step to self improvement.

Actually, I have wracked my mind and heart for what I ought to say to you today. I have

asked myself what I wish I had known at my own graduation, and what important lessons

I have learned in the 21 years that have expired between that day and this.

I have come up with two answers. On this wonderful day when we are gathered together to celebrate

your academic success, I have decided to talk to you about the benefits of failure. And

as you stand on the threshold of what is sometimes calledreal life’, I want to extol the

crucial importance of imagination.

These may seem quixotic or paradoxical choices, but please bear with me.

Looking back at the 21-year-old that I was at graduation, is a slightly uncomfortable

experience for the 42-year-old that she has become. Half my lifetime ago, I was striking

an uneasy balance between the ambition I had for myself, and what those closest to me expected

of me. 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. I know that the irony strikes with the force of a cartoon anvil, now.

So they hoped that I would take a vocational degree; I wanted to study English Literature.

A compromise was reached that in retrospect satisfied nobody, and I went up to study Modern

Languages. Hardly had my parentscar rounded the corner at the end of the road than I ditched

German and scuttled off down the Classics corridor.

I cannot remember telling my parents that I was studying Classics; they might well have

found out for the first time on graduation day. Of all the subjects on this planet, I

think they would have been hard put to name one less useful than Greek mythology when

it came to securing the keys to an executive bathroom.

I would like to make it clear, in parenthesis, that I do not blame my parents for their point

of view. 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.

What is more, I cannot criticise my parents for hoping that I would never experience poverty.

They had been poor themselves, and I have since been poor, and I quite agree with them

that it is not an ennobling experience. Poverty entails fear, and stress, and sometimes depression;

it means a thousand petty humiliations and hardships. Climbing out of poverty by your

own efforts, that is indeed something on which to pride yourself, but poverty itself is romanticised

only by fools. What I feared most for myself at your age

was not poverty, but failure.

At your age, in spite of a distinct lack of motivation at university, where I had spent

far too long in the coffee bar writing stories, and far too little time at lectures, I had

a knack for passing examinations, and that, for years, had been the measure of success

in my life and that of my peers.

I am not dull enough to suppose that because you are young, gifted and well-educated, you

have never known hardship or heartbreak. Talent and intelligence never yet inoculated anyone

against the caprice of the Fates, and I do not for a moment suppose that everyone here

has enjoyed an existence of unruffled privilege and contentment.

However, the fact that you are graduating from Harvard suggests that you are not very

well-acquainted with failure. You might be driven by a fear of failure quite as much

as a desire for success. Indeed, your conception of failure might not be too far from the average

persons idea of success, so high have you already flown.

Ultimately, 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 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.

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 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.

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 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.

You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is

impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might

as well not have lived at allin which case, you fail by default.

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. I discovered that

I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had

friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.

The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks 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. Such knowledge

is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification

I ever earned. So given a Time Turner, I would tell my 21-year-old

self that personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list 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, and complicated,

and beyond anyones total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive

its vicissitudes.

Now you might think that I chose my second theme, the importance of imagination, because

of the part it played in rebuilding my life, but that is not wholly so. Though I personally

will defend the value of bedtime stories to my last gasp, I have learned to value imagination

in a much broader sense. Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision

that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably

most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise

with humans whose experiences we have never shared.

One of the greatest formative experiences of my life preceded Harry Potter, though it

informed much of what I subsequently wrote in those books. This revelation came in the

form of one of my earliest day jobs. Though I was sloping off to write stories during

my lunch hours, I paid the rent in my early 20s by working at the African research department

at Amnesty Internationals headquarters in London.

There in my little office I read hastily scribbled letters smuggled out of totalitarian regimes

by men and women who were risking imprisonment to inform the outside world of what was happening

to them. I saw photographs of those who had disappeared without trace, sent to Amnesty

by their desperate families and friends. I read the testimony of torture victims and

saw pictures of their injuries. I opened handwritten, eye-witness accounts of summary trials and

executions, of kidnappings and rapes.

