Pitch Variation

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J.K. Rowling Harvard Commencement Speech

President Faust, members of the Harvard Corporation, and the board of overseers, members of the faculty, proud parents, and above all graduates, the first thing I would like to say is thank you. Not only has Harvard given me an extraordinary honor, but the weeks of fear and nausea I have endured at the thought of giving this commencement address have made me lose weight. A win-win situation. Now, all I have to do is take deep breaths, squint at the red banners, and convince myself that I am at the world’s largest Gryffindor reunion.

Delivering a commencement address is a great responsibility or so I thought until I cast my mind back to my own graduation. The commencement speaker that day was the distinguished British philosopher Baroness Mary Warnock. Reflecting on her speech has helped me enormously in writing this one because it turns out that I can’t remember a single word she said. This liberating discovery enables me to proceed without any fear that I might inadvertently influence you to abandon promising careers in business, the law, or politics for the giddy delights of becoming a gay wizard. You see, if all you remember in years to come is the gay wizard joke, I’ve come out ahead of Baroness Mary Warnock.

Achievable goals, the first step to self-improvement. Actually, I have wrapped my mind and heart for what I ought to say to you today. 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. These may seem quixotic or paradoxical choices, but bear with me.

Looking back at the 21 year old that I was at graduation is a slightly uncomfortable experience for the 42 year old that she has become. Half my lifetime ago, I was striking an uneasy balance between the ambition I had for myself and what those closest of to me expected of me. I was convinced that the only thing I wanted to do ever was write novels. However, my parents, both of whom came from impoverished backgrounds and neither of whom had been to college, took the view that my overactive imagination was an amusing personal quirk that would never pay a mortgage or secure a pension. I know the irony strikes with a force of a cartoon anvil now, but so they hoped that I would take a vocational degree. I wanted to study English literature. A compromise was reached that in retrospect satisfied nobody. And I went up to study modern languages. Hardly had my parents car around the corner at the end of the road, then I ditched German and scuttled off down the classics corridor.

I cannot remember telling my parents that I was studying classics. They might well have found out for the first time on graduation day. Of all the subjects on this planet, I think they would have been hard put to name one less useful than Greek mythology when it came to securing the keys to an executive bathroom.

Now I would like to make it clear in parenthesis that I do not blame my parents for their point of view. There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction. The moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you. What is more, I cannot criticize my parents for hoping that I would never experience poverty. They had been poor themselves and I have since been poor. And I quite agree with them that it is not an ennobling experience. Poverty entails fear and stress, and sometimes depression. It means a thousand petty humiliations and hardships. Climbing out of poverty by your own efforts, that is something on which to pride yourself, but poverty itself is romanticized only by fools.