Review: J.K. Rowling’s published Harvard commencement speech, Very Good Lives

Copyright AP/ via the Guardian

Copyright AP/ via the Guardian

This week, J.K. Rowling’s famed 2008 Harvard University Commencement Address will be published in book form by Little, Brown under the title, Very Good Lives.

The small book features beautiful illustrations (by artist Joel Holland) on every page, accompanying the text. In the speech, the Harry Potter author addresses two universal themes important to her: failure and imagination — specifically, the benefits of failure and the importance of imagination.

vgljkrSince she gave the speech in 2008, it has been celebrated by her legions of fans, commencement address aficionados, as well as everyday people looking for inspiration. The speech offers powerful words of advice to virtually everyone, but especially students and young people. The book’s title borrows from a quote from Roman philosopher Seneca, which J.K. Rowling used to conclude the speech: “As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what what matters.” Rowling wished the audience “very good lives” at the end.

If you’re looking for the perfect gift for students this graduation season or anyone seeking moral inspiration, Very Good Lives is the answer. The book is available in bookstores everywhere Tuesday. It’s for a good cause too: 80% of the proceeds benefit J.K. Rowling’s charity, Lumos, which aims to transform the lives of children in institutions all over the world, while the rest goes to university-wide financial aid at Harvard University.

Our Favorite Quotes from the Speech:

1. 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.

2. You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.

3. If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped change.


4. One of the many things I learned at the end of that Classics corridor down which I ventured at the age of 18, in search of something I could not then define, was this, written by the Greek author Plutarch: What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.

That is an astonishing statement and yet proven a thousand times every day of our lives. It expresses, in part, our inescapable connection with the outside world, the fact that we touch other people’s lives simply by existing.

5. 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.

Watch the video footage of J.K. Rowling delivering the commencement address:


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