JK Rowling: Failure and Imagination

A humorous, touching, and ultimately inspiring commencement speech from JK Rowling. Whether you are entering your first year of university or last, or are simply caught in between, these words should not be taken for granted. Read the full transcript below – we’ve bolded our favourite parts.

“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 honour, 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 wracked 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 please 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 to me expected of me.

I was convinced that the only thing I wanted to do, ever, was to 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 that the irony strikes with the force of a cartoon anvil, now.

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 rounded the corner at the end of the road than 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.

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

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

At your age, in spite of a distinct lack of motivation at university, where I had spent far too long in the coffee bar writing stories, and far too little time at lectures, I had a knack for passing examinations, and that, for years, had been the measure of success in my life and that of my peers.

I am not dull enough to suppose that because you are young, gifted and well-educated, you have never known hardship or heartbreak. Talent and intelligence never yet inoculated anyone against the caprice of the Fates, and I do not for a moment suppose that everyone here has enjoyed an existence of unruffled privilege and contentment.

However, the fact that you are graduating from Harvard suggests that you are not very well-acquainted with failure. You might be driven by a fear of failure quite as much as a desire for success. Indeed, your conception of failure might not be too far from the average person’s idea of success, so high have you already flown.

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.

So given 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.

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 empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.

One of the greatest formative experiences of my life preceded Harry Potter, though it informed much of what I subsequently wrote in those books. This revelation came in the form of one of my earliest day jobs. Though I was sloping off to write stories during my lunch hours, I paid the rent in my early 20s by working at the African research department at Amnesty International’s headquarters in London.

There in my little office I read hastily scribbled letters smuggled out of totalitarian regimes by men and women who were risking imprisonment to inform the outside world of what was happening to them. I saw photographs of those who had disappeared without trace, sent to Amnesty by their desperate families and friends. I read the testimony of torture victims and saw pictures of their injuries. I opened handwritten, eye-witness accounts of summary trials and executions, of kidnappings and rapes.

Many of my co-workers were ex-political prisoners, people who had been displaced from their homes, or fled into exile, because they had the temerity to speak against their governments. Visitors to our offices included those who had come to give information, or to try and find out what had happened to those they had left behind.

I shall never forget the African torture victim, a young man no older than I was at the time, who had become mentally ill after all he had endured in his homeland. He trembled uncontrollably as he spoke into a video camera about the brutality inflicted upon him. He was a foot taller than I was, and seemed as fragile as a child. I was given the job of escorting him back to the Underground Station afterwards, and this man whose life had been shattered by cruelty took my hand with exquisite courtesy, and wished me future happiness.

And as long as I live I shall remember walking along an empty corridor and suddenly hearing, from behind a closed door, a scream of pain and horror such as I have never heard since. The door opened, and the researcher poked out her head and told me to run and make a hot drink for the young man sitting with her. She had just had to give him the news that in retaliation for his own outspokenness against his country’s regime, his mother had been seized and executed.

Every day of my working week in my early 20s I was reminded how incredibly fortunate I was, to live in a country with a democratically elected government, where legal representation and a public trial were the rights of everyone.

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 mobilizes 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 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 sympathize.

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

One of the many things I learned at the end of that Classics corridor down which I ventured at the age of 18, in search of something I could not then define, was this, written by the Greek author Plutarch: What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.

That is an astonishing statement and yet proven a thousand times every day of our lives. It expresses, in part, our inescapable connection with the outside world, the fact that we touch other people’s lives simply by existing.

But how much more are you, Harvard graduates of 2008, likely to touch other people’s lives? Your intelligence, your capacity for hard work, the education you have earned and received, give you unique status, and unique responsibilities. Even your nationality sets you apart. The great majority of you belong to the world’s only remaining superpower. The way you vote, the way you live, the way you protest, the pressure you bring to bear on your government, has an impact way beyond your borders. That is your privilege, and your burden.

If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped change. We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.

I am nearly finished. I have one last hope for you, which is something that I already had at 21. The friends with whom I sat on graduation day have been my friends for life. They are my children’s godparents, the people to whom I’ve been able to turn in times of trouble, people who have been kind enough not to sue me when I took their names for Death Eaters. At our graduation we were bound by enormous affection, by our shared experience of a time that could never come again, and, of course, by the knowledge that we held certain photographic evidence that would be exceptionally valuable if any of us ran for Prime Minister.

So today, I wish you nothing better than similar friendships. And tomorrow, I hope that even if you remember not a single word of mine, you remember those of Seneca, another of those old Romans I met when I fled down the Classics corridor, in retreat from career ladders, in search of ancient wisdom: ‘As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.’

