Power Players

J.K. Rowling's greatest advice to Harvard grads is disturbingly dark—but honestly, so brilliant and true

Neal Hamberg | Bloomberg | Getty Images

In 2008, J.K. Rowling delivered a powerful graduation speech at Harvard University. It was, in many ways, absolutely spellbinding — and quickly became the most-viewed commencement address on Harvard's website (it's even now available as a book!).

It's not surprising that Rowling, the creator of the beloved Harry Potter series and one of history's most successful novelists, would encourage graduates to capitalize on the power of their imagination, something that she claims to have played a leading role in rebuilding her life.

What's particularly interesting is how she defines the concept and purpose of imagination in a much broader sense.

"Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation," she said. "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."

The dark roots of imagination

According to Rowling, her imagination has often been fueled by dark experiences.

During her time as an employee at Amnesty International, a non-governmental organization focused on human rights, the novelist said she learned by association about "the evils that humankind will inflict on their fellow humans to gain or maintain power."

VIDEO2:0002:00
Why Einstein may not have created the theory of relativity if his mom hadn't made him play the violin

Each day at work, Rowling would 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," she recalled.

Rowling began to have nightmares — "literal nightmares about some of the things I saw, heard and read. And yet, I also learned more about human goodness at Amnesty International than I had ever known before."

What you do with imagination is entirely up to you

Amnesty, she explained, "mobilizes thousands of people who have never been tortured or imprisoned for their beliefs to act on behalf of those who have. The power of human empathy, leading to collective action, saves lives and frees prisoners."

Rowling witnessed "ordinary people" who were blessed with the security of their well-being join together to "save people they do not know, and will never meet." She discovered that her small "participation in the process was one of the most humbling and inspiring experiences" of her life.

As humans, we have the ability to "learn and understand, without having experienced. [We] can think themselves into other people's places," she went on to say. "Of course, this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is morally neutral."

And there are two things we can do with that power, Rowling stated: "We can use it to manipulate or control certain people or situations, or we can use it to understand and sympathize with others, thus turning it into a force for good."

'We don't need magic to change the world'

The novelist urged the graduates to use their status and influence to raise their voices "on behalf of those who have no voice," to "identify with not only with the powerful, but with the powerless," and to "retain the ability to imagine [themselves] into the lives of those who do not have [their] advantages."

That, Rowling said with certainty, is how you leave behind a legacy where "not only be your proud families [will] celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped change."

We can use [imagination] to manipulate or control certain people or situations, or we can use it to understand and sympathize with others, thus turning it into a force for good.
J.K. Rowling
novelist

"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," she firmly told the crowd.

It's unlikely that everyone will follow through with her advice, and Rowling acknowledges that. "Many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all," she said. "They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know."

There's so much truth in Rowling's message — which is that it'd be a mistake for anyone to try and elude the darker bits of life, especially the ones that we are so far removed from. As unpleasant as they may be, tapping into the darkness of imagination can inspire us to achieve things that, without imagination, might otherwise be impossible.

That said, here's a joke to lighten the mood: "How did Harry Potter get down the hill? Walking...J.K. Rolling!"

Tom Popomaronis is a commerce expert and proud Baltimore native. Currently, he is the Senior Director of Product Innovation at the Hawkins Group. His work has been featured in Forbes, Fast Company and The Washington Post. In 2014, he was named one of the "40 Under 40" by the Baltimore Business Journal. Follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter @tpopomaronis .

Like this story? Subscribe to CNBC Make It on YouTube!

Don't miss:

VIDEO1:3701:37
Watch 33-year old Bill Gates explain his hiring process
Neal Hamberg | Bloomberg | Getty Images
make it

Stay in the loop

Sign Up

About Us

Learn More

Follow Us

CNBC.COM