I’m a collector of quotes. I find them inspiring, thought provoking and a testament to the author’s ability to put compelling thoughts into succinct words.
One of my favorite quotes is from a speech given by our 26th President, Theodore Roosevelt. It’s called “The man in the arena.” It’s a favorite because it speaks to all of us and addresses the importance of participating in society.
The speech was given on April 23, 1910, at the Sorbonne in the Grand Amphitheater of the University of Paris. Roosevelt had just left the presidency and was on an overseas tour that included visits to major capitals and heads of state. That speech later became known as “The Man in the Arena.”
The most quoted portion of the speech follows:
“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.” – Theodore Roosevelt.
Roosevelt’s words were a call to action for all members of society to embrace challenges, the lessons learned through failure, and the importance of all being involved. In short, the importance of “stepping into the arena.”
While the original speech was given over a century ago when our country and our world was a very different place, it is still relevant to modern society. Perhaps even more-so as criticism for those who do enter into the public eye has intensified exponentially.
Having the courage to be “the man in the arena” in this age of lightning fast communication, social media judgment and the public’s general glee at critiquing others takes a stellar level of bravery. But we need those brave souls more than ever.
So what exactly is “the arena” and more importantly how does one step into it?
In this speech, the term “man in the arena” is used as a metaphor for someone who chooses to participate in society at a highly visible level.
There is the obvious political arena, so prevalent during an election season, where candidates running for office are targets for all kinds of criticism. This isn’t meant to be a political column, so I’ll leave it at that.
It can also mean taking on a leadership position where one is thrust into the spotlight – such as running a large company, serving in a high post in the military, or as presiding over a university or charitable organization.
There is also the literal sports arena where coaches and players at all levels – from little league to a professional team are on display. Their triumphs and their mistakes analyzed by all in the audience, from helicopter parents to armchair quarterbacks and fair weather fans.
Being in the arena can also mean joining a volunteer organization or board. Take for example those kind neighbors who raise their hand to join the HOA, only to find out that while there are many who complain about the neighbor’s fence, there are few who will take a turn on the association because they “don’t have the time.”
Running for and serving on the local school board, city council, or county government is an arena not for the faint of heart. Those brave souls who run for office aren’t expecting support from every voter – but they do deserve to be treated (and conversely treat each other) with common decency. Whether they like it or not, their lives are put in the spotlight and under the microscope.
Most citizens who take on these roles, who are trying to make change, do so out of a sense of civic duty and sincere interest in helping others. They don’t take their positions and decisions lightly. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of spectators who delight in judging them and others.
Kudos to those who enter the arena anyway! Thank you for being brave and doing your best despite the second guessing and criticism – believe it or not – you are making a difference.
“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.”
In life, when you try, you may fail, but if you don’t try you are guaranteed not to succeed. And so it is with the man in the arena:
“… 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.
So how about taking a chance? The opportunities to be the man (or woman) in the arena are endless and diverse. It can be as simple as standing up for what you believe is right. It can be putting your name in the hat. It can be whatever action speaks to you.
I’ll end with another quote that pretty much sums up why Teddy’s speech still rings true:
“I am a person through other people. My humanity is tied to yours” – Zulu proverb