聊聊失败那些事儿

2019.03.27

最近看了一些彭于晏的采访,看他一路的演艺之路以及他的减肥经历,挺励志的。在一个演艺圈各种“假”的氛围下,他能这么“真”已经是清流了。

还看了几个TED的演讲。在这个鸡汤遍地,人人必须成功的浮躁氛围下,不怕失败其实是一个挺难得的品质。正所谓,尽人事,知天命。没有谁是一路顺利到生命最后一天,真要有这么一个人,大概也是机器人。既然如此,如何面对失败,成了一个伴随一生的问题。

求学失败,恋爱失败,创业失败。这一个又一个失败,都有人抗不过去而轻易放弃自己的生命。如果在小时候就做好挫折教育,让不怕失败的精神根深蒂固,而不是老师家长天天鼓吹成功,只关注最优秀的那些小孩,大概就会好了吧。

说到自己,求学之路并没有一路顺利,读的也并不是985/211,甚至都不是一本二本,连三本逆袭的考研之路自己都不愿选择。可我活的痛快,过去做过的事情也从不后悔,读的专业也是自己喜欢的,不管老师教的怎么样,至少自己想办法让自己活的自由些,能学喜欢的东西。这不是一点痛快,是相当痛快。

好在父母给了我一个轻松自由的家庭氛围,不管我做什么事都支持我,甚至我改变自己之前的想法也支持我。和身边的人比起来其实挺幸福的。我并不羡慕那些比我优秀的,我只觉得那些做自己喜欢的事并乐在其中的人闪闪发光。三百六十行,我觉得都是平等的,没有高低贵贱之分,现在可能互联网行业热门一些,工资高些,我也没有觉得自己就有多高贵。只想一颗平常心,一辈子能做自己喜欢的事,即使以后这一行不那么流行也会坚持下去。

最后放一篇今天看到的JK罗琳在哈佛的演讲吧:

致Faust校长,哈佛集团以及哈佛监事委员会的各位成员,各位教职员工,众多自豪的家长,以及最为重要的——各位毕业生们:

我想要说的第一句话是“谢谢你们”。这份感谢不仅来自于哈佛赋予我如此非同寻常的荣誉,更是由于几个星期以来每当我想到今天的致词就会觉得头晕恶心,因而终于成功的减肥了。这就是“双赢”啊!现在,我只需要深呼吸几次,瞄几眼红色的横幅,然后装模作样的让自己相信,我正身处世界上受过最好教育的哈里波特迷的盛大集会之中。

在毕业典礼上致词意味着极大的责任——我这样想着,直到我开始回想我自己的毕业典礼。那天致词的是著名的英国哲学家 Baroness Mary Warnock。对于她的演讲的回忆也极大地帮助了我完成现在这份,因为,我完全想不起来她说了什么。这个具有解放意义的重大发现让我无所畏惧的写下自己的致词,因为我再也不必担心会在不经意间对你们造成影响,以至于让你们为了成为一个快乐巫师的虚幻憧憬,就放弃自己在商业、法律界或政界的远大前程。

看到了吧?就算若干年后你们对我的演讲的印象只剩下这个“快乐的巫师”的笑话,那我还是领先了Baroness Mary Warnock一步的。能够达成的目标是自我改善的第一步。

事实上,为了确定今天应该对你们说些什么,我真是绞尽了脑汁。我问自己,在我自己的毕业典礼上,我曾期待知道什么?而自那天开始到现在的21年间,我又学到了那些教训?

我想到了两个答案。在今天这个美妙的时刻,当我们齐聚一堂庆祝你们取得学业成功的时候,我决定跟你们谈谈失败带来的好处。另外,在你们正要一脚踏入所谓“真实的生活”的时候,我还要高声赞颂想象力的重大意义。

这些决定看起来颇为荒诞而矛盾,但是啊,请听我慢慢道来。

对于一个已经42岁的妇人来说,回顾21岁毕业典礼的时刻并不是一件十分舒服的事情。在前半生中我一直奋力挣扎,为了在自己的雄心壮志与亲人对我的期盼之间取得一个平衡。

我自己认定今生唯一想做的事情就是写小说。然而,我的出身贫寒、从未受过大学教育的父母却认为,我那过于活跃的想象力只不过是个人的怪癖而已,永远也不能帮我偿还贷款,也不能帮我弄到养老金。

