My obsession with all things Harry Potter led me to a gem of a book by J. K. Rowling- Very Good Lives: The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination. It is the kind of book that leaves you with a great deal to reflect upon. One of the more thought provoking points Rowling makes is, “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.”
What do I consider failure? It’s a seemingly straightforward question but not so easily answered. There have been times I have felt like a complete and utter failure because the outcome was the opposite of what I hoped, despite my very best efforts. However, generally, I believe that you only ever truly fail when you have not given something your all. Mistakes do not automatically equate to failure.
This is true even when it comes to genealogy. I have read some truly wonderfully written and informative articles about mistakes to avoid in your genealogy research. Likewise, I have heard several good case study lectures that inevitably touch upon mistakes to avoid. I encourage anyone who is trying to add to their genealogy knowledge and skill set to read writings on this topic. However, I do so with the caveat that over the past 18 years of researching I have learned more from my mistakes than I have from any single article, blog post, or lecture. The not-so-simple trick is learning how to recognize these mistakes in the first place and applying yourself to do what you can to fix them.
What are some of the mistakes I have made over the years?
- Did not get all of the information necessary for a full citation for a particular record
- Made assumptions and chased down the wrong person
- Made assumptions and overlooked the right person
- Too easily trusted the integrity of others’ research
- Botched research trips by not preparing well enough in advance
- Forgot to call ahead before going to a courthouse and wasted a trip as a result
- Not backed up records and lost them as a result
- Kept some horribly unclear notes.
And I’m sure I could easily add to that list if I put more time and thought into the matter.
Perhaps the best advice I can offer to a new or more recent genealogist is to learn what you can to avoid mistakes but don’t expect yourself to not ever make a mistake. Furthermore, do not allow your research to be held back by fear of making a mistake. Remember that making mistakes is one of the most valuable learning experiences you can have.
The second theme of J. K. Rowling’s Very Good Lives is the importance of imagination. Rowling writes that one of the great powers people have is that they “can think themselves into others peoples places.” When she is discussing this point it is in reference to humanitarian efforts and simply empathizing with your fellow man. But, how often do we genealogists think of ourselves not only into other peoples’ places but other peoples’ times as well? Perhaps genealogy requires a great deal of imagination.
When I read my five times great grandfather’s pension application I am not simply extracting data from it. I am picturing in my mind the battle fought in, I am imagining how he made it through every single day after that battle with a wound that never healed quite right, I am picturing the destitute circumstances of his widow. It is through our imagination that we see these things. It is through the conjuring of these images that we also realize what we cannot see, not because of a lack of imagination, but because of a lack of knowledge. From this place we find encouragement to press on.
It is my imagination that lets me find new approaches to problems, it is what helps me figure out how to get around a lack of records, it is what helps me see what is behind the proverbial brick wall. It is the thing behind the formulation of questions that begin with “Why” and “What-if.” To find a solution to a problem sometimes you have to look at it from a different angle; sometimes that means you have to imagine yourself to that place.
Rowling’s point of imagination as a powerful means to empathize with others is a lesson that the genealogy community on a whole could benefit from remembering. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes. The means and hows of genealogy research are different for today’s newcomers than they were even back when I started. Not everyone comes to genealogy asking the same questions. Not everyone shares the same goals. We learn differently. We face different challenges. Before you speak, think, imagine.
“We do not need magic to transform our world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already. We have the power to imagine better.”
What do you think about failure, mistakes, and imagination in genealogy?
 J. K. Rowling, Very Good Lives: The Fringe Benefits of Failure and Importance of Imagination, (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008), 29.
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