When asked which famous person I most admire, my answer is always J.K. Rowling. I love how the bestselling author inspired millions of kids to love reading with her Harry Potter series and pretty much geeked out on the wonderful book series myself. (Every online quiz sorts me into the Gryffindor House, proving I definitely would have helped saved the day at Hogwarts – you know, if it was real and all.) But unbeknownst to Rowling, her advice also inspired me to persevere during a hard time in my life.
Back in 2009, the Great Recession killed my boutique public relations firm along with nearly 200,000 other small businesses in the U.S. Forced to let go of great people and deal with a large amount of business debt, I felt like a complete failure. It was an awful time. What eventually helped though, was realizing I wasn’t alone after watching a clip of a commencement address Rowling delivered at Harvard University in 2008. The speech, called “The Fringe Benefits of Failure,” hooked my attention immediately.
“Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential,” said Rowling to the audience, sharing her perspective as a former welfare mom who kept racking up writing rejections before finding a publisher who saw the potential of her work. “I stopped pretending that I was anything except what I was and began directing all of my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. I was set free because my greatest fear had been realized and I was still alive, still had a daughter I adored, an old typewriter and a big idea. It is impossible to live without failing at something unless you’ve lived so cautiously that you might have well not lived at all. The ability to use failure often leads to the greatest success.”
Wow. Her words had, and continue to have, a profound impact on me. When I first heard them in 2010, it gave me hope. After working hard for years to pay off the business debt, I started picturing a different way of life. My interest in human potential deepened and I became a certified executive coach. That’s when I realized that returning to a corporate environment would allow me to make a deeper impact from the inside in improving an organization’s culture. Recruiters tried to pigeon-hole me into narrow public relations leadership roles given my previous accomplishments, claiming that more was not possible. Ignoring those naysayers, I found a great corporate job in 2014 that combined my communications expertise with my passion for leadership and employee engagement. Today I continue to thrive in that job while writing about getting unstuck and the importance of well-being.
If I hadn’t had my career failure, chances are good I’d still be on my old path. Less curious and less excited. Without ever having the freedom to dig deep into who I was and what mattered in my life at this point. Sure, that time sucked. But as Rowling noted, using that failure has helped me become even more successful now. I even spoke about it last year while delivering my first TEDx talk, called “5 Ways to Let Go of a Dream.”
It’s kind of funny how an icon I’ve never met has had such a formative influence on my life, in how I now process the concepts of success and failure. And I’m so grateful. She continues to inspire me in exploring what is possible as an author, philanthropist and general force of good in the world. Whenever self-doubt strikes, I keep Rowling’s wise advice in mind and use it come back to the light.