Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Failure and Imagination

This speech has been circulating in the net since 2008 and I've read it several times. But today, I saw the video of that speech and I was really inspired by JK Rowling's message on the fringe benefits of failure and the importance of imagination. Its just a matter of changing one's perspective and attitude about failure. Some might see it as a major setback but it could probably be a blessing in disguise. And Ms. Rowling is certainly not a stranger to failures. She had to go through several failures to get to her superstar status.

On to the speech...

J.K. Rowling Speaks at Harvard Commencement from Harvard Magazine on Vimeo.

Text as delivered follows.
Copyright of JK Rowling, June 2008

President Faust, members of the Harvard Corporation and the Board of Overseers, members of the faculty, proud parents, and, above all, graduates.

The first thing I would like to say is ‘thank you.’ Not only has Harvard given me an extraordinary honour, but the weeks of fear and nausea I have endured at the thought of giving this commencement address have made me lose weight. A win-win situation! Now all I have to do is take deep breaths, squint at the red banners and convince myself that I am at the world’s largest Gryffindor reunion.

Delivering a commencement address is a great responsibility; or so I thought until I cast my mind back to my own graduation. The commencement speaker that day was the distinguished British philosopher Baroness Mary Warnock. Reflecting on her speech has helped me enormously in writing this one, because it turns out that I can’t remember a single word she said. This liberating discovery enables me to proceed without any fear that I might inadvertently influence you to abandon promising careers in business, the law or politics for the giddy delights of becoming a gay wizard.

You see? If all you remember in years to come is the ‘gay wizard’ joke, I’ve come out ahead of Baroness Mary Warnock. Achievable goals: the first step to self improvement.

Actually, I have wracked my mind and heart for what I ought to say to you today. I have asked myself what I wish I had known at my own graduation, and what important lessons I have learned in the 21 years that have expired between that day and this.

I have come up with two answers. On this wonderful day when we are gathered together to celebrate your academic success, I have decided to talk to you about the benefits of failure. And as you stand on the threshold of what is sometimes called ‘real life’, I want to extol the crucial importance of imagination.

These may seem quixotic or paradoxical choices, but please bear with me.

Looking back at the 21-year-old that I was at graduation, is a slightly uncomfortable experience for the 42-year-old that she has become. Half my lifetime ago, I was striking an uneasy balance between the ambition I had for myself, and what those closest to me expected of me.

I was convinced that the only thing I wanted to do, ever, was to write novels. However, my parents, both of whom came from impoverished backgrounds and neither of whom had been to college, took the view that my overactive imagination was an amusing personal quirk that would never pay a mortgage, or secure a pension. I know that the irony strikes with the force of a cartoon anvil, now.

So they hoped that I would take a vocational degree; I wanted to study English Literature. A compromise was reached that in retrospect satisfied nobody, and I went up to study Modern Languages. Hardly had my parents’ car rounded the corner at the end of the road than I ditched German and scuttled off down the Classics corridor.

I cannot remember telling my parents that I was studying Classics; they might well have found out for the first time on graduation day. Of all the subjects on this planet, I think they would have been hard put to name one less useful than Greek mythology when it came to securing the keys to an executive bathroom.

I would like to make it clear, in parenthesis, that I do not blame my parents for their point of view. There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you. What is more, I cannot criticise my parents for hoping that I would never experience poverty. They had been poor themselves, and I have since been poor, and I quite agree with them that it is not an ennobling experience. Poverty entails fear, and stress, and sometimes depression; it means a thousand petty humiliations and hardships. Climbing out of poverty by your own efforts, that is indeed something on which to pride yourself, but poverty itself is romanticised only by fools.

What I feared most for myself at your age was not poverty, but failure.

At your age, in spite of a distinct lack of motivation at university, where I had spent far too long in the coffee bar writing stories, and far too little time at lectures, I had a knack for passing examinations, and that, for years, had been the measure of success in my life and that of my peers.