他们希望我取得一个职业技能学位;而我却向往在英国文学方面深造。最后我们互有妥协并达成一致,让我去学习现代语言;而事后想来,这份妥协其实没有让任何一方满意。于是,没等父母的车绕过路尽头的拐角从视野里消失,我就丢下了德语,转而沿着古典文学的道路快步走下去。

我记不得是否有告诉父母我其实在学习古典文学;他们也可能在出席毕业典礼的时候终于觉察了事实真相。在地球上所有的学科当中,当涉及到“获得使用正式员工专用洗手间的权利”的时候,我估计他们很难想到比希腊神话更没用的学科了。

顺便提一句,我必须声明自己并没有为父母的观点而责怪他们的意思。你不能总是责怪父母指错了方向;当你长大成人、可以独立掌舵的时候,这份责任就应该由你独立承担了。况且,父母希望我永远都不要经受贫穷,而我不能谴责这一期望。他们自己饱受贫寒之苦,而我也曾经是个穷人,我十分赞同他们的想法——贫穷决不是什么高贵的经历。伴随贫穷而来的是恐惧和紧张,有时还会陷入忧伤沮丧之中;这些都意味着无尽的卑微和艰难。凭借自己的力量挣脱贫困境地,这的确是值得自豪的事情,但是只有愚蠢的人才会一厢情愿的为贫穷本身涂抹浪漫的色彩。

当我像你们这么大的时候,我最害怕的甚至还不是贫穷,而是失败。

当我像你们这么大的时候,我对大学里的课程没什么动力,总是在咖啡馆里花上大把的时间写小说,而用于听课的时间则寥寥无几。尽管如此,我却有些让自己能通过考试的窍门;而考试,在若干年中,就成了衡量我和我同龄人的成败的标准。

我不会笨到认为你们这些年轻、有天赋、受过良好教育的孩子就从来不知道困难和心碎的滋味。天赋和智力并不能让人免受命运的捉弄;我也从不认为在这里的所有人都享有不可破坏的特权与满足。

然而,毕业于哈佛大学这一事实暗示着你们并不十分熟悉失败。驱动你们前行的对于失败的恐惧可能更为接近对于成功的渴望。事实上,你们心目中的失败很可能与普通人设想的成功相差无几,毕竟你们在学业上的成功已经高到遥不可及。

最终,我们都要按自己的想法给失败下一个定义;但是如果你允许的话,这个世界会迫不及待的为你设定一套标准。因此我觉得,不管按照什么惯行标准,仅仅在毕业七年之后,我都确确实实的失败了,而且败得彻彻底底。我那罕见的短暂婚姻走到了尽头,自己又失业了。一个单身母亲,沦落到当代英国最为贫困的境地,只不过还没到无家可归的程度而已。我父母害怕发生在我身上的事情,我害怕发生在自己身上的事情,都降临了。无论按照什么标准来看,我都是我所知道的最大的失败。

现在,我站在这里,告诉你们失败可是件一点也不好玩的事情。那个时候我的人生被黑暗笼罩,根本想不到在未来的时光里这段经历竟会被报道为神话般的坚定意志。那时候我不知道黑暗的隧道何时才是尽头,而尽头的任何光亮都像是渺茫的希望而非稳固的现实。

为什么我还要谈起失败的好处呢?简单的说,是因为失败会为我们揭去表面那些无关紧要的东西。我不再装模作样,终于重新做回自己,开始将所有的精力投入到自己在意的唯一作品。如果我此前在其它的任何什么方面有所成功,我恐怕都会失去在自己真正归属的舞台上获得成功的决心。我最大的恐惧终于成为现实,而我却因此获得了自由,我还活着,还有我深爱的女儿,我还有一架老式打字机和一个宏大的梦想。这片顽固的低谷成为我脚下坚定的基石,在此之上,我重筑了自己的人生。

你们也许不会像我摔得这样惨,但是人生路上总会有些失败。你也许可以毫无失败的度过一生,但你将活得如此小心翼翼,就好像你几乎没有活过——不管从什么意义上讲,你都注定要失败的。