Many of my co-workers were ex-political prisoners, people who had been displaced from their homes,

or fled into exile, because they had the temerity to speak against their governments. Visitors

to our offices included those who had come to give information, or to try and find out

what had happened to those they had left behind.

I shall never forget the African torture victim, a young man no older than I was at the time,

who had become mentally ill after all he had endured in his homeland. He trembled uncontrollably

as he spoke into a video camera about the brutality inflicted upon him. He was a foot

taller than I was, and seemed as fragile as a child. I was given the job of escorting

him back to the Underground Station afterwards, and this man whose life had been shattered

by cruelty took my hand with exquisite courtesy, and wished me future happiness.

And as long as I live I shall remember walking along an empty corridor and suddenly hearing,

from behind a closed door, a scream of pain and horror such as I have never heard since.

The door opened, and the researcher poked out her head and told me to run and make a

hot drink for the young man sitting with her. She had just had to give him the news that

in retaliation for his own outspokenness against his countrys regime, his mother had been

seized and executed. Every day of my working week in my early 20s

I was reminded how incredibly fortunate I was, to live in a country with a democratically

elected government, where legal representation and a public trial were the rights of everyone.

Every day, I saw more evidence about the evils humankind will inflict on their fellow humans,

to gain or maintain power. I began to have nightmares, literal nightmares, about some

of the things I saw, heard, and read. And yet I also learned more about human goodness

at Amnesty International than I had ever known before.

Amnesty mobilises thousands of people who have never been tortured or imprisoned for

their beliefs to act on behalf of those who have. The power of human empathy, leading

to collective action, saves lives, and frees prisoners. Ordinary people, whose personal

well-being and security are assured, join together in huge numbers to save people they

do not know, and will never meet. My small participation in that process was one of the

most humbling and inspiring experiences of my life.

Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having

experienced. They can think themselves into other peoples places.

Of course, this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is morally neutral.

One might use such an ability to manipulate, or control, just as much as to understand

or sympathise. And many prefer not to exercise their imaginations

at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience,

never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They

can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts

to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know.

I might be tempted to envy people who can live that way, except that I do not think

they have any fewer nightmares than I do. Choosing to live in narrow spaces leads to

a form of mental agoraphobia, and that brings its own terrors. I think the wilfully unimaginative

see more monsters. They are often more afraid.

What is more, those who choose not to empathise enable real monsters. For without ever committing

an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy.

One of the many things I learned at the end of that Classics corridor down which I ventured

at the age of 18, in search of something I could not then define, was this, written by

the Greek author Plutarch: What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.

That is an astonishing statement and yet proven a thousand times every day of our lives. It

expresses, in part, our inescapable connection with the outside world, the fact that we touch

other peoples lives simply by existing.

But how much more are you, Harvard graduates of 2008, likely to touch other peoples

lives? Your intelligence, your capacity for hard work, the education you have earned and

received, give you unique status, and unique responsibilities. Even your nationality sets

you apart. The great majority of you belong to the worlds only remaining superpower.

The way you vote, the way you live, the way you protest, the pressure you bring to bear

on your government, has an impact way beyond your borders. That is your privilege, and

your burden.

If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who

have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless;

if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your

advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence,

but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped change. We do not

need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already:

we have the power to imagine better.

I am nearly finished. I have one last hope for you, which is something that I already

had at 21. The friends with whom I sat on graduation day have been my friends for life.

They are my childrens godparents, the people to whom Ive been able to turn in times

of trouble, people who have been kind enough not to sue me when I took their names for

Death Eaters. At our graduation we were bound by enormous affection, by our shared experience

of a time that could never come again, and, of course, by the knowledge that we held certain

photographic evidence that would be exceptionally valuable if any of us ran for Prime Minister.

So today, I wish you nothing better than similar friendships. And tomorrow, I hope that even

if you remember not a single word of mine, you remember those of Seneca, another of those

old Romans I met when I fled down the Classics corridor, in retreat from career ladders,

in search of ancient wisdom: As is a tale, so is life: not how long it

is, but how good it is, is what matters.

I wish you all very good lives. Thank-you very much.

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