The Arena

This post was actually inspired by a Periscope Kayla Hollatz did. I owe her for reminding me of one of my favorite Brene Brown illustrations.

Brene Brown, for those who haven’t heard of her, (in which case, might I add, please rectify that), is a shame researcher. She’s written several books and given at least two TED talks on the subjects of shame, vulnerability, and wholehearted living.

In one of her TED talks and in her latest book “Daring Greatly”, Brene uses the idea of the Arena to illustrate a point about criticism and creativity. She gets this image from a quote by Teddy Roosevelt, where she also got the title of the book from.

“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.”

The idea, of course, is pretty universal, which is probably why she uses it. Even if you’ve never studied classical history, you’ve probably seen “Gladiator”, or at least know what a gladiator is. If it’s not gladiators, it’s knights, or bull-riders, or football players, (American and European). Warriors duking it out for the entertainment of the crowd is something so widespread, it should probably make us want to take a serious look at human civilization in general and reconsider what we would call “civilized”.

But what Brene is getting at, indeed what Teddy Roosevelt was getting at, was that there is a significance to the warrior, the gladiator, the one in the arena fighting. A significance unique to the fighter that they have precisely because they are the ones in the arena. They are the ones fighting, and that choice to fight, being in that position, gives them value.

And Brene gives voice to what Roosevelt left as subtext. It’s because they are vulnerable. The warrior is putting themselves in danger. That’s what being in the arena means. If it were safe, everyone would do it. And, one might say, if it were safe, it wouldn’t be as entertaining.

I have to admit, I’m a sucker for a good metaphor, and this one is just ripe with meaning.

The point Brene draws from the arena is the same one Roosevelt did, that it’s the warrior, not the spectator, who matters. “It’s not the critic who counts”; it’s the man in the mud. And the reason for that, of course, is because the fighter is doing something, not merely watching. There’s the crowd and then there’s the gladiator.

This is something I think we continually learn. It seems to come up in so many different ways. Brene Brown, Teddy Roosevelt, even the Pixar movie “Ratatouille”, which has one of the best speeches about criticism I’ve ever heard; so much so that I’m still surprised it came from a movie about a rat chef.

Criticism has a certain allure about it. Because criticism is easy, and satisfying, in a way. Especially negative criticism. There is a certain pleasure in knocking the blocks down, regardless, or because, of the fact that someone else put them up.

But criticism, we must continually remind ourselves, is of less value than creative effort. That’s where the arena comes in. Because it is an arena. There’s risk and danger involved in every significant effort we make. The arena actually illustrates an important truth I will one day hopefully get to expand on: creativity is an act of vulnerability.

Creativity is a fight. But not, I think, against the critics. The critics are simply there. They are the watching mob. The illustration only reminds us that they will always be present. The thing we are fighting is something else. And what and who we are fighting is very important.

In her periscope video, Kayla brought up an aspect of the arena I hadn’t considered before. We aren’t alone.

There are other warriors, other fighters. All of us who have chosen to step into the arena, to dare greatly. But, as Kayla pointed out, we’re not really fighting each other. It’s easy to think we might be. After all, if creativity is the fight, then aren’t we competing against everyone else?

Maybe. But not necessarily.

We certainly can fight each other, but we don’t have to. It’s scarcity which tells us that any effort you make is in competition with my effort. Any acclaim, attention, achievement you get, is one I can’t. That, of course, is an idea you could write novels about.

And it’s not true.

We don’t have to fight each other. That’s the good news. Especially good, considering we are all taking the same risk; we are all fighting the same thing.

Fear. Shame. Doubt. All the tigers that prey the arena. They are fine, of course, letting us thin each other out, picking at the fallen.

(I could, no doubt, make so many Hunger Games references here, but that’s a little obvious, don’t you think?)

But what if we recognized who the real enemy was? What if we turned our weapons on those things that we are all struggling against? What if we fought the tigers instead of each other?

It’s seems a tad kindergarten to say we should all encourage each other, but, then again, shouldn’t we? Isn’t that we have been told so many times, in so many ways? Isn’t that what we want ourselves?

Scarcity. Competition. These tell us we can’t. That encouragement is wasted effort, which could be used for self-focused pursuits. And as long as we follow those ideas they will never give us evidence to the contrary. Then again, they are all about fear, and as long we are letting fear make our decisions for us, we will never not be afraid.

Fear is the enemy of vulnerability. It’s the very thing that will keep us out of the arena all together. And, in the stands, with the mob, as one of the critics, we will be safe, but we won’t be doing anything worth as much.

In the arena is where we belong. And if we recognize that, moreover if we recognize the value in the very choice to step into the arena and realize that all of us here have made that choice, then we might be able to set aside scarcity and competition and work, fight together. This, obviously, goes against some very natural, human tendencies like selfishness and envy. But they are as much the enemies we are fighting as fear and doubt, and until we recognize them as the real enemy, we will never achieve as much as we can.

If we fight the tigers and not each other, then we all get to fight.

