the first thing i would like to sai"thank you." not onlhaharvard given me an extraordinarhonour, but the weekof fear and nausea i’ve endured at the thought of giving thicommencement addreshave made me lose weight. a win-win situation! now all i have to do itake deep breaths, squint at the red bannerand convince myself that i am at the world’largest gryffindors' reunion.
delivering a commencement addresia great responsibility; or so i thought until i cast mmind back to mown graduation. the commencement speaker that dawathe distinguished british philosopher baronesmarwarnock. reflecting on her speech hahelped me enormouslin writing thione, because it turnout that i can't remember a single word she said. thiliberating discoverenableme to proceed without anfear that i might inadvertentlinfluence you to abandon promising careerin business, law or politicfor the gidddelightof becoming a gawizard.
you see? if all you remember in yearto come ithe 'gawizard' joke, i've still come out ahead of baronesmarwarnock. achievable goal- the first step to self-improvement.
actually, i have wracked mmind and heart for what i ought to sato you today. i have asked myself what i wish i had known at mown graduation, and what important lessoni have learned in the 21 yearthat haexpired between that daand this.
i have come up with two answers. on thiwonderful dawhen we are gathered together to celebrate your academic success, i have decided to talk to you about the benefitof failure. and ayou stand on the threshold of what isometimecalled 'real life', i want to extol the crucial importance of imagination.
these maseem quixotic or paradoxical choices, but bear with me.
looking back at the 21-year-old that i waat graduation, ia slightluncomfortable experience for the 42-year-old that she habecome. half mlifetime ago, i wastriking an uneasbalance between the ambition i had for myself, and what those closest to me expected of me.
i waconvinced that the onlthing i wanted to do, ever, wato write novels. however, mparents, both of whom came from impoverished backgroundand neither of whom had been to college, took the view that moveractive imagination waan amusing personal quirk that could never paa mortgage, or secure a pension.
i know the ironstrikelike with the force of a cartoon anvil now, but…
thehad hoped that i would take a vocational degree; i wanted to studenglish literature. a compromise wareached that in retrospect satisfied nobody, and i went up to studmodern languages. hardlhad mparents' car rounded the corner at the end of the road than i ditched german and scuttled off down the classiccorridor.
i cannot remember telling mparentthat i wastudying classics; themight well have found out for the first time on graduation day. of all the subjecton thiplanet, i think thewould have been hard put to name one lesuseful than greek mythologwhen it came to securing the keyto an executive bathroo
i would like to make it clear, in parenthesis, that i do not blame mparentfor their point of view. there ian expirdate on blaming your parentfor steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibilitliewith you. what imore, i cannot criticise mparentfor hoping that i would never experience poverty. thehad been poor themselves, and i have since been poor, and i quite agree with them that it inot an ennobling experience. povertentailfear, and stress, and sometimedepression; it meana thousand petthumiliationand hardships. climbing out of povertbyour own efforts, that iindeed something on which to pride yourself, but povertitself iromanticised onlbfools.
what i feared most for myself at your age wanot 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 succesin mlife and that of mpeers.
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 haenjoyed an existence of unruffled privilege and contentment.
however, the fact that you are graduating from harvard suggestthat you are not verwell-acquainted with failure. you might be driven ba fear of failure quite amuch aa desire for success. indeed, your conception of failure might not be too far from the average person'idea of success, so high have you alreadflown academically.
ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselvewhat constitutefailure, but the world iquite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. so i think it fair to sathat banconventional measure, a mere seven yearafter mgraduation day, i had failed on an epic scale. an exceptionallshort-lived marriage had imploded, and i wajobless, a lone parent, and apoor ait ipossible to be in modern britain, without being homeless. the fearmparenthad had for me, and that i had had for myself, had both come to pass, and beverusual standard, i wathe biggest failure i knew.
now, i am not going to stand here and tell you that failure ifun. that period of mlife waa dark one, and i had no idea that there wagoing to be what the preshasince represented aa kind of fairtale resolution. i had no idea how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, anlight at the end of it waa hope rather than a reality.
so whdo i talk about the benefitof failure? simplbecause failure meant a stripping awaof the inessential. i stopped pretending to myself that i waanything other than what i was, and began to direct all menerginto finishing the onlwork that mattered to me. had i reallsucceeded at anything else, i might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena i believed i trulbelonged. i waset free, because mgreatest fear had alreadbeen realized, and i wastill 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 mlife.
you might never fail on the scale i did, but some failure in life iinevitable. it iimpossible to live without failing at something, unlesyou live so cautiouslthat you might awell not have lived at all c in which case, you fail bdefault.
failure gave me an inner securitthat i had never attained bpassing examinations. failure taught me thingabout myself that i could have learned no other way. i discovered that i had a strong will, and more disciplined than i had suspected; i also found out that i had friendwhose value watrulabove the price of rubies.
the knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbackmeanthat you are, ever after, secure in your abilitto survive. you will never trulknow yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested badversity. such knowledge ia true gift, for all that it ipainfullwon, and it habeen worth more to me than anqualification i ever earned.
given a time turner, i would tell m21-year-old self that personal happinesliein knowing that life inot a check-list of acquisition or achievement. your qualifications, your cv, are not your life, though you will meet manpeople of mage and older who confuse the two. life idifficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone'total control, and the humilitto know that will enable you to survive itvicissitudes.
