J. K. Rowling’s commencement speech (2008)

A commencement speech might only appear as different word put together to make people listen for a couple of minutes. And it is. Simultaneously, it can be so much more. J. K. Rowling’s commencement speech for Harvard graduates in 2008 falls into that category. She goes about it the right way by capturing people’s attention and then giving them something to think about.  In her speech she takes about the benefits of failure and the importance of imagination. Two rather alternative subjects as the audience were Harvard graduates. But who are better to learn about the benefits of failure than those who probably fear it the most? And who other than J. K. Rowling could we trust to emphasize the positive aspects of a vivid imagination?

First, when listening to Rowling’s commencement speech, it becomes clear that she uses rhetorical devices. Rhetoric is the art or study of using language effectively and persuasively. For instance, she has several allusions to her own book series, namely Harry Potter. By mentioning and joking with it in the beginning of the speech, she makes people really pay attention and have fun. Humor is, therefore, central in making an interesting commencement speech. Furthermore, she uses herself and her life experience to illustrate how it was to be seen as a failure and how it made her grow as a person. Not only are the stories themselves captivating, they bring the speech together, and the message comes across much more powerful when it can be related to a person.

Relating to a person’s story and using your imagination was, not surprisingly, a central theme in Rowling’s commencement speech. As the author behind the Harry Potter books and a former employee at Amnesty International, she has learned just how important it is to be able to relate to other peoples stories. “Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s places.”(Full speech here) In her speech for the Harvard graduates she also points out the importance of using the ability to relate. By not empathizing, we indirectly enable real monsters through our apathy.  People should, therefore, not be afraid to put themselves in other’s shoes, because it can be an experience that gives knowledge an insight to unknown situations and problems.

The last subject that Rowling talked about was the benefit of failure. And that brings me back to my opening statement, namely that successful people fear failure the most. The Harvard graduates are most likely hardworking students who are used to doing well and, therefore, also afraid of not reaching the expectations they set themselves or those who have been set for them. However, failure is something that makes you grow as a person and it tests the relationships you surround yourself with. Despite it not being fun, it can be seen as a good opportunity to strip away the inessential and focus on what is important for you. Imparting that message to students who were stressed about their future was, therefore, a smart decision.  Even if you fail at important tasks in your life, there is a light in the end of the tunnel, because failure itself is not only negative. “And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”

So today, I 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 Romans I met when I fled down the Classics corridor, in retreat from career ladders, in search of ancient wisdom:

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

And by that being said, I wrap up this school year with international English. It has been an experience, allowing me to write and unfold myself in a way that I have not done before. I have also been featured on national radio, in the newspaper and on BBC, something which did not even cross my mind as possible when I started the blog. Also, thank you so much for the comments and the feedback throughout the year. Have a nice summer vacation!

–          Kristin


jk rowling


2 thoughts on “J. K. Rowling’s commencement speech (2008)

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