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"The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination"

Video of Harry Potter author JK Rowling's commencement address at Harvard where she spoke about grappling with failure and overcoming it. I have found it very inspiring on multiple levels and address some key challenges of "being creative."

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Perhaps use the comments to pull out your favorite quotes that could be useful for the challenge. Full text of speech here:

To start:
"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."

"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."

"...those who choose not to empathise enable real monsters..."


Join the conversation:

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Dan, we are experimenting with prototyping visual ways of connecting similar inspirations using Pinterest – all in order to enable OpenIDEATORS to better collaborate and build on each other’s inspirations.

Your posting is part of the "Embracing Failure" Pinterest board. Check out the field note detailing the Pinterest board.

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This part about imagination in relation to human rights spoke to me...

"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."

"And many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know.

I might be tempted to envy people who can live that way, except that I do not think they have any fewer nightmares than I do. Choosing to live in narrow spaces leads to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that brings its own terrors. I think the wilfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid.

What is more, those who choose not to empathise enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy."

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Dan, check out this week's Creative Confidence Challenge Community Champion Update. Your inspiration was highlighted in the video!

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"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."

I'm still reading through the transcript, but this part definitely resonated with me because I was a picture-perfect case of the latter - living so cautiously that I might as well not have lived at all. The worst part is that it was while I was a child - the age that everyone worships as the pinnacle of creativity.

I think a major part of my life that inhibited my creativity is the fear of failure, as J.K. Rowling talks about in the speech. I grew up in a suburban home in San Diego, and I couldn't see beyond the very entrenched paradigm in SD that owning a suburban home is the greatest achievement that everyone should strive for.

This made me so cautious, ignoring anything outside of the "path" that I thought I need to stick to, the safest path that would lead me to graduating college and getting a good job and making enough money to have a home of my own. It wasn't until I actually moved away for college that I was able to see that I "failed by default".

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Sorry, I didn't expand on my realizations in college.

During college, I saw that suburban home ownership was just one metric of success, and that there were so many ways to live life that just didn't cross my mind because I was too entrenched in a very narrow viewpoint. That realization helped me tap my full creative potential - because I wasn't scared of "failing" by one standard of success anymore.

I think the external pressure of judgment based on one metric of success is a major killer of creative endeavors, and it's a major cause of the "crisis of creative confidence".

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Jeff, thanks so much for your thoughts. When you put failure in quotes in your second comment, it got me thinking. How do we all define "success" and "failure"? It probably differs from person to person, family to family, culture to culture... Yet at the core, it's almost always a negative thing.

But what if we redefined "failure" and made it something to seek out, to learn from, to celebrate? It seems that we only discuss and admit failure after we've emerged from it. Like JK Rowling, who many would argue has "succeeded", may have been ashamed to discuss her failures openly before she became one of the most successful (and wonderful!) children's authors of our time.

How can we make "failure" something to work through together and celebrate?

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That's such a good point, Katie. Even J.K. Rowling who is celebrating her failure, was only able to do so after she got out of it. I never thought of that.

Maybe one way to change the way we think about "failure" is to just explicitly celebrate failures? I heard of a interesting convention held in Ann Arbor that celebrated failure, called "The Golden Egg Award". Managers from all over the city would come to confess their mistakes, and everyone voted on the "classic" failure of the day, and that manager would get a Golden Egg trophy to take back to his company.

The most interesting thing was that when one manager brought the trophy back to his company, his employees started asking him questions about it. When the manager confessed his mistake, it caused the employee to confess his own mistake that the manager already knew about. That started a chain reaction that transformed the company culture into one of openness.

From then on, there was a new rule in the Golden Egg Award - if you win the Golden Egg, you have to leave it on your desk at your work for at least a month.

I thought it was a great way to make failure acceptable, and also help others learn from your failure as well. It seemed like a great way to transform how people thought about failure.

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Wow, Jeff. Thanks! I love the story of the Golden Egg and its ability to transform a work place. I bet after a more open, forgiving culture was established, people were more creative!

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I found this on wiki:
"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 to 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 area where I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized, 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 a solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.
– J. K. Rowling, "The fringe benefits of failure", 2008"

I think the mental condition she is referring to when talking about failure is very similar to a person shedding burdens. Unfettered, and open, finally open. Very inspiring, this talk ! Thank you for posting it !