I am not dull enough to suppose that because you are young, gifted and well-educated, you have never known hardship or heartbreak. Talent and intelligence never yet inoculated anyone against the caprice of the Fates, and I do not for a moment suppose that everyone here has enjoyed an existence of unruffled privilege and contentment.

However, the fact that you are graduating from Harvard suggests that you are not very well-acquainted with failure. You might be driven by a fear of failure quite as much as a desire for success. Indeed, your conception of failure might not be too far from the average person’s idea of success, so high have you already flown.

Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. So I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. 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.

Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea then how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.

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. 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 realised, 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.

You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.

Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.

The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.

So given a Time Turner, 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. 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.

Now you might think that I chose my second theme, the importance of imagination, because of the part it played in rebuilding my life, but that is not wholly so. Though I personally will defend the value of bedtime stories to my last gasp, I have learned to value 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. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared.

One of the greatest formative experiences of my life preceded Harry Potter, though it informed much of what I subsequently wrote in those books. This revelation came in the form of one of my earliest day jobs. Though I was sloping off to write stories during my lunch hours, I paid the rent in my early 20s by working at the African research department at Amnesty International’s headquarters in London.

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.

Many of my co-workers were 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. Visitors to our offices included those who had come to give information, or to try and find out what had happened to those they had left behind.

I shall never forget the African torture victim, a young man no older than I was at the time, who had become mentally ill after all he had endured in his homeland. He trembled uncontrollably as he spoke into a video camera about the brutality inflicted upon him. He was a foot taller than I was, and seemed as fragile as a child. I was given the job of escorting him back to the Underground Station afterwards, and this man whose life had been shattered by cruelty took my hand with exquisite courtesy, and wished me future happiness.

And as long as I live I shall remember walking along an empty corridor and suddenly hearing, from behind a closed door, a scream of pain and horror such as I have never heard since. The door opened, and the researcher poked out her head and told me to run and make a hot drink for the young man sitting with her. She had just had to give him the news that in retaliation for his own outspokenness against his country’s regime, his mother had been seized and executed.

Every day of my working week in my early 20s I was reminded how incredibly fortunate I was, to live in a country with a democratically elected government, where legal representation and a public trial were the rights of everyone.

Every day, I saw more evidence about the evils humankind will inflict on their fellow humans, to gain or maintain power. I 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.

Amnesty mobilises 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. Ordinary people, whose personal well-being and security are assured, join together in huge numbers to save people they do not know, and will never meet. My small participation in that process was one of the most humbling and inspiring experiences of my life.

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

Of course, this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate, or control, just as much as to understand or sympathise.

And many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. 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.

I might be tempted to envy people who can live that way, except that I do not think they have any fewer nightmares than I do. Choosing to live in narrow spaces leads to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that brings its own terrors. I think the wilfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid.

What is more, those who choose not to empathise enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy.

One of the many things I learned at the end of that Classics corridor down which I ventured at the age of 18, in search of something I could not then define, was this, written by the Greek author Plutarch: What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.

That is an astonishing statement 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.

But how much more are you, Harvard graduates of 2008, likely to touch other people’s lives? Your intelligence, your capacity for hard work, the education you have earned and received, give you unique status, and unique responsibilities. Even your nationality sets you apart. The great majority of you belong to the world’s only remaining superpower. The way you vote, the way you live, the way you protest, the pressure you bring to bear on your government, has an impact way beyond your borders. That is your privilege, and your burden.

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.

I am nearly finished. I have one last hope for you, which is something that I already had at 21. The friends with whom I sat on graduation day have been my friends for life. They are my children’s godparents, the people to whom I’ve been able to turn in times of trouble, people who have been kind enough not to sue me when I took their names for Death Eaters. At our graduation we were bound by enormous affection, by our shared experience of a time that could never come again, and, of course, by the knowledge that we held certain photographic evidence that would be exceptionally valuable if any of us ran for Prime Minister.

So today, I wish you nothing better than similar friendships. And tomorrow, I hope that even if you remember not a single word of mine, you remember those of Seneca, another of those old Romans I met when I fled down the Classics corridor, in retreat from career ladders, in search of ancient wisdom:
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.
Thank you very much.

