What we Achieve Inwardly will Change outer Reality


J-K-Rowling

“As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.”

[Seneca]

In her 2008 Harvard Commencement in front of “the largest Gryffindor reunion” J.K. Rowling starts on a humorous note:

The first thing I would like to say is ‘thank 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!

With the crowd warmed up, she says:

Delivering a commencement address is a grave 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 helped me enormously in writing this one because it tuns out that I can't 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 the gay wizard joke I come out ahead of Baroness Mary Warnock. Achievable goals, the first step to self-improvement.

Searching for inspiration “in her mind and heart” on what to say, Rawling asked herself what she wished she had known at her own graduation, and thought about what important lessons she learned in the 21 years since then. The two answers she came up with are:

  • the benefits of failureultimately, 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. Some reflections on the benefits of overcoming failure.
  • the importance of imagination 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.

Her personal experience on choosing a course of studies resonates in more than one way, including dealing with poverty and struggles:

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 parents’ car 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.

[…]

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.

This is the struggle, not so much to endure hardship and heartbreak, which is why being acquainted with how to survive the loss of a love is useful, but the crushing realization that we do not overcome them by talent alone. Luck, or fate, are very much part of it.

Learning how to sort out luck from skill is essential to avoid mistakes in determining outcomes. Failing is not fun and it has dire consequences. Why then “talk about the benefits of failure?” says Rawling:

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.

We all fail in life at some point or another, “unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”

We emerge from failure stronger, and those who have failed recognize that strength. I've had the privilege of working with many who have — both as managers/leaders and as clients. Adversity is the path to confidence in our own abilities, and in the nature of our relationships. In Rawling's words:

Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.

The second theme is related to the first one in a counter intuitive way. Imagination helps us connect with others without having experienced first hand what they have. This realization came to life during Rawling's work at Amensty International:

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.

[…]

Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s places.

My experience translating for the families of children who could not walk, talk, or worse led me to a similar realization on the goodness that exists in humans alongside “the evils humankind will inflict on their fellow humans.” Rawling reminds us “this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is morally neutral.” We choose what we do with it. Greek author Plutarch wrote:

“What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.”

“We touch other people's lives simply by existing,” and accepting our human nature we honor that connection. And so it is with organizations: what we achieve on the inside, will change how we operate. Our ability to make better promises is predicated upon keeping those promises.

Watch the video of the full talk below.

 

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