Overcoming the Odds: J.K. Rowling

Overcoming the Odds: J.K. Rowling

Over the past few months, we’ve been sharing articles about different people who achieved their goals despite facing enormous odds.  This article is about:

Overcoming the Odds: J.K. Rowling

It may seem odd to feature one of the most famous, and wealthiest, authors in the world.  But Joanne Rowling, as she is formally known, is actually the perfect example of what these articles are all about: how anyone can be successful, regardless of their background, upbringing, or circumstances.

As you undoubtedly know, Rowling is the author of the Harry Potter novels.  What is less well known is how similar both creator and character are.  If you’ve never read the books, the story starts with an orphaned Harry living inside a cupboard under the stairs in the home of his less-than-affectionate aunt and uncle.  Rowling, meanwhile, grew up with a mother suffering from multiple sclerosis, and a father with whom she was not on speaking terms.

In the books, Harry eventually learns he is a wizard, and travels to a magical school called Hogwarts—a place very strange and unfamiliar, and where he doesn’t always fit in.  As a young woman, Rowling also traveled to a strange and unfamiliar place.  Needing a job, she moved to Portugal to teach English.  Here she met her first husband, but it was not a happy marriage.

After the birth of her daughter, Rowling separated from her husband and moved to Scotland.  It was a brutal time, for several reasons.  First, her mother had passed away from multiple sclerosis.  Second, she was forced to file a restraining order against her husband.  And third, she now had a child to provide for, but no job or prospects for a career.  She even suffered from clinical depression, and at one point considered suicide.1  But it was then that Rowling made an important discovery—about herself, and about life.  Here’s how she explained it:2

I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, I had failed on an epic scale.  An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain without being homeless.  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.  So why do I talk about the benefits of failure?  Simply because failure meant 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.  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.  And so, rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

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.  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 than I suspected.

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.

The “one work that mattered” was a novel called Harry Potter.  For years, Rowling had dabbled away at it, often writing in cafes where it was easier to get her daughter to fall asleep.  Then, having come to her realization about failure, she resolved to finish, and did so in 1995 while at the keys of an old typewriter.

Her challenges weren’t over yet, of course.  It’s almost impossible to become a true “overnight success,” and Rowling was no exception.  It’s incredible to think now, but her book was rejected twelve times by twelve different publishers.  She was told, probably more than once, to “get a day job,” because she had little chance of making money off her dreams.

Permit yourself a chuckle here, because you know what comes next.

Today, Rowling is the author of the best-selling book series in history.  She is known the world over.  And it wasn’t because she was born wealthy, or because she “knew the right people.”  It wasn’t because she got lucky.  It’s because she realized that failure actually made her stronger.  It’s because she was dedicated and disciplined.

If there’s one takeaway from these articles, it’s this: anyone can become what they want to become.  Anyone can overcome the odds.  All it takes is passion for your goal.  That passion, in turn, creates dedication.  That dedication, in turn, leads to discipline and hard work.

Armed with those tools, we can always overcome the odds.

Whatever your goals in life, we wish you the best of luck in overcoming your own odds.  Just remember: never be afraid of failure.  Never stop loving whatever it is you do.  Above all, never stop dreaming.  Never stop doing.

1 “Harry Potter author: I considered suicide,” CNN.com, March 23, 2008. http://edition.cnn.com/2008/SHOWBIZ/03/23/rowling.depressed/index.html

2 “Text of J.K. Rowling’s speech,” Harvard Gazette, June 5, 2008.  http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2008/06/text-of-j-k-rowling-speech/

in: News, Weekly Wire