Monday, February 15, 2010

RENT: The Musical

V-day is the day!

I was finally able to watch the musical which has been haunting me for years. Ever since I heard the song Seasons of Love, I was hooked to Rent. I LOVE everything about it - the music, the lyrics, the characters and the message of the whole production. Carpe Diem! Although its very tragic that Jonathan Larson was never able to witness the masterpiece that he created, I'm sure it has inspired a million lives, including mine. This year, I was invited to watch RENT, live in Manila, on Veeday. I enjoyed and savored every moment of it. And to refresh my memory, I'll be posting all the acts that I love including the lyrics so that I'll just check this post whenever i need my Rent fix.

Seasons of Love
Five hundrend twenty five thousand
six hundred minutes
Five hundrend twenty five thousand
moments so dear
Five hundrend twenty five thousand
six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year

In daylight, in sunsets, in midnights,
in cups of coffee, In inches, in miles
in laughter in strife,

In Five hundrend twenty five thousand
six hundred minutes
How do you measure a year in the life

How about Love
how about love
how about love
measure in love
seasons of love
seasons of love

Five hundrend twenty five thousand
six hundred minutes
Five hundrend twenty five thousand
journeys to plan
Five hundrend twenty five thousand
six hundred minutes
how do you measure the life of a woman
or a man

In truth that she learned
or in times that he cried
In the bridges he burned
or the way that she died

Its time now to sing out
though the story never ends
lets celebrate remember a year
in the life of friends

Finale B (No Day but Today)
There is no future
There is no past

Thank God this
Moment's no the last

There's only us
There's only this
Forget regret or
Life is yours to miss

No other road no other way
No day but today

I can't control
My destiny
I trust my soul
My only goal

Will I lose my dignity
Will someone care
Will I wake tomorrow
From this nightmare

Is just to be
The hand gropes
The ear hers
The pulse beats
Life goes on
But I'm gone

There's only now
There's only here
Give in to love
Or live in fear
No other path
No other way

'Cause I die
Without you
I die without you

No day but today


One Song Glory / Light my Candle

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Love Letter

I saw this article in the Inquirer and it touched me to the core. Its the sweetest thing that a father can do for his daughter. Knowing that he cannot protect her from the joys and pains that loving may inevitably bring, he just had to express his gentle reminders through this letter so that his daughter would be better prepared for the rough ride ahead.

"If you dare to love someone whom you feel in your heart of hearts deserves such love, you will not regret it."

On to the letter...

Dearest Nicole,

Terminal, chronic presumptuousness is an ailment that is very hard to recover from, as the name of the condition implies, and especially as regards your unica hija.

I labor under the misimpression that you will heed the counsel of the years, my counsel, no matter how flawed it is, and that despite the many mistakes I have made in my life, you will find it worth your time to listen to your old man.

One caveat though: On the subject I am about to rant and rave, I am no expert, in fact I have stumbled, risen, and stumbled again, many times over. I have only the benefit of committing the same errors enough times to know that you learn only through your mistakes, and that the race goes not to the one who runs the fastest, but to the one who keeps on running.

** ** ** *
I cannot emphasize enough what I say here now: Love is a powerful thing, it's not just a romantic platitude to say that Love makes the world go round. It is a primeval, elemental force that all the wisest men in the world have not even begun to understand. It is like a potent talisman that unleashes tremendous power to a prudent user, but wreaks havoc to those who do not learn to harness its awesome strength.

Look anak, I'm not trying to be vague, pahocus-pocus sounding, or purposely trying to conjure obscure images of otherworldly powers. Love is very real, and very definitely life-changing. It literally creates and shapes destinies before our very eyes, so fundamentally that we take it for granted and are largely unaware of it.

By posing just three questions that have heretofore always remained at the back of your mind but which you've been itching to ask, I can show you how Love is related to almost all of them.

Probably the most obvious is: Despite the love that existed between your mother and me for many years, why did it not survive beyond your adolescence, for all its vaunted longevity and intensity?

