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Very Good Lives Summary

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Very Good Lives PDF Summary

The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination

Very Good Lives is an illustrated and somewhat edited version of J. K. Rowling’s 2008 commencement speech at Harvard University.

And it’s profoundly moving, funny, and inspirational!

Read ahead to find out how in our summary.

Who Should Read “Very Good Lives”? And Why?

If you like inspirational commencement speeches such as David Foster Wallace’s This Is Water, then you’ll more than enjoy Very Good Lives.

The same holds true if you watch TED Talks to find meaning and direction in life; speaking of which, you can find large portions of this book in J. K. Rowling’s TED Talk, “The Fringe Benefits of Failure.”

About J. K. Rowling

J. K. Rowling is a British novelist, one of the bestselling authors in history.

She is best-known for her Harry Potter books, which have sold almost half a billion copies worldwide (that is not a mistake) and have been translated into no less than 80 languages.

Unsurprisingly, all of them have been turned into blockbuster movies, the last two of which were produced by Rowling herself.

Since completing the Harry Potter saga, Rowling has written five books for adult readers: The Casual Vacancy, The Cuckoo’s Calling, The Silkworm, Career of Evil, and Lethal White. The last four have been published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, and form the Cormoran Strike series.

J. K. Rowling has received an OBE for services to children’s literature and supports many charities.

“Very Good Lives PDF Summary”

Very Good Lives is the book version of J. K. Rowling’s Harvard commencement speech, sharing her wisdom and knowledge on, mainly, two topics: “the benefits of failure” and “the crucial importance of imagination.”  

J. K. Rowling’s Youth and the Realities of Poverty

“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,” says Rowling at the beginning of this book.


Because, as almost everybody knows, the 21-year-old J. K. Rowling was not at the right place in her life. And that is an understatement: as she says, by any conventional measure, she was an epic failure!

Now, how did that happen?

Difficult to say.

She was always interested in writing, but, since she came from a poor family, this was a career her parents hadn’t encouraged one bit, thinking that writing would never pay a mortgage or secure a pension. (“I know that the irony strikes with the force of a cartoon anvil now,” Rowling notes jokingly)

So, they didn’t allow Rowling to study English Literature, and, as a compromise to them, she chose Modern Languages. But, as she says, even before her parents’ car had rounded the corner at the end of the road, Rowling decided to “[ditch] German and [scuttle] off down the Classics corridor.”

Basically, this means that the compromise resulted in the worst decision imaginable (in the eyes of Rowling’s parents): choosing a subject even less useful than English Literature.

It didn’t matter that Rowling was a good student; simply put, nobody needed anyone to tell him the names of the Greek gods and nymphs.

Fast forward a few years and…

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 that 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.

The Rock Bottom and The Benefits of Failure

Now, it is important to note that Rowling doesn’t blame her parents for trying to steer her in a different direction.

Poverty is not an ennobling experience, she says, and since her parents had been poor for most of their lives, they knew full well the realities of poverty.

“Poverty entails fear,” Rowling goes on, “and stress, and sometimes depression; it means a thousand petty humiliations and hardships.”

Only fools would ever want to romanticize it.

However, even at her poorest, what Rowling feared the most wasn’t poverty, but failure. And then she realized that her epic failure – even though no fun by any measure – was the greatest thing that could ever happen to her.


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.

Failure gave Rowling “inner security” that she never attained before by passing examinations. It taught her things about herself that she could have learned no other way.

Among other things, Rowling discovered that she had “a strong will, and more discipline than [she] had suspected;” even more importantly, she also discovered that she had “friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.”

Amnesty International and the Crucial Importance of Imagination

Looking back, Rowling realizes that her failures were great formative experiences; and the same holds true for one of her earliest day jobs as well.

Namely, in her 20s, Rowling worked as a bilingual secretary and researcher at the African research department at Amnesty International’s headquarters in London.

There, she worked with many ex-political prisoners, “people who had been displaced from their homes, or fled into exile, because they had the temerity to speak against their governments.”