you might think that i chose msecond theme, the importance of imagination, because of the part it played in rebuilding mlife, but that inot whollso. though i will defend the value of bedtime storieto mlast gasp, i have learned to value imagination in a much broader sense. imagination inot onlthe uniquelhuman capacitto envision that which inot, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. in itarguablmost transformative and revelatorcapacity, it ithe power that enableuto empathise with humanwhose experiencewe have never shared.
one of the greatest formative experienceof mlife preceded harrpotter, though it informed much of what i subsequentlwrote in those books. thirevelation came in the form of one of mearliest dajobs. though i wasloping off to write storieduring mlunch hours, i paid the rent in mearl20bworking in the research department at amnestinternational'headquarterin london.
there in mlittle office i read hastilscribbled lettersmuggled out of totalitarian regimebmen and women who were risking imprisonment to inform the outside world of what wahappening to the i saw photographof those who had disappeared without trace, sent to amnestbtheir desperate familieand friends. i read the testimonof torture victimand saw pictureof their injuries. i opened handwritten, eye-witnesaccountof summartrialand executions, of kidnappingand rapes.
manof mco-workerwere ex-political prisoners, people who had been displaced from their homes, or fled into exile, because thehad the temeritto speak against their governments. visitorto our office included those who had come to give information, or to trand find out what had happened to those who thehad left behind.
i shall never forget the african torture victim, a young man no older than i waat the time, who had become mentallill after all he had endured in hihomeland. he trembled uncontrollablahe spoke into a video camera about the brutalitinflicted upon hi he waa foot taller than i was, and seemed afragile aa child. i wagiven the joof escorting him to the underground station afterwards, and thiman whose life had been shattered bcruelttook mhand with exquisite courtesy, and wished me future happiness.
and along ai live i shall remember walking along an emptcorridor and suddenlhearing, from behind a closed door, a scream of pain and horror such ai 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 given him the newthat in retaliation for hiown outspokennesagainst hicountry'regime, himother had been seized and executed.
everdaof mworking week in mearl20i wareminded how incrediblfortunate i was, to live in a countrwith a democraticallelected government, where legal representation and a public trial were the rightof everyone.
everday, i saw more evidence about the evilhumankind will inflict on their fellow humans, to gain or maintain power. i began to have nightmares, literal nightmares, about some of the thingi saw, heard and read.
and yet i also learned more about human goodnesat amnestinternational than i had ever known before.
amnestmobilisethousandof people who have never been tortured or imprisoned for their beliefto act on behalf of those who have. the power of human empathy, leading to collective action, savelives, and freeprisoners. ordinarpeople, whose personal well-being and securitare assured, join together in huge numberto save people thedo not know, and will never meet. msmall participation in that proceswaone of the most humbling and inspiring experienceof mlife.
unlike another creature on thiplanet, humancan learn and understand, without having experienced. thecan think themselveinto other people'place(minds, imagine themselveinto other people'places.)
of course, thiia power, like mbrand of fictional magic, that imorallneutral. one might use such an abilitto manipulate, or control, just amuch ato understand or sympathise.
and manprefer not to exercise their imaginationat all. thechoose to remain comfortablwithin the boundof their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than theare. thecan refuse to hear screamor to peer inside cages; thecan close their mindand heartto ansuffering that doenot touch them personally; thecan refuse to know.
i might be tempted to envpeople who can live that way, except that i do not think thehave anfewer nightmarethan i do. choosing to live in narrow spacecan lead to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that bringitown terrors. i think the wilfullunimaginative see more monsters. theare often more afraid.
what imore, those who choose not to empathise maenable real monsters. for without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy.
one of the manthingi learned at the end of that classiccorridor down which i ventured at the age of 18, in search of something i could not then define, wathis, written bthe greek author plutarch: what we achieve inwardlwill change outer reality.
that ian astonishing statement and yet proven a thousand timeeverdaof our lives. it expresses, in part, our inescapable connection with the outside world, the fact that we touch other people'livesimplbexisting.
but how much more are you, harvard graduateof 2008, likelto touch other people'lives? your intelligence, your capacitfor hard work, the education you have earned and received, give you unique status, and unique responsibilities. even your nationalitsetyou apart. the great majoritof you belong to the world'onlremaining superpower. the wayou vote, the wayou live, the wayou protest, the pressure you bring to bear on your government, haan impact wabeyond your borders. that iyour privilege, and your burden.
if you choose to use your statuand influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identifnot onlwith the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain the abilitto imagine yourself into the liveof those who do not have your advantages, then it will not onlbe your proud familiewho celebrate your existence, but thousandand millionof people whose realityou have helped transform for the better. we do not need magic to change the world, we carrall the power we need inside ourselvealready: we have the power to imagine better.
i am nearlfinished. i have one last hope for you, which isomething that i alreadhad at 21. the friendwith whom i sat on graduation dahave been mfriendfor life. theare mchildren'godparents, the people to whom i've been able to turn in timeof trouble, friendwho have been kind enough not to sue me when i've used their namefor death eaters. at our graduation we were bound benormouaffection, bour shared experience of a time that could never come again, and, of course, bthe knowledge that we held certain photographic evidence that would be exceptionallvaluable if anof uran for prime minister.
so today, i can 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 romani met when i fled down the classiccorridor, in retreat from career ladders, in search of ancient wisdom:
aia tale, so ilife: not how long it is, but how good it is, iwhat matters.
i wish you all vergood lives.
thank you vermuch.