The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination
Harvard Univers ity Commencement Address
Copyright June 2008
As prepared for delivery
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恶心I've experienced at the thought of giving this commencement address 毕业典礼演说have made me lose weight. A win-win situation双赢局面! Now all I have to do is take deep breaths, squint at 斜眼看the red banners and fool myself into believing I am at the world's best-educated Harry Potter convention大会.
Delivering a commencement address is a great responsibility; or so I thought until I cast my mind back to 回想my own graduation. The commencement speaker that day was the distinguished British philosopher Baroness Mary Warnock男爵夫人玛丽沃尔诺克. 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无意中influence you to abandon promising careers in business, law or politics for the giddy头晕的delights of becoming a gay wizard哈利波特.
You see? If all you remember in years to come is the 'gay wizard' joke, I've still come out ahead of Baroness Mary Warnock. Achievable goals: the first step
towards personal improvement.
Actually, I have wracked my mind and heart for为……绞尽脑汁/费尽心思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 has expired期满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 在……的开端what is sometimes called 'real life', I want to extol the crucial importance of颂扬……的至关重要性imagination.
These might seem quixotic唐吉诃德式的；狂想家的；愚侠的or paradoxical 矛盾的；诡论的；似非而是的choices, but please bear with 容忍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在……与……间努力找到平衡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 来自贫穷家庭背/出身贫寒and neither of whom had been to college, took the view that my overactive imagination was an amusing personal quirk怪癖that could never pay a mortgage支付按揭, or secure a pension获得养老保险.
They had hoped that I would take a vocational degree非职业学科学位/专业学位; I wanted to study English Literature. A compromise was reached that in retrospect回顾往事/检讨过去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丢弃German and scuttled off快速的跑down the Classics corridor走廊.
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 subjects on this planet, I think they would have been hard put to name one less useful than Greek mythology希腊神话when it came to securing the keys to an executive bathroom.
I would like to make it clear, in parenthesis作为插入成分的, that I do not blame my parents for their point of view. There is an expiry date到期日/有效期限on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction误导你; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel掌舵, 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贵族的experience. Poverty entails承担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自豪, 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 有本领/窍门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接种疫苗anyone against the caprice任性善变of the Fates, and I do not for a moment suppose that everyone here has enjoyed an existence of unruffled平静的privilege and contentment.
However, the fact that you are graduating from Harvard suggests that you are not very well-acquainted with不熟悉/了解failure. You might be driven by a fear of failure quite as much as a desire for success对成功的渴望. Indeed, your conception of failure might not be too far from the average person's idea of success, so high have you already flown academically.
Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes构成failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria一套要求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大规模/彻彻底底. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded内爆, and I was jobless, a lone parent一个单身母亲, 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.
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 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除去/揭掉of the inessential无关紧要的. 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对……重要me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena舞台/竞技场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最低点/低谷became the solid foundation坚实基础on which I rebuilt my life重建生活.
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由于弃权而输掉/由于不到庭而败诉/默认.
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自律than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above rubies价值连城的.
The knowledge that you have emerged出现/暴露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 to me than any qualification I ever earned.
Given a time machine or a Time Turner时间转换器, I would tell my 21-year-old self that personal happiness lies in在于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（人生的）盛衰.
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睡前故事to my last gasp最后一口气/奄奄一息, I have learned to value imagination in a much broader sense. Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision想象,预想that which is not, and therefore the fount of……的源泉all invention and innovation 创新,革新. In its arguably most transformative有改革能力的and revelatory有启示的capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared.
One of the greatest formative形成的experiences of my life preceded Harry Potter, though it informed much of what I subsequently wrote in those books. This revelation启示came in the form of one of my earliest day jobs. Though I was sloping off逃走/溜掉to write stories during my lunch hours, I paid the rent in my early 20s by working in the research department at Amnesty 大赦/特赦International's[国际特赦组织] headquarters总部/总公司in London.
There in my little office I read hastily scribbled乱写的/潦草书写的letters smuggled out私运出of totalitarian regimes极权主义by men and women who were risking imprisonment关押to inform the outside world of what was happening to them. I saw photographs of those who had disappeared without trace荡然无存, sent to Amnesty by their desperate families and friends. I read the testimony证词of torture victims and saw pictures of their injuries. I opened handwritten, eye-witness accounts of summary trials and executions死刑, of kidnappings绑架/诱拐and rapes强奸.
Many of my co-workers were ex-political prisoners前政治犯, people who had
been displaced from移位their homes, or fled into exile流放, because they had the temerity鲁莽/冒失to think independently of their government. Visitors to our office included those who had come to give information, or to try and find out what had happened to those they had been forced to leave 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摄像机about the brutality无情/暴行/残忍inflicted使承受upon him. He was a foot taller than I was, and seemed as fragile as a child. I was given the job of escorting 护卫/陪同him to the Underground Station地铁站afterwards, and this man whose life had been shattered打碎by cruelty took my hand with exquisite精致的,高雅的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 探出/伸出her head and told me to run and make a hot drink for the young man sitting with her. She had just given him the news that in retaliation报复/回击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法律代理and a public trial公开审理were the rights of everyone.
Every day, I saw more evidence about the evils humankind will inflict on施加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动员thousands of people who have never been tortured or imprisoned for their beliefs to act on behalf of代表/为了those who have. The power of human empathy, leading to collective action集体行为, 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令人羞耻的/卑微的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中立的. One might use such an ability to manipulate操纵, 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……的界限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受诱惑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广场恐怖症, and that brings its
own terrors. I think the wilfully随心所欲的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完全的evil ourselves, we collude with暗中勾结it, through our own apathy冷漠.
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定义, was this, written by the Greek author Plutarch普鲁塔克（希腊历史家）: What we achieve inwardly内部will change outer reality.
That is an astonishing statement and yet proven a thousand times every day of our lives. It expresses, in part在某种程度上, 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超级大国. 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 transform for the better.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教父或教母, the people to whom I've been able to turn in times of 在……时期trouble, friends who have been kind enough not to sue起诉me when I've used their names for Death Eaters食死徒. 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竞选Prime Minister.
So today, I can 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退出/放弃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.
在毕业典礼上致词意味着极大的责任——我这样想着，直到我开始回想我自己的毕业典礼。那天致词的是著名的英国哲学家Baroness Mary Warnock。对于她的演讲的回忆也极大地帮助了我完成现在这份，因为，我完全想不起来她说了什么。这个具有解放意义的重大发现让我无所畏惧的写下自己的致词，因为我再也不必担心会在不经意间对你们造成影响，以至于让你们为了成为一个快乐巫师的虚幻憧憬，就放弃自己在商业、法律界或政界的远大前程。
看到了吧？就算若干年后你们对我的演讲的印象只剩下这个―快乐的巫师‖的笑话，那我还是领先了Baroness Mary Warnock一步的。能够达成的目标是自我改善的第一步。