失败赋予我内心的安全感,而这是考试及格也不能让我感受到的。失败让我明白关于自己的一些东西,这是除了失败以外我决不可能获得的认知。我意识到自己拥有坚强的意志,而且比我以前设想的还要自律;我还发现我拥有的朋友们是如此宝贵,其价值连宝石也不能媲美。

你在挫折中成长,更聪明,更强壮,这意味着从此以后你已拥有了牢不可催的生存能力。直到通过逆境的考验,你才会真正了解自己,以及你周围的人赋予你的力量。这些认知都是宝贵的财富,我历经艰辛才获得的财富,这比我得到的任何资格证书都更有价值。

如果能够让时光倒流,我会告诉21岁的自己,幸福在于懂得人生不是收获和成就的清单。你的资格证书或你的简历,并不是你的生活;尽管你将遇到很多我这样年纪、甚至比我更老的人,他们却还分不清楚两者间的区别。生活是严酷的,也是复杂的,更不处于任何人的掌控;谦逊的懂得并接受这一点,会帮助安然你度过生活中的风浪。

也许你们会以为,我之所以选择第二个主题——想象力的重要性,是因为想象力在我重筑人生时发挥了巨大作用。但这并不是全部的原因。我固然到死也会捍卫睡前故事的价值,但我还认识到要在更为广阔的范围内珍视想象力。想象力是人类独有的预见未知的能力,它还是所有发明创造的源泉。它具有已被证实的最富变革性和启示性的力量,而正是想象力让我们能够切身体会他人的经验——虽然我们自己并未身临其境。

对我影响最为深远的经历发生在哈里波特之前,而这一经历为我后来完成著作提供了很多信息。我在最早的全日制工作中获得了启示。在二十几岁的时候,我在位于伦敦的国际特赦组织总部的研究部门工作,以获得付房租的钱,而午餐的时候我就溜掉去写小说。

在那里,我坐在小小的办公室里阅读来自集权统治下的地区的信件。男人和女人们急切的写下潦草的文字,将信偷偷寄出来,冒着坐牢的风险告诉外界自己遭受了怎样的对待。我看到那些无声无息地失踪了的人的照片,是由他们的绝望的亲人和朋友寄到特赦组织来的。我读着被严刑拷打的受害人的证词,看着记录他们的惨状的照片。我打开手写的亲眼见证的记录,记载着对于绑架和强奸案件的简单审讯和执行。

我的很多同事以前都是政治犯。他们被迫离开家庭或流亡国外,因为他们有勇气以独立意志评判他们的政府。我们的办公室的访客有些是来提供信息的,也有人前来了解他们被迫放弃的同伴的情况。

我永远也无法忘记一个来自非洲的经受严刑拷打的受害者。他是个年轻人,不会比那时的我年纪更大,在自己的祖国遭受的一切已经使他有些精神失常。对着摄影机讲述自己遭受的痛苦的时候,他无法抑制的战栗着。他比我高一英尺,看上去却像孩子一样脆弱无助。随后,在我按照吩咐护送他去地铁的路上,这个人生已被残暴摧毁的男人却优雅有礼的拉着我的手,祝我未来幸福快乐。

在我有生之年,我都会记得自己走过一条空旷的走廊的时候,从身后一扇紧闭的门内传出的尖叫。其中包含的痛苦和恐惧是如此强烈,我以后再没听过那样的声音。门打开了,一个工作人员探出头,告诉我赶快跑去,给坐在她身边的青年男子拿一杯热饮。她刚刚告诉那位年青人,由于他本人公开反对自己国家的专制,他的母亲已被抓走并处决了。

在我二十几岁的时候,工作中的每一天,我都不断被提醒着自己是多么的幸运,能够生活在一个民选政府管理的国家,人人都享有法律代理和公开审判的权利。

每天我都看见更多的人类的邪恶加诸于同胞的证据,这样的罪恶仅仅是为了获得或者维持权力。我开始做恶梦,彻头彻尾的恶梦,梦到那些我看到、听到和读到的事情。

然而,在国际特赦组织里我还了解了很多关于人类的好的一面,有些是我从不知道的。

国际特赦组织调动了几千人,他们从未因自己的信念而被折磨或监禁,他们代表那些饱受折磨的人并为之行事。人类的同情心的力量引导了集体行动,拯救生命,释放被关押的人们。那些个人幸福和安全已经得到保证的普通人,为了拯救他们并不认识、甚至再也不会见面的陌生人而集结起来,汇聚成强大的群体。我个人在其中的参与,是我今生最为卑微、却最为振奋的经历。

