Lesson from Harry Potter

The world has just celebrated the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter. One can now spend hours going through thought-provoking analyses, insightful lists, and entertaining content created for the occasion. Yet, there is one aspect of this story that is essential for anybody who strives to create ideas, be it a writer, an artist, or an entrepreneur.

That part is soul-crushing, sleep-depriving, appetite-robbing rejection.

When it was first written, Harry Potter apparently got rejected by not one, not three, not five, but a dozen publishers. Even the person who eventually agreed to publish it reportedly did not jump on the idea and initially published only a thousand copies. Think about your experience with Harry Potter over the past two decades and ask yourself: how is that possible? This has got to be one of the most interesting aspects of this groundbreaking saga, and it is both upsetting and great news for the rest of us.

Was Harry Potter a bad idea right before it was great?

Given the size of Harry Potter’s eventual success, one would expect that publishers, filmmakers and agents from all over the world would be racing to sign Rowling the minute she finished writing the first book and started to show it around. One would imagine that the experts in the business, who stood to make millions in terms of money and prestige during decades to come, would have seen Harry Potter light up as a bright blip in their radars long before it became a smash hit.

But the opposite occurred. When Rowling approached publishers, they weren’t impressed. All the incentives, experience and expertise in the world did not help them identify Harry Potter as an opportunity. So, right before Harry Potter became an extraordinary success story, it was an ordinary failure.

It’s easy to write glorifying stories of why something became successful after the fact. When I ask my students — some of whom are executives — why Harry Potter is so successful, they always offer some concrete reasons:

“It’s about an underprivileged boy who becomes the unlikely hero.”

“It’s beautifully written, easy to read.”

“It takes place in an amazing world.”

All true, yet they were also true while the book was being rejected. And these features are also presumably true for other books that were rejected and never heard of again. Luckily, Rowling persevered until someone finally gave it a shot. Yet this is upsetting news for those of us who are creating new things, be it a book, a film or an enterprise. Would most of us be that patient? How many times would you get rejected before giving up?

How many times have you been rejected recently?

In the complex, connected and chaotic world we live in, even Harry Potter can get summarily rejected by those minding the gates. This means that nobody — including the experts or even the creators themselves — know much about the true potential of new ideas. Harry Potter is one of many recent (positive) Black Swans: a highly improbable event with an unprecedented and wide-ranging impact.

In domains where predictability is low and the number of creators is high, expertise and rejections don’t really matter. Anyone who works hard and tries relentlessly has the capacity to create value that eventually grows beyond their wildest dreams. While the probability of success of one trial or one particular project is undoubtedly minuscule, with enough ideas and perseverance, the impact a creative person can make is demonstrably huge.

How many times have you been rejected during the past three months? If it’s not at least a dozen, you are not “alive.”


I opened my eyes at the sound of a cell phone, which was ringing with a distorted hip-hop tune. I think it was Beyonce. While the distraction sitting in front of me was trying to locate the phone in his back pack, I made the effort to quickly compose myself. I was at a psychology seminar. It was late afternoon and the talk was about a study on happiness. I remember that the title was promising and I am sure the content is too, but the presentation forced my eyes closed. Half of the audience was daydreaming possibly about what they will eat tonight with still half an hour to go.

Same is generally true for most lectures. Being a lifelong student, it was really painful to deal with boredom induced hypersomnia for many years, except for a few instances when the class was truly engaging and enlightening. I can recall only a few teachers who created an environment where the audience appreciated taking part in the lecture. The problem is that these people taught well mostly as a result of an intrinsic motivation. It seems that the incentives for better teaching are not set correctly. In universities, for instance, better teaching does not improve scholars’ financial or social statuses as much as a fraction of their research activities. Shame really.

Along with outdated and strict curricula, the lack of an appropriate incentive mechanism for better teaching causes everybody to yawn, including the teachers themselves. Here is a great presentation about the education system at fault.