When the jacaranda trees are in bloom in Los Angeles you know spring has arrived in this seemingly seasonless place. You notice SIG Alerts on the freeways at odd times of the day until you see groups of folks in gowns and mortarboards being trailed by family bearing great loads of floral bouquets. Commencement time has come and with it, the famous, to deliver advice and receive honorary degrees.
And sometimes, the words spoken at these events are shared across social media, eventually catching the eye of a publisher. In 2000, it was the speech that was never delivered to the Villanova University graduating class by Anna Quindlen that found its’ way onto book shelves two years later as ‘A Short Guide to a Happy Life’. Last month J. K. Rowling‘s 2008 Harvard speech, ‘The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination’ has been published as ‘Very Good Lives’.
There was a time in my career when I worked in a building just north of Coney Island in Brooklyn. My favorite part of Ms. Quindlan’s book is the story at the end:
“I found one of my best teachers on the boardwalk at Coney Island many years ago, it was December and I was doing a story about how the homeless suffer in the winter months. He and I sat on the edge of the wooden supports, dangling our feet over the side, and he told me about his schedule, panhandling the boulevard when summer crowds were gone, sleeping in a church when the temperature went below freezing, hiding from the police amid the Tilt-A-Whirl and the Cyclone and some of the other seasonal rides.
But he told me most of the time he stayed on the boardwalk, facing the water, just the way we were sitting now, even when it got cold and he had to wear his newspapers after he read them. And I asked him why. Why didn’t he go to one of the shelters? Why didn’t he check himself into the hospital for detox?
And he stared out at the ocean and said, “Look at the view, young lady. Look at the view.”
And every day, in some little way, I try to do what he said. I try to look at the view. That’s all. Words of wisdom from a man with not a dime in his pocket, no place to go, nowhere to be. Look at the view. When I do what he said, I am never disappointed.”
I first saw a video of J.K. Rowling’s address with a group of students one evening at a black women’s sorority event. These were Ms. Rowling’s first readers, the women who waited in long lines with their parents, some in costume in anticipation of the newest Harry Potter release. Here was J.K.Rowling who appeared on lists of the wealthiest and most successful. On that spring morning in Cambridge she shared her personal story of failure and imagination.
“I have asked myself what I wish I had known at my own graduation, and what important lessons I have learned in the 21 years that have expired between that day and this.
I have come up with two answers. On this wonderful day when we are gathered together to celebrate your academic success, I have decided to talk to you about the benefits of failure. And as you stand on the threshold of what is sometimes called ‘real life’, I want to extol the crucial importance of imagination.
Ultimately, 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.
So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? 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.
Now you might think that I chose my second theme, the importance of imagination, because of the part it played in rebuilding my life, but that is not wholly so. Though I personally will defend the value of bedtime stories to my last gasp, I have learned to value imagination in a much broader sense. 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.”
Most of us don’t remember who spoke at our graduation. Some of us didn’t attend. But all of us can reflect on the words in both speeches and find a kernel to motivate and inspire. For me, it’s paying attention and never closing a door to a conversation that could resonate for a lifetime. It’s the thing that makes us different, empathy. And it’s the stories, always the life stories, where we find wisdom.