Before the success of the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling was clinically depressed.1
In the early 1990s, she returned to the U.K. to settle down in Scotland near her sister. A three-year stint in Portugal had led to a short, unhappy marriage, and she left the country as a single mother of a newborn child.
Rowling spent the next few years struggling to meet ends in her new life, and she lived on welfare benefits with no real vision of how to carve out a better life for her daughter.
“I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless,” she said in her commencement speech at Harvard University in 2008.2
In this period, her depression took a dark turn, and she considered herself a complete failure. She had fallen to the ground and felt stuck there. She even contemplated suicide.
Fortunately, her daughter inspired her to seek help, and she found an outlet in writing.
It was something she had done for most of her life. The idea for the Harry Potter series had come to her years before on a train ride from Manchester to London. She had worked on a few chapters in Portugal, but she only really found her momentum back in the U.K.
Rowling finished the first two books of the series while still on welfare. The dementors introduced in the third book were inspired by her mental illness during her poverty phase.
The whole world now knows the story of The Boy Who Lived, but not many people know the struggle behind his creation. It’s an important one, and it holds a very practical lesson.
Seemingly definitive failures can often be debilitating. They break many, but J.K. Rowling’s story provides a rich narrative for how this kind of failure can be made temporary by:
• Seeing rock-bottom as a foundation and not a conclusion
• Using limitations to fuel resourcefulness and inspiration
• Increasing the probability of success with persistence
You can find an opportunity in almost any situation. It’s not always easy, but it’s often there.
See Rock-Bottom as a Foundation and Not a Conclusion
When we’re at rock-bottom, an unfortunate consequence is that we cease to recognize opportunities. We get so caught up in our defeat and the stress that accompanies it that we don’t sense when another road might be opening up. We see our situation as a conclusion.
But there is more to the story. The act of falling to the ground comes with a strange and unintended side-effect. Liberation. With nothing more to lose, we have a foundation and this foundation limits downside. The only path available is the one that goes up from there.
Understandably, even after some heavy defeats, in reality, most of us still have something to lose. We have our possessions, we have our relationships, and we have commitments beyond those things. That’s not what this is about. Those things are easier to manage.
For most of us, rock-bottom is less a material state and more a mental purgatory. It’s where we fall when we lose our sense of belief about who we are.
With the onset of her depression and the lack of visible opportunity, Rowling initially treated her rock-bottom as a conclusion, and the feeling that accompanied her failure was acceptance. She believed in the story she told herself, and she saw no chance of being much more.
That began to change after her visit to seek help. With time, she realized that though the reality of her situation was what it was, it could also be something more. With defeat behind her, she was left with great upside potential and no downside risk.
In a state of definitive failure, we don’t have worry about what other people think, or face any more pain than we’re already in. We can focus our attention with more deliberation and less hesitancy. With a platform below us, we can move with more clarity and more confidence. With less risk, we have the incentive to chase the reward more aggressively.
It’s not easy to think like this when we feel at our lowest. Feelings of inadequacy don’t just go away because we want them to, and that’s okay. They don’t need to. You just have to accept that you can either stay where you are, or you can start building from a stronger foundation.
Use Limitations to Fuel Resourcefulness and Inspiration
Failure often places limitations on what we can do by redefining our scope of reality.
For example, if you’re a business owner and you’re suddenly dealing with low demand, you will be faced with a need for a new source of income. And until you’re able to readjust, you might even have to downsize on your possessions. It will force you to live with less.
In most developed countries, we live in societies of abundance, and after a while of getting used to that abundance, it can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that less is bad.
It’s often the opposite of that. The more we have and the more we have going on, the more complicated our life is. There’s more noise, and there’s less focus. It can be paralyzing.
Barry Schwartz is a psychologist who’s analyzed much of the research on the study of choice. In his book, The Paradox of Choice, he explains how backward our thinking on the concept is.
He points out that though modern culture is obsessed with the freedom of choice, more choice in our life isn’t necessarily a good thing. In fact, research has consistently shown that the more we have to choose from, the less likely we are to make a decision.
When Rowling returned to the U.K., without a job or the ability to accumulate, she produced far more in the next few years than she had in the years leading up to her new life.
