I grew up thinking that avoiding criticism was good. Perhaps you did too. But as an adult, I know that’s not really what I want.
Every day we make a choice. We can either sit in the stands with the crowd shouting at the people on the field doing the work, or we can jump down from the stand and onto the field.
Sitting in the stands is safe. We rarely look like a fool in the comfort of the masses. The cost of this comfort is that we never really do anything. Choosing to run onto the field and play means we might look like a fool in front of thousands but offers us the chance to do something worthwhile. Surely you want to be on the field. I do. Sure, it’s not always fun or comfortable. But given the choices, it’s obvious which is better.
So much advantage in life comes from being willing to look like an idiot over the short term.
In Rising Strong, Brene Brown comments on Roosevelt’s 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 —
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.
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.
My first year playing football in high school, I was forced to sit on the bench. It killed me to watch my teammates battle it out while I was on the sideline. Most parents would shout at the people on the field, telling them how they were messing up and what they couldn’t see. I remember listening to them one game and wanting them to yell at me. If they were yelling at me, it meant I was playing. I was getting dirty and battling it out. I’d rather be exhausted, face down in the mud at the end of a game we lost, than sit with a clean jersey on the sidelines with no responsibility.
Once you develop that mindset, it stays with you forever.
After University, I joined a three-letter intelligence agency and wanted to be in operations. I wanted to be the one making the call. I didn’t want to absolve myself of responsibility or accountability. I wanted the weight on my shoulders. I didn’t want to helplessly watch someone else carrying it.
Not much has changed since then. As an entrepreneur, I’m the arena building every day. When you have millions of readers, people are going to shout. When you start a new business, which I’m about to do for the fourth time, people will laugh when you stumble. I’d be more upset if there was silence. If no one is criticizing you, it means you’re not doing anything worth doing.
That’s not to say you should ignore all criticism. That’s too simplistic. Turn down the volume on the people who haven’t done what you’re trying to do or aren’t in the arena with you. Turn up the volume on the people who’ve done it before.