J.K. Rowling’s new book, Very Good Lives: The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination, hits shelves tomorrow. Transcribed from Rowling’s Harvard commencement speech in 2008, the book offers life advice from the beloved Harry Potter author. But you don’t need a Harvard degree—or a degree at all—to take away some words of wisdom from Rowling’s address.
Check out five of our favorite pieces of advice below.
1. Don’t Romanticize Poverty
Poverty is something that’s present throughout Rowling’s Harry Potter world, whether it’s young Harry’s pre-Hogwarts living conditions or the struggles of keeping the Weasley family clothed and fed under one roof. And while poverty is something that Rowling admits shaped her at an early age, it’s something that young artists, creative types and professionals can’t rely on romantically. “Climbing out of poverty by your own efforts—that is something on which to pride yourself, but poverty itself is romanticized only by fools,” Rowling says.
2. Compromising in Your Pursuits Will Make No One Happy
Rowling details her own pre-graduate degree troubles throughout the speech. When deciding on a college major, her own working class parents were, understandably, hesitant when the bestselling author wanted to study literature and the Classics. However, their compromised option—modern languages—left both feeling cold and uninspired. “They hoped that I would take a vocational degree; I wanted to study English Literature,” Rowling says. “A compromise was reached that in retrospect 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 German and scuttled off down the Classics corridor.”
3. It’s Okay to Fail
One of the biggest criticisms of the millennial generation is the pat-on-the-back culture surrounding pursuits, whether they’re academic, creative or athletic. But like many great creative-types, Rowling looks at failure as one of the greatest gifts a young person can receive. Sure, it’s not fun—but neither is living a safe, boring life. “Indeed, your conception of failure might not be too far removed from the average person’s idea of success, so high have you already flown,” Rowling says, later adding: “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not lived at all—in which case, you fail by default.”
4. Judge Your Own Success
Your parents and peers and professors and mentors all have different definitions of success. To some, it means a comfortable home and a running car. To others, it means spending the moments that fill their lives doing what they love. Rowling emphasizes the importance of defining your own personal success and stick to it. “Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life, though you will meet many people of my age and older who confuse the two.”
5. Never Forget Your Own Imagination
To Rowling, imagination isn’t just a thing we discover between the covers of a book. It’s an essential tool in the human experience—one that makes us better, more empathetic people. “And many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all,” Rowling says. “They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of 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.”
Rowling’s Very Good Lives is scheduled for an April 14 release via Little, Brown and Company. Ten percent of the author’s proceeds from the sales of the book will be donated to university-wide financial aid at Harvard University, and the other 90% will be donated to Lumos, a nonprofit organization founded by Rowling to end the institutionalism of children.