人类与地球上的其它生物不同。就算没有亲身经历,人类也可以学习和理解。人类可以将自己代入别人的思想之中,设想自己处于他人的境地。

当然,这也是力量,就好像我的小说中的魔法。这是在道德上中立的力量,可以被用于操纵和控制,也可以被用于理解和同情。

还有很多人宁愿不去使用他们的想象力。他们选择舒舒服服的呆在自己的经历之内,从不费事去想象如果他们生下来是别的人,那一切将会怎样。他们可以拒绝倾听叫喊声,也不会窥视笼子内的情况;对于任何没有降临到自身的痛苦,他们都可以关闭自己的头脑和心灵;他们可以拒绝知道。

也许我禁不住会想要嫉妒这样生活的人,只可惜我不相信他们做的恶梦会比我少。选择生活在狭窄的范围里,会导致某种精神上的对于陌生环境的恐惧症,并由此产生相应的害怕心理。我认为那些自己决定不去想象的人会看到更多的怪物。他们通常会更害怕。

另外,选择不去同情的人会养育现实中的怪物。就算我们自己没有亲自作出邪恶的事情,我们对于邪恶的无动于衷就等同于和它同谋。

十八岁时,为了寻找那时我无法描述的目的,我踏上了古典文学的探险道路;当走到尽头的时候,我学到了很多东西,其中之一就是希腊作家Plutarch的这句话:我们在内心的所得,将改变外界的现实。

这句惊人的宣言却每天都被我们的生活证实无数次。在某种程度上,它表达了我们与外面世界的无法逃避的联系;它道出这样一个事实,仅仅是我们自身的存在,就已经触碰到了他人的生活。

但是,哈佛大学2008届的毕业生们,你们又将对他人的生活深入多少呢?你们的智慧、你们应对高难度工作的才能、你们谋求并接受到的教育,都赋予你们

独一无二的身份,以及独一无二的责任。即使你们的国籍将你们区隔开来。你们中的大多数,属于这个世界目前仅存的超级大国。你们投票的方式,你们生活的方式,你们抗议的方式,你们对于政府施加的压力,其影响都会远远超出你们自身的界限。那就是你们的特权,也是你们背负的重任。

如果你选择了,用你的身份和影响力来提高你的声音,为那些没有声音的人呐喊;如果你选择了,不仅认同权势群体,更要与弱势群体为伍;如果你保留了想象的能力,能够与不具备你的优势的那些人感同身受。那么,不仅仅是你的家人会为你自豪,更有成千上万的、因为你而生活得更好的人会为你欢呼。我们并不需要魔法来改造世界。我们在内心深处已经拥有了所需的所有力量:我们拥有想象更好的世界的力量。

我的话快要说完了。最后,我对你们还有一个期望,在我21岁的时候我就怀有这个期望。在毕业典礼上与我坐在一起的朋友们,后来成了我一生的朋友。他们是我的孩子们的教父和教母。他们是我陷入困境时可以寻求帮助的人。他们是如此宽容的朋友,就连名字被我用来命名食死徒的时候也没有起诉我。在毕业典礼上,我们被心中澎湃的激情紧密联结,被共同分享的宝贵时光紧密联结,当然,也被某个共识紧密联结——如果我们中的某人有朝一日当选为英国首相,那我们持有的合影照片肯定会价值不菲。

因此,今天,我能够送给你们的最好的祝福,就是这样的友谊。明天,我希望就算你记不起我说过的任何一个字,你还是能够想起Seneca说过的话。那时我已远离职业生涯的阶梯,转而寻找古代的智慧。我在沿着古典文学的走廊飞奔时遇到了这个古罗马的家伙。

他说:

人生就像故事,不在于漫长,而在于精彩。

我祝你们所有人一生幸福。

非常感谢。

英语版本:

The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination

Harvard University Commencement Address

J.K. Rowling

Copyright June 2008

As prepared for delivery

President Faust, members of the Harvard Corporation and the Board of Overseers, members of the faculty, proud parents, and, above all, graduates,

The first thing I would like to say is ‘thank you.’ Not only has Harvard given me an extraordinary honour, but the weeks of fear and nausea I’ve experienced at the thought of giving this commencement address have made me lose weight. A win-win situation! Now all I have to do is take deep breaths, squint at the red banners and fool myself into believing I am at the world’s best-educated Harry Potter convention.

