J.K Rowling: A Wizard with Words… Life & Lessons

This post is part of our Inspirational People series, covering the life stories and lessons from some of the worlds most successful and influential people. For more posts like this one, click here.

Up until the first Harry Potter novel struck the shelves in 1997, prestigious female writers had been close to none existent in English Modern Literature Heritage.

What this means to you and I, is that it had been quite some time since the last breakthrough in the writing world had come from a woman. The likes of Harper Lee and Jane Austen had decayed in the minds of society and the world craved a similar shake up again… A shake up that gave Joanne Rowling, who was at the time a poverty-stricken single mother, her greatest turning point and life success.

So Who Is J.K Rowling?

Most of us know that J.K Rowling is the pen-name belonging to one of the world’s most well respected female authors. Most of us also know that her stories have been and will probably always be, cherished in the hearts of adults and children alike.

But what most people don’t know is that the journey to get to this position was far from a magical one. And that the woman behind J.K Rowling, Joanne, was a woman whom faced depression, death and divorce when in the process of carving her Harry Potter world.

You may not care for magic. You may not care about Harry Potter. But what you, the self-developer, should care about is self-made success. And what better way to pave your own success, than by closely observing and learning from the journeys of previous successful people?

As a writer myself, I know it takes time, courage and risk to put your idea onto paper. And as an

Unpublished writer, I know it takes even more time, courage and risk to put your idea out into the world. (The same way it takes time, courage and risk to put a piece of art, a film, a business plan into practise.) But for J.K Rowling this small step had a big impact on the world around her.  And surely ‘having an impact’ is what creating is all about.

The truth is that you may not sell 400 million copies of a book worldwide. You may not create the highest-grossing film series in history. There may never be a theme park built in you name. But if there’s anything this research has taught me, it’s that you can achieve, anything you want, whatever your starting point, as long as you have the drive and the ability to achieve.

J.K & Her Journey: The life and times of a determined writer… 

On the 31st of July, 1965 Joanna Rowling was born to parents Peter James and Anne Rowling.

The couple were married up until Anne’s premature death in 1990 and met for the first time on a train departing from King’s Cross Station; a location that inspired the method of transportation her wizard characters took in the Harry Potter novels.

Rowlings Childhood Home, Church Cottage, Tutshill

Rowlings Childhood Home, Church Cottage, Tutshill

Her mother, Anne, was half-Scottish and half-French. She and Joanne were close throughout the short life she had. Peter James was an aircraft engineer. Unfortunately, Peter and Joanne did not have such a good relationship, particularly in Joanne’s teenage years.

When Joanne was twenty three months old, the family had expanded again and her sister Diane was born. To compensate for the new household number, the family moved to the nearby village Winterbourne when Rowling was four.

Younger Years, School & University

It was in Winterbourne, a village in Woolwich, Ontario that Joanne attended St Michael’s Primary School. The headmaster of the school, Alfred Dunn, is said to have inspired the character Albus Dumbledore, the wise headmaster of the wizarding school Harry Potter attended which proves that inspiration can be found in the most unlikely of places.

As a child, Rowling could always be found writing fantasy stories of which she would usually read to her sister before bed. Joanna was also an avid reader and enjoyed meeting up with her Great Aunt who shared and fuelled her enthusiasm for literature through her own.

But despite these obvious, budding talents as a writer, Rowling’s teenager years were difficult.

Her mother had an ongoing illness, multiple sclerosis, and Joanne herself had a difficult relationship with her father, of whom she now has no contact with.

In high school, Rowling did well in her studies achieving two A’s and a B in A Level English, French and German. As Head Girl, it’s no surprise that Joanne admitted in an interview that Hermione was loosely based on her disposition at this time.

Yet in 1982, Rowling was not accepted into Oxford University. Under parental pressure, and never one to fall out of motivation, Rowling read for a BA in French and Classics at the University of Exeter and spent these years wearing ‘heavy eyeliner’, listening to the Smiths and reading Lord of Rings.

After a year of “study” in Paris, Rowling graduated from Exeter in 1986 and moved to London to work as a researcher for Amnesty International. It was shortly after this time that Rowling and her boyfriend decided to move to Manchester.

The Death of J.K’s Mother

1990 was a key year for J.K Rowling because it was this year that she got the idea for Harry Potter. The idea struck the young writer on a four-hour-delayed train trip from Manchester to London.  She began to write ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ that very evening completely unaware that the book would shape her success.

However, 1990 was also key for Rowling for another reason because at the end of that same year, after ten years suffering from multiple sclerosis, Rowling’s mother Anne passed away.

Rowling was close to her mother and the death heavily affected the person she was and what she was writing. Since that day, she has always regretted the fact that she never told her about Harry Potter and it’s been said that the grief she felt surrounding this issue formed the foundations for the ‘dementors’ whom drain their victims of all hope.

Still suffering as a result of her mother’s death Rowling moved to Portugal to teach English as a foreign language. She spent this time teaching through the night and writing in the day.

The Start of Her Family & Harry Potter

It was here that met her future husband, Jorge Arantes, in a bar after sharing a mutual interest in Jane Austen. They married in 1992 and had a child, Jessica Isabel Rowling Arantes, the following year.

Unfortunately, Jorge and Joanne’s marriage lasted for only a year and during this period Rowling was diagnosed with depression and suicidal tendencies. To keep her family afloat she began a teacher training course in 1995 at Edinburgh University after completing her first novel on state benefits. She wrote in many cafés, describing it as the only way to make Jessica fall asleep.

