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The Man In The Arena: Citizenship In A Republic

Remember this the next time you criticize.

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 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 and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for 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 he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.
Theodore Roosevelt

From the speech “Citizenship In A Republic,” Paris, France on 23 April 1910.

In Rising Strong, Brene Brown comments on this speech, focusing on one particular part: “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.” She writes —

Imagine the sound of a needle scratching across a record. Stop here. Before I hear anything else about triumph or achievement, this is where I want to slow down time so I can figure out exactly what happens next.

We’re facedown in the arena. Maybe the crowd has gone silent, the way it does at football games or my daughter’s field hockey matches when the players on the field take a knee because someone is hurt. Or maybe people have started booing and jeering. Or maybe you have tunnel vision and all you can hear is your parent screaming, “Get up! Shake it off!”

Our “facedown” moments can be big ones like getting fired or finding out about an affair, or they can be small ones like learning a child has lied about her report card or experiencing a disappointment at work. Arenas always conjure up grandeur, but an arena is any moment when or place where we have risked showing up and being seen. Risking being awkward and goofy at a new exercise class is an arena. Leading a team at work is an arena. A tough parenting moment puts us in the arena. Being in love is definitely an arena.

When I started thinking about this research, I went to the data and asked myself, What happens when we’re facedown? What’s going on in this moment? What do the women and men who have successfully staggered to their feet and found the courage to try again have in common? What is the process of rising strong?

I wasn’t positive that slowing down time to capture the process was possible, but I was inspired by Sherlock Holmes to give it a shot. …

In Season 3, there’s an episode where Sherlock is shot. Don’t worry, I won’t say by whom or why, but, wow, I did not see it coming. The moment he’s shot, time stops. Rather than immediately falling, Sherlock goes into his “mind palace”—that crazy cognitive space where he retrieves memories from cerebral filing cabinets, plots car routes, and makes impossible connections between random facts. Over the next ten minutes or so, many of the cast of recurring characters appear in his mind, each one working in his or her area of expertise and talking him through the best way to stay alive.

First, the London coroner who has a terrific crush on Sherlock shows up. She shakes her head at Sherlock, who seems completely taken aback by his inability to make sense of what’s happening, and comments, “It’s not like it is in the movies, is it, Sherlock?” Aided by a member of the forensics team at New Scotland Yard and Sherlock’s menacing brother, she explains the physics of how he should fall, how shock works, and what he can do to keep himself conscious. The three warn him when pain is coming and what he can expect. What probably takes three seconds in real time plays out for more than ten minutes on the screen. I thought the writing was genius, and it re-energized my efforts to keep at my own slow-motion project.

My goal for this book is to slow down the falling and rising processes: to bring into our awareness all the choices that unfurl in front of us during those moments of discomfort and hurt, and to explore the consequences of those choices.

[…]

On a cultural level, I think the absence of honest conversation about the hard work that takes us from lying facedown in the arena to rising strong has led to two dangerous outcomes: the propensity to gold-plate grit and a badassery deficit.