Atanu Dey On India's Development

On Failure and Imagination

Without having read a single word of the Harry Potter novels, I guessed that JK Rowling must be an extraordinary person. The possessor of an imagination so remarkable that it captures the hearts of hundreds of millions cannot but be extraordinarily talented.

But I am wary of objects of popular fascination — whether they be religions, politicians, movie stars, cult leaders, popular movements, fads and fashion. I have never been one to judge anyone good merely because millions of people hold him or her in high regard. I am extremely suspicious of the “wisdom of the crowds.” Indeed, whenever I come across a highly regarded public figure, my default assumption is that all cannot be quite right with the person. I admit that I am a cynic.

So while I guessed that Rowling was extraordinarily talented, I did not have an opinion on whether she was good. I am delighted to conclude that she is a good person. The evidence? Her Harvard University commencement address. Here, for the record, are some excerpts:

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 criticise 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 indeed something on which to pride yourself, but poverty itself is romanticised only by fools.

What I feared most for myself at your age was not poverty, but failure.

. . .

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 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.

. . .

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 already 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.

. . .

Given a time machine or a Time Turner, I would tell my 21-year-old self that personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life, though you will meet many people of my age and older who confuse the two. Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.

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 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.

. . .

Every day, I saw more evidence about the evils humankind will inflict on their fellow humans, to gain or maintain power. I began to have nightmares, literal nightmares, about some of the things I saw, heard and read.

And yet I also learned more about human goodness at Amnesty International than I had ever known before.

Amnesty mobilises thousands of people who have never been tortured or imprisoned for their beliefs to act on behalf of those who have. The power of human empathy, leading to collective action, saves lives, and frees prisoners. Ordinary people, whose personal well-being and security are assured, join together in huge numbers to save people they do not know, and will never meet. My small participation in that process was one of the most humbling and inspiring experiences of my life.

Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s minds, imagine themselves into other people’s places.

Of course, this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate, or control, just as much as to understand or sympathise.

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 can lead 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 may enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy.

Read the whole thing.

  • prateeksha

    I have read all of the seven Potter books. They are amazing. There are some boring bits in the fatter novels, but very few. The best part is, the books – targeted mainly at kids – are not preachy, but one of discovery. And how each one of us have good traits and bad – no idolizing of any character. Towards the end, even the infallible Dumbledore is impeached. Not disrespectfully, but to show he’s also human. The reason I talk about the books so much is because I’ve grown up with them and love them.

    As for Rowling, she’s obviously as amazing as her books tell. I disagree with this: I do not think one needs failure or poverty to provide stimulus to produce good work. For eg. Wodehouse – apparently the dude lived a prince’s life! He wrote because he liked it. But, the things he wrote about reflect what kind of life he lived and saw around him – elite English life.

    The best commencement address I’ve come across – which prompted me to read many books on him later – is Feynman’s Caltech one .

    As a person of science myself, I find his ‘principles of experimenting’ very insightful, and think people should use them as thumb-rule. For any field or case, actually .

  • Raghuveer

    I also think I remember reading some of Feynman’s points in his ‘Surely, you must be joking…’ book.

    Great points by both Rowling and Feynman. But I wonder how many of us have the courage to go with our convictions and leave everything to do what we really want. Life gets in the way.

  • lurker

    Have you noticed that the smart one is actually the girl Hermione. I personally found these books boring. I dont think it is very healthy to feed so much magic and other bullshit to children. Rowling seems to be very greedy person. She is fighting a case against some fan who wants to publish a sort of reference book. Read about it here

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legal_disputes_over_Harry_Potter#RDR_Books

  • lurker

    Pleeeeeeeeez. Dont insult Mr. Wodehouse by comparing him with a novice like Rowling. Shudder.

    pc

  • http://jihadwatch.org/ Notsure

    @Raghuveer
    “But I wonder how many of us have the courage to go with our convictions and leave everything to do what we really want. Life gets in the way.”
    I take it its some kind of Bohemian vs Bourgeoisie

    As JK said “the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you.”

    If some one is not able to make up there mind they dont have a conviction
    They are not convinced about what they want to do, they have certain attractions to other ideas but thats it they are not convinced its a good idea.

    But what they may be convinced about is that there is a convenient zone that they are in and they dont want to change it.

    There is nothing wrong with it.
    Each choice has its own unique stresses and pleasures.
    And this was an ultra simplification. There is no bohemian bourgeoisie dichotomy but an entire spectrum of choices.

    And Courage is not the right idea here, but Desire, Passion, Tradeoffs, Commitments and Obligations are a few ideas would use.
    You are not jumping in front of a train to pull out a kid stuck in a track.

    But are optimizing all the elements that you want for 40+ years starting from your 20′s.

  • Raghuveer

    Agree that its an entire spectrum of choices. Sometimes strong convictions can also be contradictory – and can only do either X or Y and the road you take is guided by pragmatism for most of us. You also realize that you read the speeches of only the successful ones. Even among these, there are typically 2 categories – the ultra-brilliant or the ‘made it after reaching the nothing to lose’ stage.

    You are not jumping in front of a train to pull out a kid stuck in a track. Trust me, after you are out of a job in a foreign country with very little support to fall back on, paying the bills and clearing debts after a manna (read ‘steady income’) does feel that way.

  • http://jihadwatch.org/ Notsure

    Sometimes strong convictions can also be contradictory – and can only do either X or Y and the road you take is guided by pragmatism for most of us.

    If the conviction is contradictory, it suggests confusion. So I would not put that in the conviction.