It’s safe to say this was the lowest point in Joanne’s life. The hard work she had spent writing her first book, had yet to reap its rewards. Her marriage had failed. Her mother had passed away. And she had no money to support her family, leaving Joanne with nothing but an idea to keep her moving forward through the days.

Famously, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, was rejected twelve times by publishers. But in 1997, much to Joanne’s relief, British publisher Bloomsbury, finally agreed to release Rowling’s first book and 1,000 copies of Harry Potter were made.

The success was small. Half of these copies went to libraries and the rest had little prestige to their name… until U.S. publisher Scholastic became interested in the small boy, with the magic wand. Just a year later Scholastic picked up Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and J.K Rowling was granted $105,000 for the rights. A big shock for a woman who’d described her life before Harry Potter as being ‘as broke as it is possible to be in modern Britain without being homeless’.

And the success kept coming. With each book, more and more readers were becoming interesting in escaping to the world that J.K had created and in just two years time the fourth book in the wizardry series, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, had sold three million copies in the U.S in the first 48 hours alone.

The public demanded more, and shortly after Warner Bros released the first film adaptation of Rowling’s books. A film adaptation that J.K insisted she had close to full control over. The movie was a success and went on to gross $974 million worldwide. Each novel and film to follow built Rowling’s name in worth and wealth and by the time her last book was published in 2007 she was one of the richest and most influential women in the entire world.

But she wasn’t stopping there.

Seven years after the final Harry Potter book and J.K Rowling has had recently published her first novel for adults, The Casual Vacancy, opened multiple studios and theme parks surrounding her Harry Potter series and designed a website that will allow her books to be made available on e-Book devices. All in the process of marrying a Doctor, and becoming a Grandparent to children David and Mackenzie.

The characters in her book series learnt how to cast spells and fight dark creatures.

J.K Rowling learnt that a single good idea can change a life. What we, as self-developers can learn, is that mistakes and hurdles are just as important in life as the successes.

Life Lessons

From Rags to Riches: How did a woman in such a poor situation, end up as the twelfth richest person in the world?

Fail, fail and fail again…

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 to finishing the only work that mattered to me.”

The art of ‘never giving up’ is an art that most average human beings never master. But J.K Rowling and (potentially) you are not most average human beings because unlike Mary next door and Jake across the road, you don’t want a steady pay check, a 9-5 job, a stable family life. You want to change the world around you. You want to look back on your life and say that you were the best person you could possibly be. Or so I’m guessing.

So how can you do all this? How can you become, what you dream of becoming?

By realising that life is a learning curve.

Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential” is one of my favourite quotes from J.K Rowling, because it demonstrates something I believe strongly in. And that’s, that there are no excuses in life as to why we can’t create.

Your schooling. Your job. Your family. Your divorce. Lack of time. Lack of money. Lack of energy. Lack of inspiration. These are all just excuses. And nobody, gets anywhere from making excuses.

J.K Rowling was depressed when she was writing Harry Potter. She had a demanding job, a demanding family, a demanding stack of household bills. But these did not stop her from doing what she did best. These did not stop her from creating.

And they shouldn’t stop you either because if you make the effort to find the problems and learn from the problems, chances are that you can change the problems. A big part of becoming a successful individual is realising that you are responsible for yourself.  You are in control of your life, of your failures, of your successes.

Life might throw you hurdles. That’s life. But if you learn from these, instead of collapsing to the ground like Mary next door and Jake across the road then you won’t become Mary next door and Jake across the road. You’ll be a success. And your success will be of that much more precious to you, as a result of all that persevering.

All of these ‘key persons’ faced something that made them want to give up.

But the difference between J.K Rowling, J.R.R Tolkien, C.S Lewis and a washed up, unpublished writer is determination. If something goes wrong, don’t blame the world, don’t blame time, and don’t blame distractions. Blame yourself.

Focus on what you do have…

 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.

Writing is a form of entrepreneurship. As is any form of art. And like most entrepreneurs, starting out in the world, Rowling had little money, little to loose and an idea.

Harry Potter is successful because Rowling was writing what she loved and what the people would love. When you’re working on your idea, your idea should be everything. Let yourself be consumed by it. If it fails then learn from it. Because if you can fight failure. You can do it again. And faster this time.

There is no denying, that J.K Rowling had to work hard to get to where she did, but I think that’s what makes her story so inspiring because it’s not the level of fame, the money or the title that makes her such an amazing human being. It’s the fact that she faced hell and back to do so. Because she believed in what she had to offer the world.

Harry Potter is proof that Eureka moments aren’t just for Einstein or people in settings designed to fuel the mind. Joanne didn’t just wake up at J.K with a completed manuscript by her side. We are all capable of getting good ideas. We just have to know why we want them.

Joanne wanted to make an impact. She wanted to be the best that she could be. In my eyes, these are the only things a man (or woman) needs to be successful. Not a magic wand. Not an endless supply of money. But a dream, a passion…

And preferably a fully functioning pen next time!


Remember life is your story. If you take the time to build up the confidence and the drive to get what you’re striving for, you will reap the rewards.

Failure is an excuse. Excuses do not exist. So if you know that your idea is a good idea then don’t be afraid to push it.

Harry Potter was rejected twelve times before it made first print, but no-body remember this. What people remember is the success, J.K Rowling and the book that they stayed up all night to finish. And look who’s laughing now.

Wrote by Aimee Hall