Very Good Lives was the title of the speech that J.K. Rowling gave to her commencement address delivered at Harvard University, in 2008. Like all her literary works, it proved to not only be enchanting but also timeless. So timeless it was that it was published into book form in 2015. Coming twenty one years after her own graduation, she premised her address on what she wish she had known when she was graduating and the important lessons she has learned since.
She came up with three answers; the benefits of failure, the importance of imagination and the power of friendships.
Having been brought up by parents who came from impoverished backgrounds and neither of whom had been to college, they didn’t think her idea of work would ever pay a mortgage or secure a pension. Seven years after her graduation day, she had had an exceptionally short-lived marriage, was jobless, a single-parent and poor. The fears that her parents had for her had come to pass, or at least it seemed so.
However, it’s in this dark cloud that she found her silver lining. In her words, had she really succeeded at anything else, she might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena she truly believed she belonged. Thus, rock bottom became the solid foundation on which she rebuilt her life. Hence her assertion;
“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.”
She is now one of the wealthiest people on the planet and the highest-paid author of 2019 per Forbes.
The premium she places on imagination is founded on her experience in her early twenties at the African research department of Amnesty International’s headquarters in London. She recalls reading 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. She also recalls reading the testimonies of torture victims and seeing pictures of their injuries. Opening handwritten witness accounts of summary trials and executions, of kidnappings and rape.
It is these experiences, as well as working with ex-political prisoners, and the exiled that truly revealed to her the power of imagination. The power of empathy. That;
“Unlike any other creature on this planet, human beings can learn and understand without having experiences. They can think themselves into other people’s places.”
And because of this;
“One might use such an ability to manipulate or control just as much as to understand or sympathize.”
On friendships, she encouraged the grandaunts to hold dear to their own, as the friends she graduated with, “bound by enormous affection by their shared experience of a time that could never come again”, have remained her friends for life. They are her kids’ godparents and people she can turn to in times trouble.
J.K. Rowling’s advice to Harvard’s class of 2008 was as instrumental to them as it is to anyone who desires a meaningful, fulfilling and very good life!
That, my dear readers, that is how I start this new year, this new decade!
Welcome to another year of reading unapologetically, widely, voraciously and objectively!
REVIEW BY AURA BILLY OSOGO