Last 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.