the wo/man in the arena

Ellen + friends

I have a post-it note above my desk with this reminder on it:

“At the end of the day and at the end of my life, I want to know that I contributed more than I criticized.”

It’s a touchstone for me when I’m feeling vulnerable about sharing my work in a world where it’s easy to attack and ridicule. It’s also helpful when I find myself using perfection, sarcasm, and criticism to protect myself or to discharge my own discomfort.

I also turn to this quote from Theodore Roosevelt’s speech Citizenship In A Republic, delivered at the Sorbonne (1910): 

The Man in the Arena

“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 is 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.”

I’m constantly reminding myself that I can’t wait until I’m perfect or bulletproof to walk into the arena because that’s never going to happen. We just have show up and let ourselves be seen – that’s my definition of “daring greatly.”  

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  11. Sandra Lynn

    Love this. Thank you for a timely reminder. xo

  12. Gail S

    "At the end of the day and at the end of my life, I want to know that I contributed more than I criticized."
    Thank you for posting this quote. It resonates with me because after a relationship with an emotionally abusive person, I am coming to terms with the person I believe I am. Not the person I became when I lived with this person who wanted to control others and who was in denial of his vulnerability among other things. We had four children together but when I look back on many of the things that happened during that time, I am saddened by the negative atmosphere that evolved over time. Now, I am somewhat heartened by the fact that I do not live with this person, and can talk to all of my grown children (at least on some level). He cannot because he has been shut out as a reaction to his overbearing behaviour and his infidelity to me.
    In some ways, I feel reborn. I am free from the yelling and arguing that occurred for years. I do not have to answer to his whims at the loss of my self.
    I am a life-long Unitarian and heard about you at last Sunday's service. Had I not left him 3 years ago, I would not have been here today, listening to what you have to offer and share. Thank you to you and to those who have guided me here.

  13. I'm reading your past entries since I just discovered your blog, and am delighted to know you (and all your wonderful insights and resources) exist. 🙂

    This post resonates with me today, in the post-holiday let down, the stalled remodel, the flailing relationship, the grief, the overwhelmingness of it all. Bless you.

  14. Matthew Albanese

    Martial arts instructors and coaches love this quote, and as a martial artist, I've heard it on numerous occasions. While I appreciate the message and spirit in which it is intended, this quote tends to remind me of all the times I was afraid to try (choosing not to compete, for example), which is probably where I hold most of my shame. What's tough about this message is that there isn't just one time in our lives where we can choose to be the man/woman in the arena and then sit back and say, "See, I tried. I'm not one of those so-called timid souls." Also, the arena itself isn't so clearly defined and some of us are so skilled at self-deception and self-deprecation that we either choose challenges that are too easy so that we can relish in small triumphs, or refrain from truly taking joy in our achievements because they still weren't good enough.

  15. Bonnie

    This is sound advice and something that seems especially important to you in an academic setting. I recall you once shamed a student for not knowing how to eat edamame…because this resonated with a previous experience you had with yourself not knowing enough about the "all-important" soybean. This has stayed with me as especially sad that you, as an academic, would let something so trite get between you and the "authentic" opportunity to connect with a young person. I think it is easy to proclaim awareness and change but much more difficult to practice it first person, "just in time." There is something profound yet sad in your work. What is it that you are trying to work on for yourself?

  16. Renee

    I found it very ironic when I saw you posted this quote from Teddy Roosevelt on Thursday because my sister had just sent me it in an email the day before. She had made a mistake at work (ordered too many supplies) and her coworks were being rude about it. I did not have a good day at school that day (I am 27 going back to get my bachelors and wondering why I have decided to surround myself with 18 and 20 years olds again) and we were trying to cheer each other up as we fight our daily battles. Her quote had some extras in there……….It is not the critic who counts (Myron or Elsa), not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better (like not ordering so many supplies). The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena (Me or you going to school …you're doing something not being dormant); whose face is marred by the dust and sweat and blood (or text book dust or keyboard blisters); who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again (we ALL do this especially in youth- how else do you really learn?); who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions and spends himself in a worthy course (funny thing – each person can decide to have passion. It's not a learned skill but it's what will get you what you want at the end of the day); who at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who, at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly (the reward of at least trying); so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat (my coworkers).

    I am so glad I have a sister and positive people in my life who can bring to light truths when it seems like life sucks.Thank you for sharing.

  17. such perfect timing…and such a powerful read, grazie brene

  18. Deborah

    HI Brene'….thanks so much for your all your efforts to 'real-ize' our collective struggle with perfection and cracking the shell of 'addictive-numbing' behavior (with the many faces it takes)….not everyone is laying in the gutter, but needs guidance to understand borderline situations that don't fit the standard mold of serious addictions…but are still debilitating.. Just read your book on Imperfection and I loved the way you made yourself so accessible. I have never reached out to a so-called famous person that i did not know… i.e….the OPRAH or whatever…but i was very moved by your book, even though I read and study quite a lot, in an effort to unravel my experiences in a productive way… Having been basically alone through some seriously unique challenging life experiences I have emerged OK but rather exhausted and slightly damaged….it may take the rest of my life to reconcile all that has occurred but you helped me so much more than the requisite counseling and so forth…which didn't completely sync with me either. I was always told I was so healthy! ….and frankly I felt some of the counselors needed to take a course of self examination! Sometimes by comparison I WAS very healthy…but it did not address MY struggles to live a fully embraced life…I was not perfect, even though I was patted on the head like a good dog, such a star (gag) client…it was hard to access the help i needed from these folks. Yes, many people would be crazy after all that occurred in my life! but the lack of craziness on my part was not, to me a badge of 'success'. Thanks to your book…after SO many others, l felt at home. Although I've had and learned some good coping skills , read tons of books and been nauseatingly congratulated on my survival …it was still hard to let myself off the hook for not fixing, saving, salvaging…. EVERYThing that was lost….after all….wasn't I the smart one? the resourceful one? the well grounded one? The MOTHER! Sometimes others bestow a mantle on you that is not who you CAN or want to be….(to increase their own comfort level.)….no one can save the whole world or needs to be charged with it! the unfortunate truth is… knowing this in the HEAD does not always translate to the heart. Thank you for opening the door to my heart a little wider, and letting the light in 🙂 It's a little brighter in here now….one of the things I say to myself when i get paralyzed by my 'failures' or lack of perfection is "Completion is better than perfection"…I am one of those that has hesitated and waits until things 'are', or perhaps I feel I could appear more perfect ( they never are…HELLO) to move forward..(thanks MOM..news flash..appearances are not everything..haha).. it is perhaps my greatest struggle..You have helped me break further out of that 'heart-set".. I have wished i could have provided my children with more childhood 'perfection'…though perhaps they never required it.
    Ironically I am very good at encouraging and supporting others to break free of it!!! Oh , i want that for OTHERS! I so appreciate the way your courage to self-reveal has gotten inside MY heart! Thank you sincerely….and as a tribute i am resisting the urge to proof read… edit or be critical of myself for possibly getting 'off thread'…and just going for the possibly-imperfect communication value 🙂 THANK YOU….some great comments and insights here! awesome….and I love the art work too. 🙂 BIngo!