When I was in third grade, I memorized the presidential oath of office ("I do solemnly swear…") because I knew that when I grew up I would be reciting it at my inauguration.
The fact that I was Jewish and female — this was back in 1965 — did not deter me a bit.
As you may have noticed, I never became president. Somewhere along the way, I revised my ambitions downward.
And that’s a shame (for me personally way more than the nation).
Which brings me to British author J.K. Rowling. She has never let anyone tell her what she can and cannot do or scaled back on her ambition.
I find it hugely inspiring that, after establishing herself (and making her fortune) as the author of the seven-volume, best-selling Harry Potter children’s book series, she decided to try her hand at an adult novel.
Late last month, her first novel aimed at grownups, The Casual Vacancy, was published simultaneously in both the United States and the United Kingdom. The 512-page book follows the squabbling, affairs, drug use and other very grownup concerns of the inhabitants of a small English town.
The book has met with a mixed reception from critics. Reviewing it in Time magazine, Lev Grossman offered a rave, saying: “It’s a big, ambitious, brilliant, profane, funny, deeply upsetting and magnificently eloquent novel of contemporary England, rich with literary intelligence and entirely bereft of bullshit … This is a deeply moving book by somebody who understands both human beings and novels very, very deeply.”
The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani was far less enthusiastic. “There is no magic in this book — in terms of wizarding or in terms of narrative sorcery,” she wrote, piling on with, “the real-life world she has limned in these pages is so willfully banal, so depressingly clichéd that The Casual Vacancy is not only disappointing — it’s dull.”
Book buyers have given Rowling’s novel a thumbs up. Casual Vacancy swiftly became a best-seller. It currently is in the No. 1 position on the New York Times’ lists both for Hardcover Fiction and Combined Print and E-Book Fiction.
It would have been easy for Rowling to never write another book after giving her boy wizard saga a happy ending. She could have just basked in her success.
It’s not like she needed the money. Forbes has estimated Rowling's net worth at $1 billion, thanks to sales of more than 450 million Harry Potter books worldwide, plus spin-off merchandise and movies. (She received an $8 million advance for Casual Vacancy.)
It is all to her credit that she chose not to just sit in the sun or trade on her Harry Potter success by starting another fantasy book series for tweener and adolescent readers. And it probably should surprise no one that she instead chose to try traveling a far more mine-filled path by attempting an adult novel. Rowling had defied expectations before.
When she divorced her first husband after little more than a year of marriage, she found herself living on the dole while taking care of her infant daughter and working on the early chapters of her first Harry Potter book. How many single mothers who’ve been on welfare end up billionaires?
“Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential," Rowling said in 2008 when delivering a commencement address at Harvard. "I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was and began to direct all my energy to 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 area where I truly belonged.
“I was set free because my greatest fear had been realized, 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 a solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”
The lesson Rowling clearly learned — and went back to in deciding to write Casual Vacancy — is that failure is not to be feared. Failure doesn’t permanently doom you. It can, in fact, lead to new ambitions and accomplishments.
No matter your age (Rowling is 47 now) you can always try something new, or at least a new variation on something you’ve already had success at doing.
Speaking to fans at the Cheltenham Literature Festival last week, Rowling said she expected to continue to write novels for adults and already knows what her next one will be.
Before she writes that volume, though, she is setting out to conquer yet a whole new audience of readers. The next book that she publishes, she said, will be aimed at “younger children than the Harry Potter series.”
Nothing like trying something new. At any age.