And those were her co-workers!

What her job entailed was even worse:

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.

Why is this important?

Because Rowling had never experienced anything even remotely similar to this and, yet, she was able to empathize.


Rousseau answered that question centuries ago: because of the power of the human imagination.

“Unlike any other creature on this planet,” Rowling reminds us, “humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s places.”

And that is an enormous power!

True, it can also sometimes be a burden, since, no matter how happy your life may seem to be, you can still suffer profoundly because of the pain people you don’t know are going through.

Even so, Rowling doesn’t envy the people who never employ their imaginative powers. They suffer from mental agoraphobia, she says; and they are often more afraid.

Ancient Quotes for the Modern Students

J. K. Rowling ends her speech by quoting two ancient authors and reminding the modern students how relevant their words still are.

The first is Plutarch, a Greek biographer and Platonist, who once wrote that “what we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.”

“This is an astonishing statement,” notes Rowling, “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.”


Well, first, you should remember that Very Good Lives is a book version of a commencement speech for the 2008 Harvard graduates.

And as Rowling explains to them, what Plutarch was trying to point out two millennia ago, was relatively simple.

Namely, being a Harvard graduate isn’t such a minor thing.

First of all, it means that you’re an American, citizen of the only remaining superpower in the world.

Secondly, it means that you’re either very wealthy or very smart – not everyone can afford to be a Harvard graduate or be awarded a Harvard scholarship.

And thirdly, it means that you’ve gotten the very best education an institution can offer.

So, in other words, some of the Harvard graduates of 2008 who listen to J. K. Rowling’s speech may one day become the people who decide whether the US should bomb another nation or help the refugees from a different one.

If Rowling’s speech touches them, they may make a more humane decision, and, thus, help the world in an exceptional way; and the reason for that: a single speech which changed them inwardly.

Rowling ends her speech with another quote, this one by Seneca: “As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.”

Key Lessons from “Very Good Lives”

1.      Your CV Doesn’t Define You
2.      Failure Strips Away the Inessential
3.      Imagination Is the Root of Empathy

Your CV Doesn’t Define You

“Given a Time Turner,” writes J. K. Rowling, “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.”

And she goes on: “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.”

And this comes from someone who was as poor as one can be without being homeless; and became the author of the bestselling book series in the history of mankind.

Failure Strips Away the Inessential

Failure is not a nice thing; however, it does have some benefits.

J. K. Rowling found out this the hard way: at the age of 30, she was a divorced mother of a three-year-old daughter with no job or money; and her mother had recently passed away; the future seemed more than bleak; she was, in her own words, an epic failure.

However, that’s where things started getting better.

Not because something magical happened, but because, simply put, nothing magical could have happened.

Bob Dylan sang that “when you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose” – and that’s the place J. K. Rowling was before Harry Potter made her so famous.

But, she says, she could only write it because her failures revealed to her that nothing else mattered. The worst had happened, and she was still alive.

If she had succeeded in anything, she implies, she would have probably never finished Harry Potter, because she would have always had something to rely on.

The same is probably true for each and every one of us.

We have dreams, but we stop short of turning them into reality because our lives are comfortable enough to make us forget that we are not immortal.

Imagination Is the Root of Empathy

Human beings are exceptional in more than one way; one of the least talked about ways, however, is their capability to simulate the effects of something that has never happened to them, merely through the imaginative powers of their brains.

Rowling says that these powers can save humanity; because empathy stems from them, from our capability to identify with people who suffer.

And because:

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 change. 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.

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“Very Good Lives Quotes”

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. Click To Tweet 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. Click To Tweet You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Click To Tweet Unlike any other creature on this planet, human beings can learn and understand without having experienced. Click To Tweet Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was. Click To Tweet

Our Critical Review

Even though Very Good Lives is a fairly short book, it’s undoubtedly one which can effectively change your life. And that’s not used in the usual cliched way, nor it is an exaggeration.

One of the all-time most inspirational speeches and, thus, one of the best graduation gift books ever.

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