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 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 don’t think about this quote all the time, but it does occasionally cross my mind. As many others have before me, and many are newly discovering, this quote sums up how I feel about participants and spectators. It summarizes what I think of critics versus doers, and quitters versus achievers.
First, the critics:
Many years ago I worked with some people who were sports critics. Mainly, they were “experts” in football and basketball, but also with NASCAR, and even in military operations, (which is not a sport, of course, but you’ll see how that fits in). Every Monday morning was an unending critique of what the quarterback did wrong, how the coach screwed up, what he should have done instead, who should have taken the final shot, and how bad the referees were.
For a while I listened to these Monday morning quarterbacks with some interest, but gradually I became aware of a growing irritation at the fact that the men were working blue-collar jobs in a factory, in a small town, making hourly wages in the mid to upper teens, but they were way smarter than the coaches and sports figures actually playing the game.
Along about the same time, I had a Boss, and he was a boss, not a supervisor or facilitator, who constantly told us how he would have done things. He had been there and done that, and had done it better, faster, and cheaper than anyone in the department, or any of the contractors we had brought in. On several occasions he said something about how he would do something I was working on. Finally, one day I stepped back and said, “Show me.” He hemmed and hawed and looked and finally said the ones he used to work on were different and he wasn’t familiar with the newer technology in that machine. He headed off down the aisle and didn’t bother me for a while.
Around that time, the US was deeply involved in Iraq and Afghanistan, with daily news flashes on the latest action in the wars being broadcast on television and radio, and printed in the papers. Out of the woodwork came the armchair generals to bloviate constantly about how they would have run the war and solved all the problems in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the rest of the middle east.
The common thread among these people was that they were all spectators. They weren’t in the game, they weren’t turning the wrench, or tracing the circuit. They weren’t running the show with their job on the line. They don’t count, neither do their opinions.
We’ve all done it. I have, over the last several years, second-guessed the coach of the UNC Tarheels, Roy Williams because he seldom uses timeouts at times when the other team is on a run, or the clock is winding down and the team is behind. But he’s winning championships and he’s drawing in the best recruits, so this year, I grudgingly admitted he had a really good system, and knew what he was doing far, far, far better than I. It’s a hard trap to avoid. We should try at all times and in all ways to avoid falling into that trap.
When we are the critic or the finger pointer, we contribute very little if anything to the situation at hand.
I’ll pause right here and say there is definitely a place for constructive criticism. Someone pointing out, in a positive way, something I had overlooked has on several occasions saved me a lot of grief and extra work. That’s not what I have been talking about. If you are unwilling to accept constructive criticism, then there’s probably a lot to be written about your attitude. I’m not going to do that. Not right now anyway.
But then there’s the other guy.
He’s the guy, or gal, that is in the thick of it.
The person in the arena, (not at, but in), with the lights blazing down, focusing all attention upon them. The heat from the lamps and the pressure to perform would cook lesser men alive, but there they are, giving it their all in the pursuit of…something.
The man in the arena is down in the trenches. He has only two paths: forward to victory and success, or backward to defeat and shame. He’s facing the enemy, or the opponent, or the job that everyone is relying on. These are my kind of people. They know the hounds of defeat are loosed on their heels and a mistake at some critical point could destroy all that they have built.
He’s the man on the face of the cliff. He looks above to great heights, or below to infinite depths. He’s there climbing the mountain, while more timid souls sit at the base and comment on the ways they think he should go, or where his next footfall should land. It’s his foot that has to work with a toe-hold, and his hand that’s hanging by its fingernails. It’s his mind that has to battle the thoughts and fears that work to steal into his mind and paralyze him before he can climb the next few inches.
The man who strives is one who knows mistakes. There is no mastery without them. He has learned his skills through training, yes, but also in trial and error. He has felt the bruises and blows and the humiliation of failure. Some would have quit. Some would have said, “Enough”, and settled down to a life of safe mediocrity. The man in the arena has faced those demons and has faced them down. Not just once or twice, but over and over on his road to mastery of his craft.
The person in the spotlight is someone who is in their groove. They have found the thing that they have passion for and they have pursued it and taken hold on it and made it their own. He or she knows the enthusiasm of knowing what they were made for. The negativity of others does not dampen their desire to be in the middle of things, whatever “things” they are in the midst of. The arena is different for every person. The battle for mastery is a very personal battle.
The man in the arena knows what he fights for. He knows his goals. He knows the right and wrong of the things he does. No person can master something they are unsure of. The doubts that come can find fertile ground in the person’s mind who is unsure. They know their cause. They know the worthiness of what they strive for. They want to win that Tough Mudder or Spartan Race, because that trophy belongs to them and they want to claim it. They want to run that Marathon, climb that rock, win that ballgame. They want to get that degree, get hired for that job, earn that promotion because it’s rightly theirs if they earn it, and nobody can take that success away. Even when the onlookers can’t see that it is worth the effort that they are putting in, they know that it is.
I have watched the fans go wild when their team won the championship, or beat that historical rival. I’ve seen them jump and wave their arms and even cry tears of joy. I have seen them cry other, more bitter tears when their favorite team lost. These are mere spectators. Their stake in the game is just pride in their team. They have crossed fingers, and prayed small prayers to the gods of sports, but they haven’t sweated and toiled and put their body and soul on the line. I have seen these same fans moan and groan and criticize the players and coaches.