The gift of love that has been generated and nurtured between two people is not enough to accept and allow its existence. To borrow from Peter Parker's Uncle Ben: With great love comes great responsibility. You have to recognize that--especially after the honeymoon phase of a relationship--you progress from the stage of being in love with to loving a person. I'm not saying your mother and I didn't do this, probably we just didn't do it long enough. For that I am truly sorry.

One good lesson though that we can cull from that is: Just because one and the other are destined to be together does not mean they will live happily ever after. In fact, a declaration (and affirmation) of love often signals the start of an adventure in dedicating one's life for your loved one.

I go to the second question you seem to have asked me in gestures and in phrases. Given his rather reckless adventures in romance, is your brother not loving too much, or too hard?

You may laugh at my response, but I think it may be the opposite. What he truly loves, he cannot possess. And to compensate for this, he turns to those companionships that will not reject him. Do you know what I mean? Rather than being rejected by what he considers pure, noble, and ideal, he prefers to dwell within the comfort zone of those who will accept him.

It sounds trite but it is often true. Men offer love for intimacy, while women provide intimacy in return for what they perceive is love. While women learn early enough not to extend expectations based on this reality, men take a little longer. But then again, for some reason, women, who I submit are smarter than men, seem to have a blind spot in matters of the heart. Both for your and my peace of mind, I sincerely hope you learn from the mistakes of your parents and heed the lessons of history.

On that note, you should probably just give your brother a little more time.

Which brings us to a third question, which you have asked in many forms: If it comes to such a point, do I follow my head or my heart, when I feel like falling in love with someone?

The only way I can answer such a query (which I hope doesn't translate to reality in the near future) is notwithstanding all the fear generated in me (and most probably your mother as well), I go so far as to say this: If you dare to love someone whom you feel in your heart of hearts deserves such love, you will not regret it. Scary words from a scared dad, but engraved in stone. Ironically, not all the purest and noblest intentions will assure that you will have made the right choice. For in matters of love, who can tell, until the day we die, whether or not we have made the right choice?

** ** ** **
What I'm trying to say, anak, I guess is that you should not deny yourself the discovery of Life that Love makes possible, but at the same time not be overwhelmed by the crests and troughs of the rollercoaster that is Love. It is one of the truly defining experiences of our existence, but it comes at a great price: Love consumes you, and if you allow it to do so, it overcomes you pitilessly, remorselessly, till you are but an empty shell.

If I sound too passionate about a subject, it is only because I know the time is soon coming when you will fall in love. At least, you can fall back on your father's feeble words.

Promise you'll tell me if and when you do fall in love, OK? I just want to see the guy. Grrr.

I'm very lucky to have such a wonderful daughter like you, I love you and I miss you always.

Please kiss sabay hug your bros for me OK? Happy Valentine's Day!


(Editor's note: Noel Bautista is Papa to Nicole, who is turning 17. Noel calls himself "an accidental migrant" in Wellington, New Zealand. This is his "love letter" to his daughter.)

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

On the campaign trail

The circus has begun!

Its election time once again in good 'ole Philippines. Its a very crucial year since (hopefully) we'll be ending the nine-year reign (which seemed like forever) of the Midget in the Palace. On a personal level, its also crucial because I'm part of it, not as a candidate (never in my wildest dreams), but as one of the Queen Bee's working bees.

Yesterday, we started with the campaign through a motorcade around QC. We were supposed to hook up with the PMP caravan but since we were late, we had to scour the metropolis to join them. The goal is to inform the people that the Queen Bee is running, este, buzzing ;) Since she's a well-known personality, thanks to her famous temper, it was not very difficult for us to introduce her to the people. What made the task challenging was the people that I had to work with. They're a big challenge to my character and I had to consciously control my thoughts. I must not let my temper get the best of me.

Times like these, the Prayer of Serenity comes to mind.
God, grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change
The courage to change the things I can
And the wisdom to know the difference.