I wish you all very good lives. Thank you very much.”

via http://harvardmagazine.com/2008/06/the-fringe-benefits-failure-the-importance-imagination?utm_source=HM&utm_medium=youtube&utm_campaign=jkrowling

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The Pros and Cons of Digital Textbooks

Are you a diehard print reader or do you prefer the convenience of digital, despite the cons?

From the Chicago Tribune:

College students who study with digital textbooks perform just as well on tests as do their peers who use print textbooks, but the digital books pose some problems, according to a recent study at Indiana State University. As print textbooks go the way of penmanship and the card catalog, colleges and universities are looking at the pros and cons of using digital textbooks, said Jim Johnson, the study’s lead researcher and the director of instructional and information technology services at the Terre Haute-based university.

About half of the 233 participants used print textbooks, while the others used iPad 2 hand-held computers. Most of the students were ages 20 to 22. Gender did not affect results; men and women performed equally well. “The biggest ‘pro’ of digital texts is convenience, whether it’s using a laptop, notebook or phone,” Johnson said, describing the results of his study and subsequent focus groups with the participants.

Navigating the material was easy for the participants, even though most said they did not own iPad 2s and they were given material they had not studied in their elementary-education course work, said Johnson. “Another ‘pro’ is professors like digital texts because they can provide more current material than print textbooks, which can take a year or two to get to print,” said Johnson.

Computer vision syndrome:
The biggest drawbacks of digital texts cited by the participants were eye strain, cost and potential technological problems. Some of the students cited eye strain even though the pretest reading only took a half-hour for most of them. Studying for a test could require much more time, said Johnson. “This was an unexpected outcome because the iPad 2s have high resolution,” Johnson said of the eye problems. “One student was even nauseous.”

The medical term is “computer vision syndrome,” said Dr. Dennis Siemsen, assistant professor of ophthalmology at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. “It applies with any type of electronic device.”

The problem is threefold, Siemsen said. “One is accommodation,” he said. “Your eyes strain to accommodate the smaller print, which is usually smaller in electronic text. Second, many devices are back-lit so you’re staring at a bright screen. It’s like looking at the bright sun all day. Third, we tend to have our eyes wide open when looking at a screen, as opposed to partially open when we hold a book. This can lead to dry eye.”

The students also worry about cost of digital textbooks, the study said. “The digital text can cost more than a print textbook and the student can’t resell it after he’s used it,” said Johnson. “Also, the students can’t all afford the best devices. Most of the participants said they have laptops and phones but would like to have iPads or e-readers.” Although this did not occur in the study, Johnson said, students said they also worry about not being able to access digital texts because of mechanical problems such as low battery life.

Despite growing up in the computer age, some of the participants they “just prefer to hold a book in their hands and turn the pages” rather than use digital devices, Johnson said. “Personally, I just prefer print because I can makes notes on it and because it’s less eye strain,” said Brianne Vandenberg, of New Lenox, who will be a senior in college this fall at Miami University in Ohio. “After reading (digital texts) for a while, I get a headache or the glare bothers me. So I wind up spending a lot of money on ink to print out what I can.”

So far, her assigned texts and tests have been a combination of print and digital, Vandenberg said. “For tests, you usually have a choice, but in one class all the quizzes were digital,” she said. “I struggled with that.” Vandenberg uses a combination of devices — cellphone, laptop and iPad — to access her texts. Johnson said that’s typical of today’s college students.

Long-term impact?
The experts agree the subject deserves more investigation. “Before we go whole-hog on electronic textbooks, we need to know more about the effects on our eyes,” Siemsen said. “Young people who are in college now may not even realize how the electronic texts are affecting them. They may say they fall asleep while reading or they can’t keep up with their work, but this can mean eye strain. While digital texts are fabulous on the surface and a big help for people with vision problems, we need to look long-term.”

“Do smaller screens make it worse?” Johnson asked. “Does the type of device matter? Would it help if we only used devices that let us move around, instead of sitting still at a desk? Test performance may be equal with digital and print texts, but the digital ones can create other problems.”

You can minimize computer vision syndrome, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology’s website, by blinking more often. Normally, we blink 18 times a minute, according to the website. But while using a computer, we blink half as many times. To remind you to blink, you can buy devices, including one called blinknow.

Position your screen below eye level so your eyes are not wide open, the website suggests. Use the “20-20-20 rule” — look at least 20 feet away from the screen every 20 minutes, for at least 20 seconds. Use artificial tears. Get enough sleep. If you wear contacts, don your glasses for “contact breaks.”

“Time will tell for my generation,” Vandenberg said. “I’m not sure yet how (the digital trend) will affect us long-term.”

