“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.” – Teddy Roosevelt, 1910
“If you are not in the arena and getting your arse kicked, I am not interested in your feedback.” – Brené Brown
Once, not very long ago, I met someone who had heard I’d failed. I knew of him, we hadn’t met. He shook my hand and said “You have a very interesting reputation.” And I smiled, we chatted, but inside, I was back on my heels. Had this man ever put his own money on the line? Ever risked a nickel of his own money? I knew the answer to that question.
Here’s the thing about the arena that Roosevelt understood, that Brené understands: If you’re in it, you’re going to get your ass kicked. You’re going to fail. It’s not if. It’s when.
If you don’t think so, if you think “I’m not going to fail. I have x, and y, and z safeguarding me” – I’ve got news for you: You’re not really in the arena. You are, to borrow a phrase from Roosevelt, “a cold and timid soul who knows neither victory or defeat.”
If you’re in the arena, you’re embarking on a venture whose outcome you don’t know. Your own money and reputation are on the line. But if you don’t risk it, you’ll never know what defeat looks like – or victory.
When it happens, when the axe falls, what are you complaining about? You only had it because you had it to lose.
What to do when it happens
“It’s not the critic who counts.” “I am not interested in your feedback.” This is a time to tune out the random comments from people you meet at conferences, or the Tweets, or even those well-intentioned reassurances from people who weren’t there. Positive or negative, if they weren’t there in the arena with you, this is not the time to account for their opinion.
For me, the people who count are my team. They were in the arena with me, and they know better than anyone what went wrong. I’ve talked a bit about Workify before, but it’s never more useful than in this situation – and in the long months afterward, as we all move forward into a new reality and try to make sure we don’t make the same mistakes again.
For us, it boiled down to trust. According to Google’s study on teams, “psychological safety” is one of the 5 key features of successful teams – which basically means that you trust your colleagues enough to take risks, speak your mind, and have tough conversations. From the Workify results, we ended up focusing on communications and trust – because that’s what the team identified as being a cause of the original failure, as well as the main struggle going forward in a new reality.
Ultimately, the arena is about ownership
I’ve been thinking a lot about Ray Dalio’s book “Principles: Life and Work” where he shares his philosophy of “radical transparency.” Ultimately, transparency starts at the top. There’s always a leader in the arena; there’s always someone who sets the tone and the boundaries. That’s me, so ultimately, problems with transparency, trust, and communications come back to the example I’m setting. (Related: why I write these blogs!)
If trust, as Google identified, is about feeling safe enough to risk failure, then it’s not enough for me to feel ready to step into the arena and risk it all. My team has to feel safe enough to do the same thing. If you have courage, and balls, and guts, you’re going to make mistakes. Good. Do that. Learn from it. Get better.
So I’m trying to model that, as new problems and new challenges arise; as we blend two very different company cultures together. I’m trying to stay in the arena, and keep risking it all, even if that means I have to keep having difficult conversations I’d rather not have, even if it means I get a snide comment once in awhile. And I’m trying to be as transparent as possible to my team, because if they see me interrogating my own mistakes and stepping up to the plate, they’ll do the same, as they have in the past.
What does the arena mean, to you? How do you know which criticism to take into account? I’d love to hear your perspectives.
Cole Harmonson is the president of Far West Capital, a company that funds the goals of high-growth entrepreneurs. Know a great company in need of capital to unleash their potential? Send them here and we’ll give them a call.