Maybe, then, we could all get out of the arena alive. Maybe we could all triumph.

Perfectly Done

“Done is better than perfect.”

I love the Internet for many reasons, not the least of which is that in a few keystrokes I can find amazing, inspiring quotes like the one above. I also hate the Internet for many reasons, not the least of which is that no one sources their quotes.

Thus, I cannot properly credit who came up with the above. I cannot even properly remember where I first read it. But suffice it to say it is inspiring, and I wasn’t the first one to coin the phrase.

No, I was definitely not the first one. Because that’s the sort of thing I would never, ever say. Because for most of my life, I never would’ve believed it. I never would have believed that being done was better than being done perfectly.

Like a lot of our most central thoughts, that’s not the sort of thing I’d have ever said out loud. If I had, I probably would’ve figured it out a long time ago. It’s the same reason you don’t see the word “perfect” thrown around as much, not as a goal anyway. Because when you start to say “perfect”, it’s really easy to add the “-ionism” to the end, and then the jig is up. That’s the thing about skewed ideas. In the light, you can see the flaws.

At the same time, I know for me and I imagine for a lot of people, the “p-word” shows up a lot more than we realize or would like to admit. Whether or not we say it out loud, perfection is often one of our goals. I know it’s always been for me.

And, again, out loud, we can see the error. Perfection is not only unattainable but indefinable. It’s the rainbow’s end, the ever-stretching horizon, the moving goalposts. We know it’s not something we’ll ever reach, and yet…

And yet, somewhere in our subconscious, there’s a compass that always seems to be pointing towards it. I don’t say any of this to make it seem like we shouldn’t try our best. Obviously, we should. The compass isn’t necessarily bad. It’s just a guideline. We’re told, after all, to aim high.

And maybe we’re land among the stars.

Another quote that I can’t properly source says that perfection is like the North Star. We’ll never reach it, but if we use it as a guide, we can get wherever we’re going.

And I believe that’s all true. And I think we know that, for the most part. But we humans, as talented as we are at taking broad, un-nuanced concepts and wielding them like hammers; we are also scary good at splitting hairs.

Tell us we’ll never reach the stars, and the first question we ask is, “yeah, but how much are we expected to miss by? An inch or a mile?” Sure, we’ll never get there, but how close can we get? And will it be closer than someone else who maybe didn’t try as hard? (It’s this sort of thinking that invented the A+.)

Oddly enough, I think this mode of thought might be the flipside of the coin to the attitude that asks what the bare minimum to qualify is. Ambition and laziness, the binary star system that makes up the human ego.

But, as much as we might recognize that perfectionism is harmful, unattainable even, we find it so very hard to set it aside, to not use it as our main method of judging success. Perfection might be unattainable, but what else is there?

And here’s the self-determinative part of the sermon.

How do you tell when you’re done?

That’s the question we ask. That’s why we pull perfection into the mix, because it seems like the best answer. In many ways, it seems like the only answer. Because any other answer, by sheer definition of the word involved, would have to be less. Don’t tell me “good enough.” Good enough compared to what? Perfect?

“Enough”, as it turns out, is just as numinous a goal as perfect.

So how do you tell? How do you know?

The answer? You decide.

And that’s the part I could never accept.

Being done is better than perfect, for the sheer fact that you will never reach perfect, so you might as well be done, otherwise you won’t be anything. There’s always going to be more to do, more to add or take out. It will always be less than perfect, so if we make perfect our goal, we’ll be working forever. How then do we decide it’s good enough to be done? We just do.

And, trust me, that frustrates me to no end, and I know why. Because I want there to be something else that can tell me when it’s good enough. I want something objective, outside myself, some standard I can put my creative works up against so I know they’ll be worthwhile before I ever put them out there.

Because I don’t trust my own judgment.

And just like that, it comes back to self-esteem.

Yes, it’s true. If you don’t trust your own judgment, you’re not likely to put anything out there. Nothing that really matters, anyway. Because there’s nothing else that you can use to judge it. Nothing helpful, anyway.

Take it from someone who’s stifled more projects than he’s published, for this very reason, there’s nothing else you can rely on. Unless you decide it’s good enough, it never will be. Even simpler than that, if you don’t decide it’s done, it never will be. So, at some point, you have to.

At some point, you have to decide that it’s time, and you are the only who can. And, if you don’t… well, you don’t need me to tell you.

And this is something I’m learning.

“Done is better than perfect.”

I say it to myself about once a day. Because I know it’s true. I know that if I didn’t decide to be done, I never would have made this site live. I never would have written this blog post. And I never will publish any of the stories I have written, am writing, or will ever write.

It doesn’t answer all the questions, and it’s still something I have to judge on a case-by-case basis. But that’s the idea.

There isn’t a rule or rubric. There isn’t a standard or formula. (Trust me, no one wishes there were more than I do.) But the good news is: there isn’t one. There’s nothing stopping us from creating, except us. Not an easy hurdle to overcome, but we can.

We can.

And we should.