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Self-actualization, J. K. Rowling style

Hard-earned lessons from J.K. Rowling on self-actualization, the advantages of failure and the necessity of looking inward

Earlier this year, when I was aggressively exploring what I want to do with my life, I started each day with the intention of spending it doing exactly what I was guided to do. I’d follow my intuition and the feeling of excitement. What piqued my interest? What intrigued me?

At one point this summer, what intrigued me was Harry Potter’s unassuming author, J. K. Rowling. During her interview with Oprah, Rowling talks about how she came to write Harry Potter. The story came to her during a rock bottom. In her early 20s, after her mother died, Rowling moved to Portugal where she promptly got married, had a child, got divorced after 13 months of marriage and crawled home to Scotland where she worked as a secretary and lived hand-to-mouth with her newborn.

Depression, doubt and fear characterized this time in her life. However, it was during this time that she downloaded the idea for Harry Potter. A download in spirituality and wellness-speak is when you get an intuitive idea that seems to come to you from a source outside yourself. On the train one day, Rowling had a flood of ideas for a story: “There’s an orphan boy that doesn’t know he’s a wizard, he goes to wizarding school, there are four houses…” The idea of writing this novel thrilled her so she quietly worked away at it. One night after leaving the cafe where she wrote, Rowling heard the voice that seemed to come from outside herself say, “the difficult thing will be to get it published. If it gets published, it’ll be huge.” And that’s exactly how it went down.

It was after safety, certainty and comfort were stripped from Rowling that she could look her desire directly in the face. Once she was stripped of the inessential, the essential became clear.

All Rowling ever wanted was to be a writer. She wrote incessantly but didn’t happen upon the right modality for her unique set of skills and interests until Harry Potter. “I’d never thought about writing for children,” Rowling says, “and yet, it was the thing I was meant to write. I’ve always been fascinated by folklore. I’ve always loved kooky words.” Rowling’s dharma was clearly to write Harry Potter. But why did she get the idea for Harry Potter at the point when her life was falling apart?

In her 2008 Harvard commencement speech, Rowling espouses the advantages of failure: 

Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending that I was anything other than what I was and began to direct all my energy into the only work that mattered to me. I was set free because my greatest fear had been realized and I was still alive, I had a young daughter I adored, an old typewriter and a big idea.

Rowling didn’t write Harry Potter because she was looking to write a hit novel. In fact, her publisher warned her that she would never make money writing children’s literature. She wrote Harry Potter because it was one of her deepest wishes to do so—the call to write it came from insider her. 

It was after safety, certainty and comfort were stripped from her that she could look her desire directly in the face. Once she was stripped of the inessential, the essential became clear.

In Harry Potter, the Room of Requirement holds a magic mirror that, when you stand in front of it, shows you what you most desire. Harry was found gazing into it by Dumbledore who said, "the happiest man alive would look in the mirror and see himself exactly as he is.” Rowling cited this and said, “I’m pretty damn close.” These are the words of a self-actualized person. As Rowling shows us, self-actualization doesn’t come from chasing external standards, but from looking inward and getting honest about what you truly want.

Self-actualization doesn’t come from chasing external standards, but from looking inward and getting honest about what you truly want.

According to spiritual guide Natalie Miles, this December we’re being called to look in the mirror and ask ourselves, what do I want? What will bring me deep satisfaction and joy? And what can I do to make 2019 the year I make this core desire a reality?

Let’s not limit ourselves to what we think is possible. Let’s not avoid looking in the mirror for fear that we’ll see something dramatically different from our current circumstances. What we want will not change. So we might as well face it now and start working towards it ASAP.

I’m trying to do this myself but it’s hard to let go of fear. Fear is addicting. It’s all around us, imposed on us by the media, parents and close friends who are staying small in their own lives. However, we have the power to choose again. Will we spend our time reasoning away the safe and unexciting relationship or the job that leaves us wondering whether we’ll ever do something we love? Or will we look what we want directly in the face and say: I can have that. I will have that. Let’s get started.

The choice will always, and only, be yours.

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