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  • Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

ABC’s and PhD’s: Fame and failure
February 1, 2012 - 4:04am

In a casual bedtime discussion on potential careers with my almost-13-year-old daughter, she recapitulated to me her long-standing intent to become a writer, a teacher, and a mother. But above all these aspirations, she admitted, she wants to be famous. I’ve been chewing on this ever since. I remember I had similar visions of fame starting at about her age, a yearning for recognition for doing something great.She may, as did I, daydream of fans congratulating and looking up to her. I wholly support and admire her ambition, and in trying to develop her thoughts further, I mentioned to her George Harrison, musician, song-writer, lead guitar player for the Beatles, who said, “I didn’t want to be famous, I wanted to be successful,” but this distinction, I think, remains to be realized by my daughter. She’s at the cusp of an exciting time in her life as she refines her concept of fame and develops passions and discovers diverse ways of touching people’s lives.

Thinking about fame over the last couple days since this conversation, I explored the example of a famous person my daughter cited when I asked her what fame meant to her: world-renowned wizarding storyteller J.K. Rowling. A google search brought me to Harvard University’s 2008 commencement speech, which Rowling delivered.  Rowling turned out to be an excellent example because not only is she famous, but she has insightful, humorous, thoughtful things to say about fame and success, as I found out in her 20-minute speech. I can paraphrase her wise thoughts but I cannot properly convey Rowling’s eloquence and grace so I highly recommend to everyone that this talk is well worth viewing yourself (available on TED).

Rowling spoke not so much of success itself, but rather spoke on failure, and her insight resonates with me.  She mentions that fear of failure might indeed drive one to success, in avoiding any chance of failing at all cost.  I am guilty of this fear (who isn’t?), not only for myself, but also for my children, who I find myself regularly sheltering, or attempting to shelter, from failure. But you can’t always choose or control your successes and failures, and you have even less control over the successes and failures of your children.  Rowling recounts her own devastating and painful failures, causing a breakdown which in retrospect she recognizes ultimately ended up bringing her far greater success (and fame!) than she had in her previous “successful” life. She credits her failures in freeing her to start over and steer her life in a new direction: as author of the Harry Potter series.  And she uses her story to illustrate that though discouraging or even traumatic, failure has potential to enrich in ways you can’t know until you head down that road, unveiling understandings and opportunities that success might circumvent.  You don’t choose to fail, but it helps if you can choose to move on down the new road. My own personal proclivity (strengthened by becoming a parent, I believe) to steer away from risk of failure tends to be stronger than my skill in culturing resilience to setbacks. Something to work on, I suppose.  Rowling’s rather extreme example of recovery from failure is heartening, inspiring.

Success also is one of those concepts that you define for yourself (unlike fame), and along the course of life, I’m realizing, you are allowed to rethink your ideals of success, and to go outside the lines that others define.  I’m keeping these thoughts in mind not only for myself as a person still defining my own life’s goals and gauging my own success, but also for myself as a parent watching and encouraging my children as they succeed and fail, succeed and fail. As much as I can, I’ll try to embrace the failures for what they teach and alternatives they bring, rather than reject them.


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