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.