Delivering a commencement address is a great responsibility; or so I thought until I cast my mind back to my own graduation. The commencement speaker that day was the distinguished British philosopher Baroness Mary Warnock. Reflecting on her speech has helped me enormously in writing this one, because it turns out that I can’t remember a single word she said. This liberating discovery enables me to proceed without any fear that I might inadvertently influence you to abandon promising careers in business, law or politics for the giddy delights of becoming a gay wizard.

You see? If all you remember in years to come is the ‘gay wizard’ joke, I’ve still come out ahead of Baroness Mary Warnock. Achievable goals: the first step towards personal improvement.

Actually, I have wracked my mind and heart for what I ought to say to you today. I have asked myself what I wish I had known at my own graduation, and what important lessons I have learned in the 21 years that has expired between that day and this.

I have come up with two answers. On this wonderful day when we are gathered together to celebrate your academic success, I have decided to talk to you about the benefits of failure. And as you stand on the threshold of what is sometimes called ‘real life’, I want to extol the crucial importance of imagination.

These might seem quixotic or paradoxical choices, but please bear with me.

Looking back at the 21-year-old that I was at graduation, is a slightly uncomfortable experience for the 42-year-old that she has become. Half my lifetime ago, I was striking an uneasy balance between the ambition I had for myself, and what those closest to me expected of me.

I was convinced that the only thing I wanted to do, ever, was to write novels. However, my parents, both of whom came from impoverished backgrounds and neither of whom had been to college, took the view that my overactive imagination was an amusing personal quirk that could never pay a mortgage, or secure a pension.

They had hoped that I would take a vocational degree; I wanted to study English Literature. 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.

I cannot remember telling my parents that I was studying Classics; they might well have found out for the first time on graduation day. Of all subjects on this planet, I think they would have been hard put to name one less useful than Greek mythology when it came to securing the keys to an executive bathroom.

I would like to make it clear, in parenthesis, that I do not blame my parents for their point of view. There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you. What is more, I cannot criticise my parents for hoping that I would never experience poverty. They had been poor themselves, and I have since been poor, and I quite agree with them that it is not an ennobling experience. Poverty entails fear, and stress, and sometimes depression; it means a thousand petty humiliations and hardships. Climbing out of poverty by your own efforts, that is indeed something on which to pride yourself, but poverty itself is romanticised only by fools.

What I feared most for myself at your age was not poverty, but failure.

At your age, in spite of a distinct lack of motivation at university, where I had spent far too long in the coffee bar writing stories, and far too little time at lectures, I had a knack for passing examinations, and that, for years, had been the measure of success in my life and that of my peers.

I am not dull enough to suppose that because you are young, gifted and well-educated, you have never known hardship or heartbreak. Talent and intelligence never yet inoculated anyone against the caprice of the Fates, and I do not for a moment suppose that everyone here has enjoyed an existence of unruffled privilege and contentment.

However, the fact that you are graduating from Harvard suggests that you are not very well-acquainted with failure. You might be driven by a fear of failure quite as much as a desire for success. Indeed, your conception of failure might not be too far from the average person’s idea of success, so high have you already flown academically.

Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. So I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, 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. The fears 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.

Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.

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. 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 already been realised, 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 had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above 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 to me than any qualification I ever earned.

Given a time machine or a Time Turner, I would tell my 21-year-old self that personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life, though you will meet many people of my age and older who confuse the two. Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.

You might think that I chose my second theme, the importance of imagination, because of the part it played in rebuilding my life, but that is not wholly so. Though I will defend the value of bedtime stories to my last gasp, I have learned to value imagination in a much broader sense. Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared.