Read the full article here: http://www.textbookrental.ca/blog/wp-admin/post-new.php

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Why Humanities Studies Matter…

…Especially if you’re an English Major. Parents have and always will exert pressure on their children to undertake what are widely considered to be the more practical degrees–business, technology, engineering, science, etc–so that they can attain jobs and possibly even segue into law and medical studies. No doubt these degrees are commendable and no small feats of achievement, but the reasons for hiring humanities majors are growing at a compelling rate. The skill sets that these students acquire throughout their studies are varied and far-reaching, and as a result, can be utilized across innumerable professions. The ability to write, and write well, is a fundamental asset that any hiring manager should be on the lookout for as it indicates that you are able to communicate clearly, effectively, and that those listening can relate. “Former English majors turn up almost anywhere, in almost any career,” writes Verlyn Klinkenborg in the NY Times, ”and they nearly always bring with them a rich sense of the possibilities of language, literary and otherwise.”

In Why English Majors are the Hot New Hires, Bruna Martinuzzi highlights the importance of critical thinking and research skills–skills that humanities majors have in abundance. The ability to synthesize disparate information into a coherent thesis is indispensable. “English majors are taught to deconstruct and analyze a problem, and package their conclusion so others can understand their line of thought. These are highly transferable skills that are vital for the success of a business.”

Empathy is another benefit in the workplace. “There are numerous studies that correlate empathy with increased sales, with the best performing managers of product development teams and with greater efficiency in an increasingly diverse workforce. Empathy is indeed the oil that keeps relationships running smoothly,” Martinuzzi finds. Moreover, “A University of Toronto study on the effects of literature on empathy shows that those who read fiction frequently have higher levels of cognitive empathy; i.e., the ability to understand how another person feels… This improves interpersonal understanding and enhances relationships with customers and business associates. When you hire an English major, you’re likely hiring someone who brings cognitive empathy to the table.”

English Majors, you can breathe a little easier now. Fuel your love of literature with the knowledge that you can bring that passion with you and apply it towards any vocation. And for those who aren’t in the humanities, it wouldn’t hurt to take a few of those courses as electives.

“Writing well used to be a fundamental principle of the humanities, as essential as the knowledge of mathematics and statistics in the sciences,” says Klinkenborg. ”But writing well isn’t merely a utilitarian skill. It is about developing a rational grace and energy in your conversation with the world around you.”

Read more here:



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Choose Your Own Adventure: TED-Ed Career Advice for Students

From the TED blog:

Many of today’s top jobs didn’t exist ten years ago. According to this study from the U.S. Department of Labor, 65% of school-aged students will work in jobs and industries that haven’t been invented yet. Preparing students for their future careers is certainly not the sole purpose of education, but teachers and guidance counsellors do strive every day to empower students in understanding and anticipating their post-graduation-options. But how? How can teachers help prepare students for careers that don’t exist yet? How do guidance counsellors help students understand the jobs that are already available? And how do students, educators or counsellors find out what jobs might be options in the future?

There are many answers to these questions, and schools and education organizations have become increasingly resourceful in developing methods to set students up for 21st century success. However, according to many teachers and students in the TED-Ed community, there’s still work to be done to bridge the knowledge gap between what happens in school and what happens in the modern workplace.

With this challenge in mind, TED-Ed set out to design an interactive, open-ended series that helps young learners find out more about careers they’re potentially interested in … and careers they simply never knew existed.

The series is called “Click Your Fortune.” Read the rest of the article here.

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Physical Textbooks still Dominate Market – Great Article from The Daily Beast

From The Daily Beast – August 6th, 2013

In July, Cengage Learning, one of the biggest textbook publishers on the market, voluntarily filed for bankruptcy. With almost $6 billion in debt, the private equity-backed company laid out a restructuring plan to “introduce innovative digital and print products,” and “meet our customers’ evolving needs.” This isn’t necessarily the end of Cengage, but it does reflect the changes in the textbook industry. In an interview with The New York Times, shortly after declaring bankruptcy, Cengage said its decision will “support our long-term business strategy of transiting from traditional print models to digital educational and research materials.”

Cengage is slowly embracing digital learning methods in the wake of its financial trouble. Publishing giant McGraw-Hill is one step ahead. In a column for Forbes, McGraw-Hill vice president of learning solutions Tom Malek outlined a plan for replacing textbooks with e-books. Malek says e-books are the “presumed future of higher education,” because they are cheaper and easier to transport. Since students prefer digital to print for everything else, they’ll naturally they feel the same way about textbooks.

But the transition to e-books on campus is likely to be slower and bumpier than many anticipate. As Malek notes, only around 3 percent of students use them. What’s more, the price of e-books isn’t necessarily dramatically lower than the price of comparable print textbooks. Meanwhile, many professors and students still prefer the analog to the digital models.

Taylor Scartozzi, a junior advertising major at the University of Texas, is sticking to print. “My favorite thing about having a printed textbook is that I can write notes directly onto the pages. When I go back to study later, the notes I make in my book help me to focus on studying.”

Read the rest of this article here:


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