“...rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.“
Joanne Rowling, or JK Rowling as she is best known,seems to many to be the epitome of success. With an estimated fortune of over £500m,a celebrity lifestyle, and an adoring army of fans due to the incredibly successful Harry Potter empire she has built, it is easy to think that life has always been this way for her.
However,the success she enjoys today belies a very different and rather darker early life experience, which saw her shrouded in depression, living near the poverty line and struggling to provide for herself and her young daughter.
She was born on 31July 1965 in Yate,Gloucestershire, England, 10 miles (16 km) northeast of Bristol. Her mother Anne was half-French,half-Scottish. She attended Exeter University, where she earned a French and Classics degree,her course including one year in Paris. As a postgraduate she moved to London and worked as a researcher at Amnesty International among other jobs.
She started writing the Harry Potter series during a delayed Manchester to London King’s Cross train journey,and during the next five years,outlined the plots for each book and began writing the first novel.
Rowling then moved to northern Portugal, where she taught English as a foreign language. She married in October 1992 and gave birth to a daughter in 1993. When the marriage ended, she and Jessica returned to the UK to live in Edinburgh,where Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s Stone was eventually completed.
Seven years after graduating from university,Rawling saw herself as “the biggest failure I knew.” Her marriage had failed,she was jobless with a dependent child,but she described her failure as liberating. Like so many other people who have come to experience success from the inside- as a fusion of our deepest held values,convictions and beliefs,rather than just a transient set of external experiences- Rawling discovered that it is in the moments of our greatest failures and despair that we find our greatest strength:
“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 I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.
“Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea then how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.
“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.
“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.
“Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.
“The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that
it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned .”
- J. K. Rawling,
Harvard commencement address, 2008