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In Praise of Those “In the Arena”

Brené Brown has written extensively on shame and vulnerability. Shame keeps us small—keeps us listening to the critic inside who tells us to play it safe, to ask for guarantees, to try to predict and control our lives and relationships, to never let them see us sweat, and—for God’s sake—to never, ever look weak (this is a particularly potent and pernicious shame-based motivator for men). Embracing our vulnerability—courageously leaning into it—is the antidote to shame and the pathway to full lives and powerful leadership. There is, simply, no chance of creativity, innovation, passion, change, or authentic, inspired leadership without some vulnerability being involved (For a quick orientation to Brené Brown’s research, view her extremely popular TED talks here and here.  I highly recommend them; she is funny, authentic and wise).

Brené has entitled her newest book Daring Greatly, after Theodore Roosevelt’s famous quote, one that I love as well:

“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…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.”

What puts us in the arena? Certainly, it’s not only the warrior-like acts of valor conjured up by Roosevelt’s language. It can also be those daily, small acts of daring greatly, which include anything that requires us to change or that makes us feel vulnerable. These are the things that “the critic” desperately wants to talk us out of because they hold no guarantees. I count every single one of my clients as being squarely in the arena. Coaching and intentional development demands vulnerability (see the previous post). Here are a few ways my clients dare greatly all the time: making the call, asking for feedback, apologizing and promising to do better, speaking up, shutting up and listening, signing up for the class, having the difficult conversation, writing the proposal,  formulating a new vision, asking for the raise, giving the talk, renegotiating boundaries, quitting the job, taking the  job, or simply learning to just “be” with themselves, without technology tethers to the office.

So, today, let’s praise those in the arena—those willing to risk looking hard at themselves to discover what it is they really want out of their lives, relationships and careers; those willing to be seen fully by telling their story; those brave souls who enrich their lives, communities, families and organizations by extending themselves or trying new things even when they may fail. The courageous and vulnerable (for the two are inexorably linked) make the world a much more interesting place by running loose in it. So, today, here’s to the women and men in the arena!