    And there is nothing wrong with pragmatism?
    If Person X has a desire ^x^ and he/she judged that X’s succeeding at it has a low probability and very high costs(money, time, opportunity, lifestyle, geography) and X choose not to pursue it. It was b/c X was convinced that risk rewards don’t match up.
    If X choose to wallow and sulk over ^x^, X is a stupid. Sometimes X indulges in idiotic daydreams that this ^x^ thing happens instantly and lives in that fantasy. Think Watler Mitty, Mungeri Lal or SheikhChilly. They know that in any undertaking there is a probability of success, ie it successful outcome is not a guarantee , and they don’t even seriously evaluate all the options including there risk tolerance and will often hide that by suppressing ^x^. or much worse blaming parents societies etc….

    You also realize that you read the speeches of only the successful ones. Even among these, there are typically 2 categories – the ultra-brilliant or the ‘made it after reaching the nothing to lose’ stage.

    No I dont realize that. Nor do I see two categories. You read speeches of only those who chose to give a speech.
    So I only see those 2 wide categories ie those that choose to give a speech and those that did not.

    ” You are not jumping in front of a train to pull out a kid stuck in a track.” Trust me, after you are out of a job in a foreign country with very little support to fall back on, paying the bills and clearing debts after a manna (read ‘steady income’) does feel that way.

    No way I’d ever trust that and that in some way diminishes the selfless courage people have demonstrated in the kid in track scenario
    You chose to go to a foreign country and you choose to purchase what ever you did and you have to pay the bill….
    You could have chosen to be an actor and that may have meant washing dishes and other part time work while keeping days free for auditions and selling your screenplay.

    It depends what you value, what you are willing to do or pay to get what.
    As JK said at sometime an adults have to take responsibility and that means not blaming your parents, and I would say the rest of the world too.

  • Raghuveer

    Instead of drawing up equations, let me suggest an example of a friend of mine. Brilliant guy and the eldest son in a family of 9 children. Could have probably started his own company but had to start working at a steady job much below his potential to help his siblings as his father’s salary could not support them anymore. He never sulks, blames his parents or anyone else and fully understands what he did – but does sometimes have feelings of ‘what if’ and writes his business plans and waits/hopes for the day when he may be able to try out. Comparing him with a Walter Mitty whose daydreams are in a different dimension is not only insulting but also suggests ignorance. Courage need not be just facing/overcoming a physical danger.

    It is a trade-off and a melee of choices – everyone understands that. But you seem to suggest that pragmatism is somehow in odds with a strong conviction – am suggesting that it is just a conviction/courage of a different kind.

    This will be my last post on this topic, am traveling on my job will be busy the next few days. Please excuse me.

  • http://jihadwatch.org/ Notsure

    “Brilliant guy and the eldest son in a family of 9 children. Could have probably started his own company but had to start working at a steady job much below his potential to help his siblings as his father’s salary could not support them anymore. He never sulks, blames his parents or anyone else and fully understands what he did – but does sometimes have feelings of ‘what if’ and writes his business plans and waits/hopes for the day when he may be able to try out. Comparing him with a Walter Mitty whose daydreams are in a different dimension is not only insulting but also suggests ignorance.”

    Ok where did I compare your NEWLY ADDED friend SCENARIO to a walter mitty in

    Read my eg and then read your example which deliberately ignored a rational thought process by calling it an equation
    I also had put OBLIGATION and DESIRE rather than COURAGE.

    And you yourself have SWITCHED from having courage to pursue dreams to having courage to not to.
    You initialy wrote about people having ” the courage to go with our convictions and leave everything to do what we really want. Life gets in the way.”
    Then it became some manna thing and it feeling the same as if you ran and rescued a child of a railway track.
    I find it contradictory and this is why perhaps you are having issues with conviction action language.

    Besides Your friend may choose to support his siblings and he may not.
    After all your friend was not the one who decided to produce a LITTER?
    So its upto your friend to analyze and evaluate what he values and decide on his course of action.

    Based on what you have written I will tell you how I may see your friend as a mitty

    I will categorize your friend to a mitty if he “hopes for the day”
    I wont if he waits b/c he is busy with other self chosen tasks, but observing and seeking for an opportunity.

    “But you seem to suggest that pragmatism is somehow in odds with a strong conviction – am suggesting that it is just a conviction/courage of a different kind.”
    Where did i suggest pragmatism is somehow in odds with conviction?
    I said earlier if some one decides that the risks in taking an endevor are notworth it.
    And that is the same as conviction.
    One can construct linguistic dichotomies regarding pragmatism and conviction and ignore a word which etymologicaly does contains a dichotomy.
    The word is DECISION.

    Taking your example its Its your friend who is RESPONSIBLE for all his decisions,
    wheather he chooses to help his siblings or chase his dreams.
    And he better be pragmatic in making that decision.

    You can take my actor example.
    If some one choses to go the acting route and is ok with doing dishwashing and aware of the probability of sucess and their talents,
    He/She is being PRAGMATIC.

    There is an old saying You cant have your cake and eat it too.
    Pragmatic folks know this, and they think in a Win Win Attitude WRT decisions.
    Unpragmatic folks dont, and the create a loose loose, grass is greener on the other side.
    Its unpragmatic language to “Life gets in the way” or to frame it interms of courage.
    When the decisions are about longterm goals, and good old pursuit of happiness.

    Language Matters The choice of how you frame your current situation decisions and future actions all have to be
    labeled appropriately.

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