In Theodore Roosevelt’s “The Man in the Arena” speech, he talks about “the critic”, the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, but is he addressing the critic or the strong man, the “doer of deeds”, or is it both?
Many a year ago now while I was in high school, admittedly only so I could play sports, I handed in a piece of art work to my art teacher. The teacher loved it and asked what the symbolism was, then paused, and told me what the symbolism was because, to him, it’s the beholder of the work that gets to interpret it however they like. The work, though intended in a certain way by the artist, can be made personal by the viewer.
I hadn’t thought about the statement he made to me on that day while I was in the ninth grade until I set out to answer the question I posed above.
On some level it doesn’t matter who TR was addressing, it matters who you are, and who you are will determine how you should interpret it and what you gain from it.
I have no doubt that TR was making the point, as he often did, that a great nation is built by great men and men who are willing to live a strenuous life, a life of action, of daring greatly and of never-ending persistence. He had a greater focus, I’m sure, one where he wanted to praise those who were doing and condemn those who weren’t, not for their own personal gain, necessarily, but for the betterment of a society.
He also knew that without a populace who saw value in work, pride in working hard, in going above and beyond, a society simply cannot thrive. So in inspiring and empowering those who hustle he was doing what he wanted to do overall, make life better for the majority, and a better life cannot be handed to anyone, it must be earned.
“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.”
To the Critic
If you’re reading TR’s speech and you’re a critic, a gossip, you can’t help but feel weak and ashamed, and that’s a good thing. He gives absolute power, in the section of the speech above, to the man who is in the arena who, even if he fails, strives valiantly. The critic, in TR’s speech, is the man in the stands.
Who is this man in the stands?
In a very, maybe overly literal example, we can see the critic as the man in the stands at a fight or a sporting event screaming at the man who is actually in the arena, face bloodied, spirit tested. The man in the stands calls the fighter a coward, a pussy, yet has never in his life stepped into a ring and fought.
You hear it at UFC events or boxing matches maybe more than anywhere, but the same exists at football games or hockey games, and sometimes the QB is being a pussy or a prima donna, but in the case of a fight, the man who enters the ring has my respect simply for stepping between those ropes, and if you’ve fought you’ll understand why. You’ll understand the work and the suffering you have to go through to prepare for a fight, and even if you’re lazy and you don’t train hard, you still need balls to step into a ring with a man that did. (Read this: How Much Can You Know About Yourself If You’ve Never Been In A Fight?)
The critic, though, is far more prevalent in everyday life. They’re all around us. If you read TR’s speech and you find yourself getting angry or defensive it’s likely you that are the critic. It’s likely you that is in the stands of life commenting and complaining about how the strong man stumbles.
The critic is the gossip. He’s the one who gives reasons – or excuses, they’re all the same – for his lack of success or value or happiness, then points out how the other man has lied or cheated or been given his success. He thinks his road to be tougher and sees it as a valid excuse to not even enter the arena.
He refuses to take responsibility for his life. He sees himself and the life he’s been born into as a setback, one worthy of a gift, entitlement, a helping hand or a leg up, and until he gets this helping hand it’s simply unfair to expect him to work as hard as the man who’s been “blessed with more”.
What he fails to see is the work that the strong man does. He fails to see the true story, the real starting point and the obstacles that were faced and faced with grit and won only through intelligence and persistence. He likes feeling as though he’s been hard done by because it excuses him from entering the arena where hard work is more valuable than a starting point in life and where persistence is more important than innate ability.
If you are a critic, TR’s speech should, at the very least, open your eyes to the fact that nothing is won on the sidelines. If you don’t get into the arena, if you don’t face your fears and stop making excuses you will end your life as a bitter, cynical fool who’s won nothing nor given the world a single thing of value, but has been a cancer on society, likely bringing others over to your side along the way.
To the Strong Man
To you, the speech should be affirmation, and not even affirmation that success will come, but that by simply working and persisting you’re being more than the man calling at you from the stands, yelling at you, criticizing you.
Work isn’t merely done to create something, though that’s the primary motivation, if we worked and worked and never gained anything from it, it would suck. Work, however, is done for the sake of the work and how it makes us better, tougher, and grittier. Work well done gives a man pride and cause to stand tall.
A man who takes pride in his work and works hard can, at the end of a very long and arduous day, lie down knowing he’s done his best with what he has. This is strength. This is cause for enjoyment. This is a man taking responsibility for his life. This is a man who has power.
When you develop a strong work ethic and tie it to audacity, there is little that can stop you.
Too many confine their work with limitations that aren’t real. And there’s nothing actually wrong with this, you can work hard and be proud of what you do, that’s a great, great thing that few can claim. But try to dare mightily once in a while as well. Try to extend yourself just a little further and aim just a little higher.
Know what it truly means to dare mighty things, whether victory or defeat is to follow, you would have lived a wonderful life.