We’ve all been there: the end of a relationship, the bottom of a grade scale, looking back at what’s passed and wondering what went wrong. Looking for someone to blame. And we’ve all had a do-gooder tell us (at least once before) that we’ll get through whatever it is and adversity is actually a good thing; it builds strength. Maybe we are even the person giving this advice. Even if it comes as a great annoyance, this idea that adversity is positive is deeply rooted in truth. J.K. Rowling says it best in the title of her Harvard commencement speech: “The fringe benefits to failure, and the importance of Imagination.” Failure is not something we can easily address and say: you are necessary. I’m glad I have failed. That is, until after the failure has passed and the indirect benefits are recognized.
In his novel The Happiness Hypothesis, notable psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes an entire chapter on the uses of adversity. There are obvious parallels between his findings and the personal experiences J.K. Rowling cites in her speech. Haidt refers to the benefits of adversity as “posttraumatic growth” and outlines three primary areas of growth following an adversity like failure. J.K. Rowling, following her personal failures, found she was stronger than she previously thought. This is the first of Haidt’s areas of growth: facing a challenge reveals hidden abilities thereby changing one’s self concept to that of greater confidence. The second benefit he outlines is that adversities filter relationships, or as J.K. Rowling puts it, “You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity.” The third benefit of struggle is that it changes a person’s priorities and philosophies.
To J.K. Rowling, failure was a freeing experience. It resulted in the “stripping away of the inessential” as her greatest fear was realized and still she survived. What doesn’t kill you instead reveals your tenacity and, in Rowling’s case, provided the platform for her to rebuild her life. I see failure as relative. Take for example the high-achieving Harvard students Rowling is addressing. Their level of failure is actually a sign of success to many in the general population. We all want to feel successful, to have a purpose we are striving for and can achieve. That is why we redefine success to fit our own experiences and resources. Those with money and who value education may not feel content with their abilities until they’ve achieved a graduate degree, whereas others without these resources may find success in graduating high school. For example, in Guatemala and other developing countries, graduations of any kind (high school, college) are exceptions, not expectations. The Hedonic Treadmill is a psychological concept that explains this relativity of success. In this concept, all people have a set-point of happiness determined by both their biological predispositions and experiences. As experiences change, people adapt to create a new happiness set-point. An individual who wins the lottery may be excited the first couple of months, but soon they adapt to their wealthy lifestyle and it becomes routine instead of novel. J.K. Rowling says “ultimately, we have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure,” not only because there are many areas of life to consider in regards to the idea of failure, but also because of our tendency to adapt. What you see as success today you may see as a failure tomorrow.
With these ideas in mind, I wonder if we can ever achieve a true level of success or if there will always be more to strive for. However, failure I can define for myself: it is, to some extent, being forgotten. Rowling opens her speech with the assertion she remembers nothing of what her own commencement speaker said. She tries to play this off as a reason she shouldn’t be nervous to give her speech at the beginning, but by the end she is requesting the audience pay attention to and remember specific lessons. I say failure is being forgotten “to some extent” because of the variability of values that prevents us from definitively defining success and failure. We don’t want to be forgotten, but by whom? Our family? Our friends? All those we come in direct contact with? Or do we want global recognition? This is differs between every individual.
Global recognition is almost an innate desire, presumably as a result of a fear of death. J.K. Rowling makes the interesting choice of referring to passed time as expired in her speech, making life seem even shorter than it is as we are all on a direct path towards our expiration date. Those who make a global difference and who are discussed in schools continue to live on, at least to some extent. If people convey our story when we are gone, we can shape lives even after death. Global recognition is also something to be feared because the number of people remembered for positive actions equals the number remembered for negative. Success in opposition to my current definition of failure is not just be being remembered: it is being remembered for what you want to be remembered for. I desire to be remembered by all I come into direct contact with. I see this as proof that I have lived fully, sincerely, and made a difference in how the people around me approach life. I used to desire being remembered only in a positive light, (I still do wish this because I don’t want to hurt other people) but if what I do is viewed as negative by the person I touch and a positive outcome results, I still consider this success.
While success and failure are most often viewed materialistically by contemporary society, I view them as the intangible outcomes of our interactions with others. Short term failures throughout life, like losing a job or making a low income, can be indirectly beneficial in that they help us reassess our values and determined how we want to be remembered by others. J.K. Rowling concludes her speech by quoting Seneca and I reiterate it here: “As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.” The actual length of your life matters not if you play a positive role in the lives of all you interact with.