when you're down in the arena, don't get right up

28 August, 2020 3 minutes read

One of my favorite all-time quotes belongs to Theodore Roosevelt in his immortal speech "Citizenship in a Republic"1 commonly known as "the man in the arena". It's so good I'm going to put my favorite part up here -

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

Living in the arena is a choice I made a long time ago and impacts many verticals of my life; from work to family life, dealing with good news or facing adversity. Living in the arena means vulnerability, transparency, going all-in on an endeavor where success isn't guaranteed - it's counter-intuitive to putting on armor, being reserved and never hurt but I wouldn't take it any other way.

There is a lot of words in Roosevelt's speech dedicated to the tenacity and iterative process of living a life in the arena: you put your heart into something, you may fall down, you get up and do the same thing the next day. Not a lot of words, however, are dedicated to the time spent on the ground - where you are getting yourself covered in dirt and you are in a low point. Your arena experience tells you to get up but at that specific moment you are at ground floor.

getting curious about the floor

At first I was hurrying the process of getting up. Like a soldier or a ninja rolling when they fall to get into a risk assessment position, I was quick to brush off the dust from the fall and hurry into the next. The fall hurts, it happened in the past, why should I even be worried about over analyzing events and things beyond my control; All we have is now, right?

But then at some point I started getting curious about lying in the dirt. Things happened and emotions were felt, what triggered those emotions? What is the underlying need behind them? What can I learn from falling before getting up and brushing off the dirt?

Allowing myself to lie on the ground in the arena and having this conversation allows me to grow while falling. In "man in the arena", Roosevelt is talking about failing while daring greatly. I believe there is something to be said about spending a healthy amount of time on the arena's floor as a way to enable personal growth and a better way to "strive valiantly", rise with purpose and put your heart on the line for the next worthy cause.

I'm going to end with another all-time favorite quote of mine, this one's from Randy Pausch in his book "The Last Lecture"2:

“Experience is what you get when you didn't get what you wanted. And experience is often the most valuable thing you have to offer.”


  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citizenship_in_a_Republic 

  2. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2318271.The_Last_Lecture