What "Harry Potter" Taught Me About Failure
At 35 years old I finally began reading the Harry Potter series. Despite my love of books, I always assumed a children’s book was beneath me. What significance could a fictional book about a boy wizard bring to my mid-thirties, married-with-a-baby-life?
Plenty, it turns out.
At 35 I feel like I haven’t achieved all that I should have at this point in my life. I should have a bigger house. I should be making more money. I should have more money in my savings and retirement accounts. I struggle with my career, frequently wondering if I’m happy, second-guessing my career choice, wondering what would have happened had I kept working at this or that company, or if working outside of the home at all is even realistic as the mom of an infant.
JK Rowling was creating the Harry Potter universe while her mother was dying. She was a college educated, divorced, single mom, on the verge of homelessness while living on England’s version of welfare and taking care of her sick mom. She is quoted as feeling like a failure. I can only imagine that she must have been sitting on trains or in coffee shops (the only place her daughter would sleep), also feeling like she should be more, do more, wondering if she made the right choices for her and her daughter, questioning the direction of her life, yet feeling stuck by her circumstances.
Rowling poured her self doubt, despair, worry, and fear into the story of “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.” Harry Potter the boy starts off as an outcast who is treated badly by his aunt and uncle after his parents die; he is an “utter and complete” failure who brings shame and embarrassment to his family. But even though Harry appears normal to the naked eye of Muggles (Rowling’s name for mere mortals), non-Muggles know he’s a legend, destined to be the greatest wizard that ever lived. No matter how flawed and human Harry may look, those who are extraordinary can see that he is extraordinary too.
And Harry’s wizardry and ability to cast spells is about more than giving him a predisposition that would be intriguing for children. During an interview with Oprah, Rowling once said, “I’m not saying I believe that magic is real - I don’t. But that’s the perennial appeal of magic - the idea that we ourselves have power and we can shape our world.” On the surface, Harry’s ability to perform magic is a whimsical way for young readers to vicariously empathize with the ability to have your wishes granted. But really, it’s a way to explain that we are all born with the capacity to change our circumstances. We’re never really as stuck as we feel we are sometimes.
“Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” is about how we can harness that power once we discover we have it. At the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Harry meets other students who handle their powers in different ways. There is Hermoine Granger, a serious, seemingly confident, student who excels at everything she does but also longs for companionship and camaraderie. Ron Weasley comes from a long line of wizards, but this lack of uniqueness and family financial hardships make it difficult for him to receive the recognition he feels he deserves. How many Hermoines do we all know who are so afraid of failure, they decide to be perfectionists who are too in control to find the humor in life or successfully ride the waves of uncertainty? (By the way, I am most definitely a Hermoine). Or what about the Rons, who are born knowing they’re special - but also come from a long line of “special” - and seek out ways to direct their lives in a (positive or negative) manner that makes them stand out?
As alone as I feel in my self-doubt sometimes and in judging myself for not being “better” or “more,” “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” reminds me that really all of us are struggling to figure out how and where to direct our lives. Some of us are Harrys, just now learning that we’re more powerful than we really are. Or some of us know we’re powerful, but we’re trying to figure out where to direct that power to bring individual success. Even those of us who appear knowledgeable and confident in our power, are so afraid of failure that we’re actually not in control at all. Instead, we’re controlled by the rules/pressure/standards/expectations of others that we’re imposing on ourselves.
During the previously mentioned Oprah interview, Rowling said that the best part of her success is the “freedom from worry.” I want to not worry. I want to feel secure in knowing that I’m on the right path, and that even if I’m not, my family and I will be ok. But like Harry, it’s important to find people who think you’re extraordinary, even when we can’t see it ourselves. And we have the power to recreate our lives to extraordinary results.