OK, I admit it. I've read every Harry Potter book. I covet Dumbledore's pet phoenix Fawkes who transcends the flames to rise anew from the ashes. I love the idea that each of us transcends failure to give birth to something new and wonderful.
On Friday and Saturday, outstanding women lawyers from across the US and Canada gathered in Dallas to renew and energize each other. They joined my colleague Cordell Parvin, Lisa Dawson from Lexblogand me for a roundtable discussion, leadership and business development coaching, strengths assessments, and a generally fun Texas weekend. A common theme among many of these highly successful women was a sense of not yet having done enough and a disappointment in continuing to fail along the way.
During the course of the weekend, Cordell recirculated one of my favorite TED talks, JK Rowling's 2008 Harvard University commencement address. It resonated with me as I considered my own failures. Here's what I took away from Rowling:
- Face your fear of failure head on. Rowling faced her own fear of failure in giving the Harvard address. Despite her considerable accomplishments, she endured weeks of sleep deprivation and nausea in anticipation of giving the speech. I've felt like that too.....many times.
- The greatest failure is living someone else's life. She reminds us that there is an "uneasy balance" between what we want for ourselves and what our parents expected of us. Rowling chose her own course (writing novels) over the more secure vocational training her parents (who had been poor) preferred. Fortunately for all of us, her choice worked out.
- Take responsibility for your circumstances. My favorite Rowling quote: "There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction." We each steer our own course as adults and that's a good thing. It means you have the power to grow and change.
- You can rise from the ashes. As a poor, jobless, young single mother, Rowling experienced poverty. She acknowledges that poverty itself is a dark, stressful, depressing, humiliating experience which is "romanticized only by fools." I think that is true of our failures. Although I am grateful to have not known poverty, I have known all of these feelings. Her story inspires me to transcend failure.
- No one is immune from failure. She reminds these Harvard students that their talent and intelligence do not innoculate them from the "caprice of the fates." In my years as a practicing psychologist I worked with many physically beautiful, wealthy, successful people. Some, like Rowling, were famous. None of this matters when our own failure and darkness sets in. As Rowling notes, often "life is difficult, complicated and beyond anyone's control."
- Failure is relative. No matter how sucessful they are by conventional measures, many people feel like failures. Someone will always look subjectively more successful in comparison. "Your conception of failure may not be too far removed from the average person's idea of success, so high have you already flown."
- Failure can set us free to risk attempting our biggest dreams. By "stripping away the inessential".....(things like pride and ego), failure can breed deterimination to succeed. When Rowling realized she had survived her greatest fear, impoverishment, she was able to risk writing, what she felt she was meant to do. I see this with some of my successful clients who have lost a job. When they face this greatest fear, they feel free to pursue a passion they would never have dared to otherwise pursue.
- Failure shows us our strengths. Tackling failure brings out your inner will and discipline and secures your knowledge that you can survive your worst fears. This knowledge that you have emerged from your most feared setbacks introduces you to your strongest most resillient self. It is a painfully won gift that per Rowling is "worth more than any other qualification I have ever earned."
- Failure points us to our true friends. Rowling notes that during her darkest times she had friends who never abandoned her. When she became successful, she "rewarded" them by assigning their names to some of the Death Eaters in the Harry Potter books. They stayed with her through that too!
- Failure reminds us that we have the power within us to transform our lives. Just like the phoenix Fawkes, we rise again and again.
As she closes, Rowling takes us back to the ultimate successes in life that we often take for granted.
Life is not a checklist of acquisitions or achievement.
Rather, we succeed each time we touch the life of another by our existance. I was touched this weekend by the lives of some incredible women and one guy. Thank you....you know who you are....... and I promise not to name any Death Eaters after you.
Photo by Amanda Hatfield.