March 27, 2019
“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…” This quote from Theodore Roosevelt came up in conversation between my brother and I regularly as we discuss our various endeavors and hobbies.
Roosevelt essentially argues that the thing that matters most isn’t the response of others to the work you are doing, but rather that you endeavor to do great things. It’s far greater to try and fail than to sit on the sidelines and do nothing but critique the performance of others. The obvious implication in the speech is in the realm of sports, as that’s the metaphor he used to make his point.
It’s better to compete and lose than to be too timid to try. But, my brother has pointed out how this passage applies in all sorts of arenas that have nothing to do with athletic performance. A while ago, I was talking with him about my nervousness over self-publishing a book. Fact of the matter is that it opens you up to some harsh criticism of your work and the very real possibility of failing to achieve any measure of sales success.
My brother encouraged me by pointing out that it is better to be the man in the arena, failing to sell books or being panned for a bad product, than to sit on the sidelines and dream about writing a book but never doing it. This certainly applies to all manner of areas beyond my project. I have known folks who talked endlessly about going to school to get a degree to get a better job, but never do it for fear of failing or because the challenge seemed to be too much to take on.
I know a lot of folks who won’t take up exercising or trying to learn a new skill because they fear failure. In the end, it’s better to look silly at the gym or play the piano badly than to do nothing, because failure in pursuit of accomplishment is admirable.
Daydreaming about victories I’ll never win because I’m too lazy or afraid to try is far worse than actually failing. If there is one lesson I would teach young me, it is that failure and rejection sting for a moment, but the knowledge that I never tried, paired with questions about what could have been, are a heavier weight by far. There are 2 last advantages to trying to take on great challenges that can easily go unnoticed.
There is always the possibility we might succeed in our goals. We might actually manage to accomplish what we set out to do. If nothing else, we’re more likely to get there if we try than if we do nothing but wish. The second advantage to trying is that even in failure, I have found that I benefit. There is rarely a loss I experience in life that doesn’t teach me something or change me for the better.
Those lessons and moments of growth translate into stronger character and wisdom over the long term. The starting point for stepping into the arena and trying to do great things is simple: start working toward the goal, even if it’s a little bit a day. A small amount of effort over a long period of time accumulates. I often set small goals for myself to accomplish every day. Well chosen small goals can move you in the direction you are trying to go. We simply need to make the decision to get started and then take our first steps.