But the man in the arena, the man with the skin in the game, with his reputation at stake, I’ve watched them win and lose, and strive and fail, or win. There’s a joy and a pain for them as well. However, their joy, and their spirit is different. The people at Mission Control celebrated when Neil Armstrong set his foot on the moon, but they weren’t Neil Armstrong. The Carolina Basketball fans celebrated in April when they won the championship, but they weren’t the players or the coach on the floor. There is simply no comparison. The man in the arena knows, he knows intimately, the struggle, the pain, the devotion, the years, and the sacrifices that brought them to this point. The win is the culmination of everything they have striven for and the emotions are more than most ordinary people ever know, or can even imagine.
But what about the loser? What about the guy who gave it his all and in the end came up maybe one single point shy of the victory? He’s the guy everyone will be talking about Monday morning. They’ll be second-guessing him.
He’s not a loser. Not like those critics are. At least he had the strength to try, the grit to pit his best against the finest in his field. The wherewithal to step up to the plate and swing for the bleachers. He gave it his all and climbed as far as he could, and maybe the next time he’ll score that final point, but in the meanwhile, there’s always tomorrow and a chance to start over. He climbed, while others sat and he had a goal while others just let the current carry them along. He had the courage and the will, and he has still made it further than most even if in the final seconds he came up short. He knew victory along the way, and he will know it again.
I don’t care for timid, half-hearted people. People who watch from the sidelines as life goes by. I don’t like their big talk with little action. I’m not talking about people who are facing real problems and handicaps. Those people are in an arena themselves every single day. I’m talking about people who could, if they just would, but they won’t. They fear failure, or are lazy, or nurture self-doubt as their biggest vice, because they can use that to avoid responsibility.
I don’t enjoy conversations full of excuses. Some people’s greatest talent is making excuses for the things they never did. “Well, I would have joined the military, but…” No you wouldn’t have. If you had wanted to, there would have been a way. I knew a guy who was broken all to pieces in a car accident. He had all the excuses he needed to give up. He had wanted to join the marines…The MARINES! And you know what he did? He did it. He signed some waivers and signed some commitments and raised his right hand and swore an oath. He did a twenty-year career of pursuing what he wanted to do. Crutches kill dreams; not the physical ones you use for a while and discard, but the mental ones that you carry around inside.
I don’t understand quitters. I wonder, when I see someone quit, how bad they wanted something to begin with. Did they only want it enough that they’d be glad to have it if someone just gave it to them? Is a consolation prize the height of their ambitions and desires? I understand when situations change and priorities change as a result. But what happened when they made some small attempt and then when adversity or effort was involved in the next step, they threw up their hands and walked away? I conclude they didn’t want it; they only would have liked to have had that thing.
I once had a dog, years ago that would belly crawl up to everyone he met and even to me. If a strange dog entered his territory the dog just rolled other and bellied up in total surrender. The dog would tuck his tail and run if you made a sudden motion or tried to play or if you raised your voice. I hated that dog. He was an embarrassment to his species. I can’t even remember his name.
I see people like that, and though I don’t “hate” anyone, I have no desire to be that person’s friend because I know that I can’t rely on their friendship. I can’t depend on their help if sudden trouble comes. I can’t even depend on them not to toss me under the bus if someone else intimidates them.
I like bold people. People who act. I am not saying rash and brash and reckless people. Those people are fools. I’m talking about people who see something they want and go for it; who strive and claw their way to it if necessary, who do things right and legal and honest, but face any barrier or hindrance with determination, intelligence, and willpower, and overcome to get to their goal.
I like optimistic people. People who see in every new day a field ripe for the harvest. I like people who smile, even in the heat of the battle, and have a positive outlook for the big picture. These people take setbacks in stride. They may stop for a second to get their bearings or rethink a plan and step out boldly in the best way they see to move ahead.
I like people who believe in something. They are willing to say with confidence, “This is what I believe, and I am not budging from it.” They take a stand. I can respect someone that I disagree with if they actually stand for something. I have a friend I once worked with, who was the political opposite of me. We had a lot of good conversation and lively debate, and a very healthy dose of mutual respect. He stood on things he believed and was confident enough in his beliefs to have a civil discussion about it. I did the same. It was fun times. We are still friends even in the current insane political atmosphere.
Do you want an easy life? Just coast on through. Go along to get along, and don’t let anyone pin you down on a solid belief. Don’t set goals. Don’t dream of greatness. Don’t try to climb the ladder. Don’t take risks and lay it on the line. Be careful to never really, really want something, and always settle for mediocrity. Just plod along in blissful blandness. You wouldn’t know what to do with success anyway.
You can have your pastel life and its feeble attempts, and idle amusements. You can float on the current and be carried wherever the water or wind goes. I don’t want any part of that. I want to live.
Don’t be the critic, or the Monday morning quarterback, or the armchair general. Be a doer. Be the guy in the Arena. Maybe the arena is small right now, but when you win here, you get to move up. Go for it. The glory is yours for the taking.
(c) May 16th, 2017 James L. Frady