Home All Harvard, Hogwarts & Commencement Thoughts

Harvard, Hogwarts & Commencement Thoughts

written by Caroline Adams Miller 9 June 2008

Caroline Adams Miller, MAPP, ACC is a performance coach, author, and motivational speaker who specializes in helping people design and achieve their life goals. Full bio.

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hp_rowling_wideweb__470x3790.jpgLast week, I had the extraordinary privilege of hearing J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter mega-series, deliver an electrifying commencement speech at Harvard University to a sold-out, standing room only audience of young and adult alike, many of whom ran through the gates of Harvard Yard, beginning at 6:30 am to get as good a seat as possible for the afternoon ceremony.

Although it was a typically gray and chilly day by Cambridge, Massachusetts standards, all who were lucky enough to be there were lit up by her message, which I was permitted to witness from a few feet away on the same dais as part of my 25th Reunion festivities.

Although I knew she’d be entertaining, I had no idea how profound Rowling’s talk would be, nor how tightly entwined her speech would be with the themes and message of Positive Psychology.

Many who were there feel they witnessed not only the best commencement speech they’d ever heard, but also the best speech they’d ever heard on any topic, so I’d like to share some of the highlights.

Briefly, Rowling hit on the following themes:

  1. Don’t be afraid of failure. Rowling described herself as an utter and complete failure as she set out to write the only thing she’d ever wanted to do — tell an engaging story about a young boy named Harry Potter. At that point, she was extremely poor, a single mother, and a disappointment to herself and her parents, who had not wanted her to experience the same poverty they’d experienced, as well. With nothing left but her authentic heart’s desire of writing, Rowling said that she went after her dreams with gusto because she’d already lost everything external, and there was nothing left to lose anymore. One of the valuable lessons I have learned through researching goal accomplishment and its relationship to happiness is that taking risks is essential, and that self-esteem is fostered through taking on hard goals, like the ones Rowling set for herself, and with this speech, she has established herself as a powerful role model for going after your own intrinsic goals, regardless of your fears.
  2. Treasure your friends. Rowling implored the audience to tend to the friendships they’d made at school because she noted that these relationships were what sustained her, and that continue to bring courage, love and acceptance into her life. And if I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again: Positive Psychology has been said to boil down to one phrase, “Other people matter.” Rowling said it beautifully.
  3. Use your imagination to have empathy for others. This part of Rowling’s speech was the most powerful and memorable by far. In moving terms, she described her job at Amnesty International when she was in her twenties, and how she’d seen courage and compassion exhibited by the Amnesty International workers on numerous occasions. She asked everyone in attendance to use their intellectual talents to do more than accumulate money or possessions, and to instead imagine the pain and plight of those less fortunate to be generous with their time and energy. Giving generously and having empathy has not only been found to induce joy and deep satisfaction, but it’s part of the well-lived life, according to every authority I’ve read on the subject.

Please take a moment to watch Rowling’s talk, which is as moving and insightful as Randy Pausch’s infamous “last lecture” at Carnegie-Mellon last September, and that has now become a book with an amazing message. These two speakers, from different countries and backgrounds, but similar views, have created Positive Psychology in action for me and everyone else who has been touched by their words.



Rowlings, J. K. (2008). The fringe benefits of failure. Harvard Commencement Address.

Pausch, R. (2008). The Last Lecture. Hyperion Press.

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leonard waks 9 June 2008 - 7:08 pm

Thanks for a very inspirational post. All of us want to do something special. Most of us are doing something else. It is wonderful to learn about the development of one of those who followed her dream, about those who inspired her and about the support she received.

Ni Hao 10 June 2008 - 12:06 pm

Caroline, a big thank you for posting this information. How wonderful it is to know that you could actually be there as an audience! And thanks to a modern device like YouTube, I will be able to share a gist of the speech.

Christine Duvivier 10 June 2008 - 4:24 pm

Caroline, Thank you for sharing this– JK Rowling is refreshingly authentic, candid and insightful.

wayne jencke 11 June 2008 - 4:40 pm

Its interesting to think of the harry potter stories – faces lots of challenges using strength, supported by friends and ends up happily married pursuing goals of nurturing a happy family.

The research I have seen suggests that taking on hard goals is not essential to self esteem. Perhaps challenging goals that engage you are more important. Having read your profile, I suspect that goal orientation is important to you and hence you derive a lot of satisfaction from hard goals. Not everyone might be goal oriented.

I guess this is why I like Sonja L’s work where she talks about happiness activities that fit with the person.

The other thing the research does point to regarding goals is that zero sum goals aren’t that beneficial to happiness in the long term.

Caroline Miller 12 June 2008 - 11:00 am

It’s nice to see so many comments! And yes, You Tube is a terrific invention to bring speeches and events like this closer.

Wayne, I appreciate your thoughts. You might be interested in the new research out of British Columbia on hard goals and self-esteem. It’s fascinating. And goal setting theory talks about challenging and specific performance goals, which is pretty standard in this education.

I have a new book coming out in January 2009 from Sterling Publishing called, “Creating Your Best LIfe” which tackles this subject in depth. Hope everyone has a chance to look at it and form more thoughts about goals and happiness.

Doug Turner 13 June 2008 - 12:11 pm

I think Wayne has an interesting point. Can hard goals become too hard and create a sense of hopelessness or debilitating anxiety? where is the line? I like the idea of goals that are engaging and meaningful rather than just being “stretch” or hard. To me, if a goal is engaging and meaningful, then the degree of difficulty matters much less. I think working toward a meaningful goal is also more likely to create a FLOW state. Great topic Caroline -can’t wait to read your book!

Pauline Wallin, PhD. 13 June 2008 - 7:25 pm

Thanks so much, Caroline, for posting this, and for the links to the videos. It was like having a front seat at the graduation. As in her novels, JKR was eloquent and inspirational, without being “preachy.”

Flora Morris Brown, Ph.D. 14 June 2008 - 1:43 am

I just finished listening to Rowling’s commencement address and was indeed moved. I, too, found the unfolding of what she means by imagination to be the most touching and meaningful part. How fortunate for her that her work at the Amnesty organization enabled her to expand her awareness and her empathy. Until we can feel empathy for others we aren’t fully human and miss the chance to be deeply happy in our own lives.

wayne jencke 15 June 2008 - 3:21 am

Caroline, Research suggests that persiting with goals can be bad for your health. Read article at http://www.innate-intelligence.com.au/blog/?p=71

I think its a huge problem in coaching – setting hard goals as opposed to engaging goals


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