One of the greatest formative experiences of my life preceded Harry Potter, though it informed much of what I subsequently wrote in those books. This revelation came in the form of one of my earliest day jobs. Though I was sloping off to write stories during my lunch hours, I paid the rent in my early 20s by working in the research department at Amnesty International’s headquarters in London.

There in my little office I read hastily scribbled letters smuggled out of totalitarian regimes by men and women who were risking imprisonment to inform the outside world of what was happening to them. I saw photographs of those who had disappeared without trace, sent to Amnesty by their desperate families and friends. I read the testimony of torture victims and saw pictures of their injuries. I opened handwritten, eye-witness accounts of summary trials and executions, of kidnappings and rapes.

Many of my co-workers were ex-political prisoners, people who had been displaced from their homes, or fled into exile, because they had the temerity to think independently of their government. Visitors to our office included those who had come to give information, or to try and find out what had happened to those they had been forced to leave behind.

I shall never forget the African torture victim, a young man no older than I was at the time, who had become mentally ill after all he had endured in his homeland. He trembled uncontrollably as he spoke into a video camera about the brutality inflicted upon him. He was a foot taller than I was, and seemed as fragile as a child. I was given the job of escorting him to the Underground Station afterwards, and this man whose life had been shattered by cruelty took my hand with exquisite courtesy, and wished me future happiness.

And as long as I live I shall remember walking along an empty corridor and suddenly hearing, from behind a closed door, a scream of pain and horror such as I have never heard since. The door opened, and the researcher poked out her head and told me to run and make a hot drink for the young man sitting with her. She had just given him the news that in retaliation for his own outspokenness against his country’s regime, his mother had been seized and executed.

Every day of my working week in my early 20s I was reminded how incredibly fortunate I was, to live in a country with a democratically elected government, where legal representation and a public trial were the rights of everyone.

Every day, I saw more evidence about the evils humankind will inflict on their fellow humans, to gain or maintain power. I began to have nightmares, literal nightmares, about some of the things I saw, heard and read.

And yet I also learned more about human goodness at Amnesty International than I had ever known before.

Amnesty mobilises thousands of people who have never been tortured or imprisoned for their beliefs to act on behalf of those who have. The power of human empathy, leading to collective action, saves lives, and frees prisoners. Ordinary people, whose personal well-being and security are assured, join together in huge numbers to save people they do not know, and will never meet. My small participation in that process was one of the most humbling and inspiring experiences of my life.

Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s minds, imagine themselves into other people’s places.

Of course, this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate, or control, just as much as to understand or sympathise.

And many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. 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.

I might be tempted to envy people who can live that way, except that I do not think they have any fewer nightmares than I do. Choosing to live in narrow spaces can lead to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that brings its own terrors. I think the wilfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid.

What is more, those who choose not to empathise may enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy.

One of the many things I learned at the end of that Classics corridor down which I ventured at the age of 18, in search of something I could not then define, was this, written by the Greek author Plutarch: What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.

That is an astonishing statement and yet proven a thousand times every day of our lives. It expresses, in part, our inescapable connection with the outside world, the fact that we touch other people’s lives simply by existing.

But how much more are you, Harvard graduates of 2008, likely to touch other people’s lives? Your intelligence, your capacity for hard work, the education you have earned and received, give you unique status, and unique responsibilities. Even your nationality sets you apart. The great majority of you belong to the world’s only remaining superpower. The way you vote, the way you live, the way you protest, the pressure you bring to bear on your government, has an impact way beyond your borders. That is your privilege, and your burden.

If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped transform for the better. We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.

I am nearly finished. I have one last hope for you, which is something that I already had at 21. The friends with whom I sat on graduation day have been my friends for life. They are my children’s godparents, the people to whom I’ve been able to turn in times of trouble, friends who have been kind enough not to sue me when I’ve used their names for Death Eaters. At our graduation we were bound by enormous affection, by our shared experience of a time that could never come again, and, of course, by the knowledge that we held certain photographic evidence that would be exceptionally valuable if any of us ran for Prime Minister.

So today, I can wish you nothing better than similar friendships. And tomorrow, I hope that even if you remember not a single word of mine, you remember those of Seneca, another of those old Romans I met when I fled down the Classics corridor, in retreat from career ladders, in search of ancient wisdom:

As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.

I wish you all very good lives.

Thank you very much.