She attributes this to the routine guided by the simplicity and the limitations of her lifestyle. There wasn’t much she could do, so there were fewer decisions to make. She would simply get up in the morning and go to a cafe. Her daughter would sleep, and she would write.
Beyond just guiding behavior, limitations also force us to be more resourceful. When we have more, or too much, we follow existing patterns built into our environment. We have less of an incentive to look beyond what’s immediately accessible and how it’s presented.
That isn’t the case with less. With less, if you want to get moving, you have to think outside of the box. You’re pushed to be more creative, and that sparks inspiration.
Failure often simplifies, and it eliminates. It removes any excess noise, and though these limitations may initially appear as hurdles, they actually free us to better stimulate momentum.
Increase the Probability of Success With Persistence
The likelihood of success depends on the effectiveness of output and the consistency of effort. It’s not only about creating great work, but it’s also about how far you’re willing to go for it.
Rowling is a now a globally renowned author. Her success with the Harry Potter series can’t just be attributed to luck. Critics widely agree that she’s a talented writer, and the rest of us can attest to the fact that not everyone could have so elegantly imagined the world she did.
In spite of that, she didn’t always have the easiest time convincing other people of that. According to some sources, she was rejected by 12 major publishing houses in the U.K.3 In fact, it wasn’t until a year after her first attempt to publish that Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone was finally recognized as a tale worth printing
Today, the first book alone has sold more than 100 million copies, and the combined series is estimated to have sold close to 400 million.4 It’s the highest selling book series in the world.
In hindsight, it’s easy to laugh at the absurdity of it all. But what if she would have quit after that first round of rejections? It’s almost a scary thought, but it’s not an unreasonable one.
Now, this isn’t to say that we should always push ahead in spite of external circumstances. Sometimes, we’re just not good enough, and sometimes, the reward is insignificant relative to the risk. It’s important to have checks and balances in place to provide a sanity check.
The point is that persistence matters. Rejection and failure may not be easy to absorb, but if you have a rational reason to believe that what you have to offer is of value, then showing up and trying, again and again, is a critical part of any strategy for success.
In statistics, the law of large numbers dictates that if our sample size is small, then factors of chance play a greater role in determining an outcome. For example, if you flip a coin twice, you could very well land on tails with each flip, even though the probability of each avenue is even. If you flip a coin 200 times, however, you’re far less likely to have randomly skewed results.
We live in complex ecosystems, and in any situation, there are many factors that influence an outcome. The world doesn’t always reward great work at first glance. Persistence is about batting even when you miss, and it substantially increases the odds of success.
All You Need to Know
There are two kinds of failure: temporary failures, which occur consistently throughout any process and are necessary to make progress; and definitive failures, which occur less frequently but can completely change our perception of who we are. They’re the kind of falls that take us down to an all-time low. They can be debilitating.
J.K. Rowling has been there. Before her status as the most successful living author, she had her own struggles. Mentally, these struggles weren’t too different from the kind that the rest of us face from time to time. There’s a lot of wisdom in her honesty about her past.
This is what her story can teach us:
I. Choose to see rock-bottom as a foundation and not a conclusion. A byproduct of failing is a sense of liberation. With no more room to fall any further, the risk relative to the potential reward gets skewed. It can be easy, in a state of pain and disappointment, to not see that as an opportunity, but we need to choose to see our situation as more than a definitive outcome and unapologetically build on a new platform.
II. Use limitations to fuel resourcefulness and inspiration. Heavy defeats, in part, hurt because they limit us. They force us to start again and get by with less. Fortunately, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Limitations can help cancel out the noise. They force creativity by providing a more opportune environment for us to think outside the box.
III. Take control by increasing your odds of success through persistence. Much of the time, success depends on the consistency of effort as much as it does on the quality of the work. We can produce great work and not have it recognized. It takes more than that. It’s a numbers game, and we have a far better chance of having those numbers work in our favor if we’re ready to persist again and again.
Failure is an inevitable part of life. The mental state that it nurtures can stop us from aspiring and achieving. Dealing with it is a vital skill, and psychological preparation can go a long way.
As with all matters of the mind, it’s much easier said than done. You have to fight to beat it.
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