Jack Delosa, author of Unwritten - Reinvent Tomorrow, took some time out of his busy schedule to write a guest post for our blog about one of the most important women in publishing: the one and only J.K. Rowling!
J.K Rowling: The untold story of adversity behind the Harry Potter series
Often, the periods of our greatest growth come in response to the times of our greatest challenge. Adversity invites us to think, encourages us to explore and sometimes forces us to find greater depths of strength in order to rise to the challenge that now lies in front of us.
When you are somebody who is living a mission-based life with dreams of creating a bright future, growth is most likely one of your highest personal values – one of the things you cherish most in life. As such, the coming of adversity is simply the universe responding to one of our highest requests: the request for personal growth and evolution. I believe that challenge does not come to leave us defeated but rather to invite us to expand who we are and to become more of ourselves, in order to create the future we are envisaging.
Often, there is little difference between personal pain and the longing to be without it; pain carries a greater sting when we try to disown it. When we accept that to be challenged and stretched to a healthy degree can enable us to flourish, we find comfort in the discomfort that we used to wrestle with. It is through this soothing sense of acceptance that we are more open to discovering the lessons and the hidden value that lies in every experience – both ‘good’ and ‘bad’.
One wildly successful person who found her foundation through adversity was J. K. Rowling. She is, of course, the author of Harry Potter, the best-selling book series in history, having sold over 400 million copies. The movies that were based on them grossed $5.3 billion in total, making Harry Potter the second-highest-grossing movie series ever. Perhaps more importantly than her commercial success, Rowling is credited with getting colossal numbers of children reading for pleasure, many of them for the first time.
‘I was not the world’s most secure person. I wasn’t someone with an enormous amount of – in fact, I’d say I was someone with not much self-belief at all and yet in this one thing in my life I believed. That was the one thing in my life – I felt “I can tell a story”,’ Rowling told Oprah Winfrey in 2010.
Rowling had been writing almost nonstop since she was six, and then one day, while on a train at the age of 25, an idea strikes her like a bolt of lightning: ‘boy doesn’t know he’s a wizard goes to wizard school’. Not having a pen on her at the time, Rowling sat on a train as the ideas came flooding in. That night, she began writing her first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
Her mother had always been a huge supporter of her writing. Yet, six months after she had started writing Harry Potter, her mother passed away after a long battle with multiple sclerosis. Rowling had never told her mother about Harry Potter. ‘And I would have done. You know? I would have told her about it and I know she would have really liked it. I think it was six months before she died I started writing. Yeah, and I never shared it with her.’
Rowling points to the fact that her mother’s passing, while understandably traumatic, shaped the Harry Potter series into being what it was. ‘The books wouldn’t be what they are if she hadn’t died. I mean her death is on virtually every other page of the Harry Potter books, you know? At least half of Harry’s journey is a journey to deal with death in its many forms, what it does to the living, what it means to die, what survives death – it’s there in every single volume of the books.’
Here we see a clear example of Rowling taking something that is traumatically difficult and using those events to help her move forward. ‘If she hadn’t died I don’t think it’s too strong to say there wouldn’t be Harry Potter. There wouldn’t – you know? The books are what they are because she died. Because I loved her and she died. That’s why they are what they are.’
The years after her mother’s passing were incredibly hard for Rowling. In her own words, this was when she entered the dark period of her life. After moving to Portugal, Rowling married. Still a struggling writer, she became an English teacher, and within a couple of years she gave birth to her daughter, Jessica. Soon after Jessica was born, her marriage ended, and she decided to move to Scotland.
‘I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded . . . and the fears of my parents, and those I’d had for myself, had both come to pass. By every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.’
Today, Rowling openly discusses that period of her life. Acknowledging that at the time she questioned whether she would get through it or for how long it would stretch, she now views it as providing the very direction she needed in order to focus on the work that mattered to her: being a mother and telling great stories.
In a Harvard Commencement Address in 2008, Rowling reflects, ‘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.’
In life, it is not what happens to us that determines who we become, but rather how we choose to interpret what happens to us, and therefore who we become as a result. In J. K. Rowling, we find someone who, like many others we’ve discussed in this book, had to endure the depths of her own pain in order to reach the heights of her own fulfillment.
The key question I’ve learned to explore whenever I’m presented with great challenge is... If this happened for a reason, what would that be?
It is in the stillness, and the pausing to feel our way through such a question, where we can shine a light on an otherwise dark experience. Regardless of how painful the present challenge may be, often this reflection can lead into a beautiful exploration of self.
This article is adapted from Jack Delosa’s new book, Unwritten – Reinvent Tomorrow. A book about innovation, entrepreneurship and living a life on purpose. To find out more about Unwritten click here.