In August 1994, Joanne Rowling filed a restraining order against her husband, divorced shortly afterwards, and fell into a deep depression.
Her one-year-old marriage had failed, and she suddenly found herself jobless, “as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless” and living off welfare benefits to take care of her five-month-old daughter.
A few years prior, Rowling was dealt another series of blows when her mother died from multiple sclerosis, her relationship with her father broke down and she suffered a miscarriage.
This was a far cry from the life that Rowling had hoped for, as she later noted, “I think it is fair to say that by any conventional measure…I had failed on an epic scale…The fears that 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.” 1
These failures led Rowling to a state of clinical depression and the verge of suicide. 2
But Rowling refused to roll over and die.
Shortly after leaving Portugal for the U.K., Rowling began writing her novel, whilst battling depression, fear and poverty. And in 1995, she finished her manuscript for the book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and submitted it to book agents.
Little did she know at the time, how much her life would change afterwards.
Within a five-year period, Rowling’s novel broke book sales records in the U.S. and U.K., won the British Book Award for Children’s Book of the Year and sold seven-figure sum film rights to Warner Bros.
And over a decade later, the Harry Potter book series became the best-selling book series of all-time—over 500 million copies sold worldwide—and Rowling became the world’s first billionaire author.
How did this single mother climb out of poverty and failure to become world’s richest author? And what can we learn from this to effectively deal with failure in life and work?
Rock Bottom As the Solid Foundation For Success
“It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.” — Tyler Durden, Fight Club.
Right from childhood, our culture and society has told us how we should think about success and failure.
As students in high school and college, we’re taught that anything less than the best grades, admission into the best colleges and recruitment by the best companies, is failure.
As employees and entrepreneurs, we’re taught that anything less than a certain high income level, promotions, top performance reviews, a boatload of money for retirement and a profitable business, is failure.
As parents and spouses, we’re taught that anything less than a happy marriage, well-brought-up children, and a large, spacious, beautiful house in the suburbs, is failure.
As a result of these beliefs, we spend the majority of our lives trying to avoid failure at all costs.
But what if failure is the very foundation for the success we strive for?
After J.K. Rowling had “failed on an epic scale” and hit rock bottom, she was left with only two choices to make: either continue to hold unto societies negative beliefs about failure or use failure as a foundation for success.
Rowling chose the latter and later explained that, “rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”
In her 2008 Harvard Commencement Address on the ‘Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination,’ Rowling further explains that:
“Failure was a stripping away of the inessential. 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 me.
Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea.”
Re-framing failure as a foundation for success, gave Rowling the confidence to bounce back and pursue her dreams again, and the freedom to do so without the worry of what other people would think.
Avoid the Pity Party Trap and Take Full Responsibility
“Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility.” — Sigmund Freud
It’s easy to wallow in self-pity, point the finger at other people and avoid taking full responsibility for a failure.
But avoidance of responsibility does not liberate, it enslaves.
True freedom requires taking full responsibility for past, current and future actions. And it is only after doing so, that we are free to change the destiny of our lives and bounce back from failure.
At her lowest point, Rowling woke up every morning with severe depression, and a crippling fear that her two-year-old daughter, whom she loved dearly, would be dead: “It was almost a surprise to me every morning that she was still alive. I kept expecting her to die. It was a bad bad time.” 3
Rowling—like most people in her unfortunate situation—could’ve thrown a pity party after her catastrophic failures, but instead, she chose to take full responsibility for her actions, and rebuild her life from scratch.
Shortly afterwards, despite her poor living conditions, Rowling finished writing the manuscript for the Harry Potter novel, which turned her fortunes around.
Imagine for a second what could’ve happened to Rowling and her two-year-old daughter, if Rowling refused to take full responsibility for her life.
Today, Rowling would still be living off state benefits, still struggling to make ends meet, and an entire generation of children would never have heard of Harry Potter.
Treat Failure Like A Scientist
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
― Thomas A. Edison
In 1995, after Rowling finished her manuscript for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, she began to submit her novel to publishing houses.
The book was submitted to twelve publishing houses. All twelve rejected the manuscript. 4
But these failures didn’t stop Rowling from chasing her dreams. She got back on her feet and kept trying again.
Rowling submitted her novel for the 13th time to Bloomsbury, a publishing house in London. This time however, her novel was accepted and published.
When asked how she stayed motivated to push through the book rejections, Rowling said, “I had nothing to lose and sometimes that makes you brave enough to try.” 5
Just like a scientist, Rowling saw failure as a data point to help guide the next experiment, rather than an indication of her self-worth.
She saw failure as a cost to pay on the path to finding the right answers.
Rowling treated failure like a scientist, and that’s why she kept trying, again and again, until she succeeded.
Let Failure Fuel Your Fire
But it ain’t about how hard ya hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!” ―Sylvester Stallone, Rocky Balboa
The truth is, failure isn’t your enemy to be ‘dealt’ with, it’s your friend and ally, to be embraced and used to fuel every future effort you make.
Whether you’ve failed as a student, parent, spouse, business owner, writer, or athlete, remember that failure doesn’t define who you are, it’s the solid foundation to build your future success upon.
Rowling’s story from rags to riches is a reminder that failure presents an opportunity to freely pursue your goals without inhibition and worry about what others think about you.
Failure is the proof that you are capable of succeeding at whatever it is that you set your eyes on. And in parting words from J.K.Rowling on the benefits of failure:
“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 than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.
The knowledge that you have emerged 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 than any qualification I ever earned.”
- The 8 Most Effective Ways to Get Back on Track After You Messed Up (And Finally Stay There).
- The Physics of Failure: Why We Fail In Life and Work (and What to Do About It)
1. J.K. Rowling Harvard Commencement Speech, ‘The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination.’
2. Rowling on suicidal thoughts, The Independent.
3. J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and Depression, published by HBC Protocols
4. Rowling posts letters of rejections on Twitter.
5. Rowling’s comments on persistence through failure via twitter.