Are You In the Rafters or Are You In The Arena?

Having always loved Theodore Roosevelt, I’m thrilled that this quote from his “Citizenship in a Republic” speech from 1910 has gotten so much air time lately, mostly thanks to my favorite mentor, Brene Brown.  It goes like this:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face in marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Don’t you just love that?  Doesn’t it make your heart pound with excitement and inspiration?  The first time I read this quote, I cried.  I’ve long known that I tear up in the presence of truth and the Sacred. To me, this paragraph carries both qualities because it’s a call for all of us to stop sitting on the sidelines saying witty and snarky things about the perceived failings of others when we wouldn’t dare expose our true selves in the world.  (Are you listening, my favorite Talk Show Host?)

In my opinion, this land of the free and home of the brave has become a nation of critics, too paralyzed with fear to risk failure.  We’re bringing our kids up this way too.  The price of failure is too great – college admissions is culpable here – so healthy risk-taking has all but dried up in schools everywhere.

We’re going in exactly the wrong direction.

Since the beginning, America’s #1 strength has been our ability to innovate and create, to build that better mousetrap.  We’ve always been a dissenting lot, choosing independence over the suffocation of convention.  (Just read the Bill of Rights again, written to “design a more perfect union”.)  But in the past 2.5 decades, first seduced by Big Wealth in the go-go ’90s and then paralyzed with fear of terrorism since Sept. 11, 2001, we have become something different… scared to show up and play.

We’re scared to let our kids fail.  We’re scared to challenge the crazy lies we’re getting from government, from both sides of the aisle.  Now we know that our own government is keeping copies of our every phone call, email and text with no explanation.  Google hands over our internet search data to the Feds and also probably sells it to companies so they can track our search patterns and sell us stuff, you know, for our ‘convenience’.  And we’re too scared or overwhelmed or asleep to jump into the arena and deal, to question what is going on.

If I were a primary or secondary teacher or principal, I would use this quote as a mantra for myself and my students.

I’d encourage risk taking and especially failure, in order to stoke up resilience, competence and the mother of all skills, confidence.  I’d encourage inquiry, not right answers.  I’d get my students down into the arena where they could go for it and get plenty dirty in the process.  It’s way more fun than mastering the one-trick-pony of the snarky insult of others who risk, or the paralysis of perfectionism.

Reading TR’s ‘Man in the Arena’ quote has inspired me to get real about who I am and what I am here to offer the world.  I’ve been criticized plenty – still am – and that had a suppressing effect on me until this paragraph lit me up inside.  I know many good people, people I love, who would rather sit up in the rafters and make fun of those in the arena.  I no longer join them.

For me, I’ll take my destiny standing up.  There’s plenty of room down here for us all and everyone is welcome.