Read Very Good Lives: The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination Page 1

  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 extraordi-

  nary honor, but the weeks of

  fear and nausea I have endured

  at the thought of giving this com-

  mencement address have made

  me lose weight. A win-win sit-

  uation! Now all I have to do is

  take deep breaths, squint at the

  red banners, and convince myself

  that I am at the world’s largest

  Gryffindor reunion.

  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, the 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 come out ahead of Baro-

  ness Mary Warnock. Achievable

  goals: the first step to self-


  Actually, I have racked 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 twenty-one years that have

  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 may seem quixotic or paradox-

  ical choices, but please bear with me.

  Looking back at the twenty-one-year-

  old that I was at graduation is a slightly

  uncomfortable experience for the forty-

  two-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 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 would

  never pay a mortgage or secure a

  pension. I know that the irony strikes

  with the force of a cartoon anvil


  So they 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 the 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


  I would like to make it clear,

  in parenthesis, that I do not

  blame my parents for their

  point of view. There is an

  expiration 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 criticize 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 humil-

  iations and hardships. Climb-

  ing out of poverty by your

  own efforts—that is something

  on which to pride yourself,

  but poverty itself is roman-

  ticized 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, gift-

  ed, and well-educated, you have

  never known hardship or heartache.

  Talent and intelligence never yet

  inoculated anyone against the ca-

  price of the Fates, and I do not for

  a moment suppose that everyone

  here has enjoyed an existence of un-

  ruffled 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 removed from the average

  person’s idea of success, so high

  have you already flown.

  I was the