I recently got a chance to start reading the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (yes, I still read young adult fiction!), and it got me interested in knowing more about the author of the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling. Rowling was actually working at Amnesty International when she got the idea for the character of Harry Potter – a young wizard who fights the forces of evil as a young student at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The first manuscript for her novel took seven years to write and was rejected twelve times before being accepted. Six sequels later, and the books have sold more than 500 million copies worldwide.
Rowling often talks about the importance of two paradoxical things – failure and imagination.
While the obvious example of her “failure” is the rejection of the Harry Potter novel, Rowling often discusses reaching rock bottom when she signed up for welfare benefits, describing herself as being "poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless." But it was from this place that she was able to realize her success as well. She notes:
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 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.
For us, failure is what has made our education model, the eSchool 360, what it is today. Each component of the eSchool 360 came from tinkering and trying different methods, until we arrived at a solution that could best deliver a quality education to our 2,300 students. The first time we had students at a computer, we realized that the technology was getting in the way of learning, and moved to a tablet and a projector. When we first started having teacher trainings, we did it every term – until we realized that our teachers need to be together once a month to really form bonds and further their development. When we first started tracking enrollment, we wanted to do everything electronically before the organization was able to handle that amount of data. We learned a lot of lessons in those early days, and continue to learn them today – because of our failures.
On the topic of imagination, Rowling thinks big. Yes, imagination plays a hugely important role in her novels and characters. But more broadly:
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 empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.
Indeed, imagination is truly the birthplace of innovation. The imaginator Thomas Edison invented the first version of the projector we use in our classroom each day (a movie projector!). The imaginators at IBM created the first smart phone (yes – not Apple!) which is a version of the tablet used by our teachers each day to deliver lessons. The imaginator Shiva Ayyadurai invented email – the tool we all use to communicate every single day. Some food for thought!