The Dream and The Dreamer

Once upon a time, each one of us had a Big Dream planted by the Dream Giver himself. Along the way, we forgot about this dream and pursued other mundane things. Things that we thought were important and would redefine our lives.But there will always be that void, that nagging "what if" which will bother us. We can only do two things - dismiss it again until its too late to pursue it, or attend to it now and see where the road leads you.

I realize now that I am the only one who can put a cap to my dreams. The general rule is that you can dream of anything you want to achieve. Anything is possible as long as you believe in yourself and the Dream Giver. But and that's a big BUT, you'll have to be willing to work hard to achieve that dream because it would not be handed to you in a silver platter. You might get disappointed, harassed and dejected to the point that you want to abandon the Dream. When that time comes, you should keep the faith. That's the time when you have to remember the gut level reason why you're on that road - to pursue your dreams.

So keep the fire burning and keep on dreaming!

The Unrequited

You can never impose yourself on other people. They say that falling in love is a decision. But you can't make that decision for the other person. You might have this illusion that the other person also reciprocates your feelings but its just that - an illusion. Do not fool yourself into thinking that he/she might just wake up one morning and have romantic feelings for you. Wake up from that delusion! If you can stop it now, then stop it. If you pursue that road, it will only lead to unnecessary heartaches and you'll both end up hurting each others' feelings.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Let live and let love

In celebration of the Singles Awareness month, I'm posting this email which a friend sent me. There's actually a lot of truth to this. (*_*)

The reason why people get so sentimental is due to the fact that memories are the only things that don't change.

When everything else does, there are things in life that you can't hold on forever. No matter how much you fight for it sometimes destiny isn't always good, it becomes playful.

When you meet someone you learned to love,you thought that it was destiny who made your paths cross But what if making your paths cross is just a part of the game that the playful destiny create? It only made you realize that in the end the person you thought that was destined for you was not really meant to stay. And that he's only destined to make you feel loved and leave you when you've already fallen.

It's not easy to state a reason when you decide to leave your love.
Some people might think it's just an excuse but some might not actually believe. Some will blame you and some might even be mad at you.

What they don't see is the fact that it hurts you even more to hurt someone who doesn't deserve to be hurt especially when you can't actually state the reason why you have to leave.

You can never own something that was never yours, so let's stop gripping on things we expect to last forever.

Nothing is forever because forever is a lie. Everything is transitory.

While you have something in your hand, put in mind that it's just borrowed so that someday when it's gone, it won't take you eternity just to let go.

When your feelings get strong for someone, its always wise to stop for a while, and give your heart a time to breathe.

A time to use your mind to weigh the situation based on reasons not on emotions. The saddest thing that can happen is when one falls in love while the other wants nothing more than friendship. Love can sometimes be magic but magic can be an illusion.

There would be times that you wish you were limited to certain emotions so that you'll never have to experience pain, never feel betrayed or disappointed, and never get your fragile heart broken.

But the same thing means that you'll never know how to love and be loved in return because the thought of it scares you.

You'll have to make that choice - to have a heart that is whole but numb or a heart that's broken but real.

Someday, we'll all be looking back to those days we learned to love, get hurt, cry and fight.

Maybe when the time comes, we'll be laughing at our dumb selves, realizing how stupid we were to stand up for things we know weren't really meant for us.

Life is what we make it and love makes the world go round.
So let's live, love and take whatever pain and joy it brings.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Pour Vous

Warning: This is an individualized post intended for myself.

According to Miranda, the key to success is hard work. So if you fail, it means you're not working hard enough. You gotta work harder in order to be successful.

I'm disappointed with myself again. I have no one to blame for my failures except myself. But I can't help but ask if I'm really made for this. Slowly, I'm beginning to discover my strengths and most importantly, my weaknesses. I know the things that I'm good at and the things that I can do just because I've been placed in that situation and I have nowhere else to go but forward. I will never retreat and I will never surrender.

This is a never ending process of self discernment. Its difficult and confusing but its all part of the game. I chose to travel through this path and I must finish it at all costs. I just have to always remember the gut level reasons why I am doing this. I pray that God will give me the strength to endure and persevere.