From the first scribbles on a napkin in a London café to her eventual worldwide success as an author, J.K. Rowling inspired an entire generation with the magic of the Harry Potter series. Millions of readers across the world grew up reading about the wizarding world, anxiously awaiting the release of the next installment of the adventures of the Boy Who Lived.
Harry Potter’s story taught us important lessons about friendship, about bravery, about not making judgments about people too quickly – after all, we spent seven books thinking Professor Snape was a secret Death Eater out to destroy Harry only to find out that he had been protecting Harry all along.
But we can learn just as many lessons from the story of the author herself. J.K. Rowling’s road to becoming a best-selling, world-renowned author did not come easily or without its share of hardship. When she gave the commencement speech at Harvard’s graduation ceremony in 2008, Rowling shared some of those lessons with that graduating class about to enter the workforce. Even ten years later, much of that life advice is worth revisiting as the original Harry Potter generation fully settles into their career.
Rowling’s career certainly did not come without failures. As she puts it, Rowling considered herself “the biggest failure I knew” by her late twenties, as an unemployed single parent with a failed marriage and next to no money. And like most people, failure was her biggest fear. But it granted her clarity and allowed her to focus on her passion – which just happened to turn into one of the most successful franchises in the world.
The lesson here is that we should not allow our fear of failure to hold us back in our careers. We all know the concept of “high risk, high reward” – taking that risk is sometimes the only way to reap the rewards we seek in our careers. And in fact, sometimes not taking a risk is an even bigger risk in and of itself. So what Rowling is saying here is try. Fail. Try again. You may have to repeat this formula several times, but it’s certainly better than “not living at all” under a cocoon of supposed security.
There’s another lesson here, as well – in the power of pursuing your passion. Rowling’s failure opened her up to opportunity – she could have found a job she would have hated and stuck with it for the sake of financial security. But instead, she took the opportunity to focus on the thing she cared about most – writing – and poured her heart into it. Obviously, not everyone’s passion will necessarily lead them to become a globally bestselling author or the owner of a 31-room mansion. But she experienced real success, as well as true happiness and fulfillment, only when she decided to pursue her passion. What are you passionate about? And how can you make pursuing your passion a part of your daily routine?
Something that the millennial generation, in particular, tends to care very strongly about is making a difference and making this world a better place. To be fair, it’s always been a trend for younger generations to want to improve the world as they come of age and really enter the workplace. We may not be able to attend Hogwarts and learn a ton of spells, but anyone who has read the Harry Potter books or seen the movies knows that magic is not a cure-all and that even in the wizarding world you can’t fix everything with the wave of a wand. As Harry discovers, there’s no spell that can bring back the dead, that can fix global warming, or even that can cure the deadliest of diseases.
But the lesson for us Muggles is that even without “magic,” we can effect real change in this world. How you choose to do that is up to you – and I’m not just talking about extreme volunteerism here. Are you mentoring other employees? Exercising your right to vote? Empowering women in your workplace? Revisit that passion we talked about earlier. No matter how you apply it, there’s an opportunity for you to make a real difference with what you do.
As you think about your passions and your career, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite J.K. Rowling quotes – this time, one spoken through the voice of Albus Dumbledore:
“Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times if one only remembers to turn on the light.”
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