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J.K. Rowling has her own rebellious rules for success

CNBC logo CNBC 1/21/2019 Kathleen Elkins
J. K. Rowling sitting at a table with a cake: British author J.K. Rowling, creator of the Harry Potter fantasy series.© Provided by CNBC LLC British author J.K. Rowling, creator of the Harry Potter fantasy series.

J.K. Rowling, author of the "Harry Potter" series and the Cormoran Strike mysteries, has sold over 500 million books. She was the second highest-paid author of 2018, managing to earn an astounding $54 million.

Famously, though, Rowling started out as a single mother surviving on state benefits. "I was jobless, a lone parent and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain without being homeless," she said in her 2008 Harvard commencement speech.

Rowling, now 53, didn't turn her life around and get where she is today by abiding by conventional wisdom.

"I haven't got 10 rules that guarantee success, although I promise I'd share them if I did," she writes on her site, adding, "I have to say that I can't stand lists of 'must do's', whether in life or in writing. Something rebels in me when I'm told what I have to do before I'm 50, or have to buy this season, or have to write if I want to be a success."

She forged her own path, even when that meant taking risks. "The truth is that I found success by stumbling off alone in a direction most people thought was a dead end, breaking all the 1990s shibboleths about children's books in the process," she writes, including the ones like "male protagonists are unfashionable. Boarding schools are anathema. No kids book should be longer than 45,000 words."

Forget the "must do's," she advises, and "concentrate on the 'you probably won't get far withouts.'" Those include traits like discipline, resilience, humility and independence.

Though Rowling is speaking to prospective creatives, anyone can apply her underlying advice : Step outside of your comfort zone, don't let fear of failure hold you back, and see projects through.

"Fear of failure is the saddest reason on earth not to do what you were meant to do," she writes. "I finally found the courage to start submitting my first book to agents and publishers at a time when I felt a conspicuous failure. Only then did I decide that I was going to try this one thing that I always suspected I could do, and, if it didn't work out, well, I'd faced worse and survived."

At first, it appeared that the "Harry Potter" series might be dead in the water. The original manuscript, which Rowling finished in 1995, was turned down by 12 different publishers.

But she refused to give up, even though she "often feared" that every single publisher would turn her down, she wrote on Twitter in 2016:

She even pinned her first rejection letter to her kitchen wall for motivation.

A small British publisher, Bloomsbury, eventually took a chance on Rowling and "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" appeared in print in 1997. It was an immediate hit and won Children's Book of the Year at the British Book Awards that year. Rowling's second book of the seven-part series came out in 1998, the same year that Warner Bros. bought the film rights to the first two books.

Since, the books have been translated into 80 languages and "Harry Potter" has become the best-selling book series of all time.

To get over the fear of failure, accept that your work probably isn't going to be perfect, Rowling writes on her site: "In writing as in life, your job is to do the best you can, improving your own inherent limitations where possible, learning as much as you can and accepting that perfect works of art are only slightly less rare than perfect human beings."

And ask yourself one question, she adds: "Ultimately, wouldn't you rather be the person who actually finished the project you're dreaming about, rather than the one who talks about 'always having wanted to?'"


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