On a recent quiet night, I found myself reading a book by Michael Dell called Play Nice but Win, in which he quoted Theodore Roosevelt. Though I stumbled upon this quote many years ago, for some reason it resonated with me in a different way than before.
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.”
It’s a meaty quote, with a dense mesh of words that are so thick that you can’t understand it in one go. When I came across it, I read it over again several times. Every time, I peeled layers of meaning back, one after the other, like an onion, until I got to the core of it. Or at least to what I thought was the core of it.
I encourage you to read through it again before you go on. I would even go so far as to say that you don’t need to keep reading this blog, because what follows are my thoughts. Perhaps it’s best if you think over Roosevelt’s words and how they impact your life. It might be that you need to peel your own onion before you see how I peeled mine.
Before we get into it, I want you to think about how it feels to do something versus watching something. As an Olympic sport and a combat sport, we are among a small group of sports that people see much more than they do it. Though everyone has picked up a stick and pretended to hold a sword, it is very different to do the actual thing. It’s very different to be a fencer than it is to play pretend with a pool noodle.
The armchair quarterback
The greatest fencers make it look easy. They make it seem as though picking up the foil or epee or sabre and flowing into a touch against an opponent is like breathing. When you watch them, the pull of their talent and hard work just grabs you and guides you towards them.
From the sidelines, we can see all of these things that we think the people actually doing the thing can’t see. After all, it looks so easy to be up there! Why can’t you just do the thing? Why can’t you get the point?! You’re wide open!
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.
This first section is eye-catching. What does that mean, the critic doesn’t count? The person who sits back and just looks at the world as it goes by isn’t participating in anything. There’s an emptiness to that lack of participation, and it’s an emptiness that they are trying to fill by tearing others down.
It seems to me that we are doing this more than ever before in today’s culture. There is a constant stream of conversation about other people. Online especially, we see this in the comment section of every video and picture posted online. We all have seen this. Go to any video of sports posted on YouTube, and you’ll find a wealth of people critiquing the players.
Armchair quarterbacks and keyboard warriors. Though we all have that ability within us to fall into these patterns, it’s the opposite of healthy for us. When you spend time criticizing from the sidelines, you rob yourself of the vigorous opportunity to participate in life. We all deserve better than to be hiding out away from the action. We all deserve better than to be a critic.
The man in the arena
This quote is unusual for a quote in that it has a name, “The Man in the Arena.” When we think of an arena, we conjure up ideas of cheering crowds and a man in the center, facing a lion with nothing but a sword and a shield. Kids today might imagine the Hunger Games, with Katniss Everdeen plopped into a fight to the death against teenagers for the amusement of the Capital.
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood
All of the great athletes across time are faced with this. Everyone wants them to win or wants them to lose. Everyone has an opinion because everyone is watching them. And yet, the only opinion and the only experience that matters is them really.
In fencing, we are active. We are placing ourselves in that arena where we fight against an opponent. There are people watching, but we are the active agents in this situation. The pressure is on the fencer to make decisions, and they are alone up there on the strip. Even with the coach there and their teammates or family cheering them on, they are still on their own on the strip.
who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming
This is the part that is really so impactful in this already highly impactful speech. We come up short again and again, because there is no way to get there without error. There is no way to get to the end without making missteps along the way.
but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause;
Here we are. The doers of the deeds. We are the ones with the enthusiasm and the devotion. I think about the fencers that I watch training and striving when I see this part of the quote. How they work with this deep passion for the sport. They keep coming back again and again to train and to do, to strive and to keep going.
I see this in so many in the fencing community. They are spending their lives putting all of their passion and heart into the work of this sport. They are the doers, the people up there making things happen. When I think of this, I feel the swell of pride and excitement. Seeing fencing in this context inspires me.
Roosevelt’s words across the years
I am not the first person who has found resonance with this quote. It’s an incredibly famous piece that is known as “Citizenship in a Republic”, and a speech that he gave in 1910 at the University of Paris.
This quote was famously given to the South African rugby team by Nelson Mandela as they went after the World Cup in 1995. It’s the story that the film Invictus is based on. That film is highly recommended if you’re looking for an inspirational sports movie.
Legendary basketball star LeBron James has #maninthearena written on his shoes when he plays. He even posted the quote on Instagram during the playoffs in 2021. This mindset of achieving greatness while still honoring your own journey is the peak of what sport is about.
It’s not just sport though. Brene Brown, author and inspirational speaker, titled her 2012 book, Daring Greatly, after this quote. She also uses it in her TED talk and spoke about it on her Netflix special. Brown’s work is centered on teaching people to face their fears and to be brave. That’s exactly where we are in fencing, and it’s how we get to the next level that we want to reach.
Roosevelt was known for his independence and adherence to the notion of humanity’s ability to rise higher than it is. He held high standards for our capacity for growth. That’s an idea that we can see throughout fencing, the feeling of reaching higher and doing better through discipline and hard work. The outcome matters less than the doing. The means are ends unto themselves.
A personal lens
For me, this is a very personal quote. As I continue to move forward and try to make sense of the world and the constant shifts that we experience, I think about this notion of seizing time and being an active participant in the life that I have the privilege of living.
We cannot just stand by and watch the way that life goes by. The visceral nature of Roosevelt’s words hit us where we are. Every one of us has the experience of achieving something and the experience of failing at something. For me, that back and forth of success and failure is a signal that I am going in the right direction. You cannot know the sweetness of true success without also having navigated the bitterness of serious failure. Neither is less valid than the other.
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.
If we do not dare to be great, we do not risk the possibility of falling flat. You must go for the point with your whole heart and mind if you are to get that touch. There is no halfway. If you hold back, you guarantee that you will not make the mark. When you go for it that hard, you do risk missing the mark and failing hard. The opponent may get you. That doesn’t matter, because you have still fulfilled your own potential.
You are the one in the arena. Not only when you are fencing against an opponent, but also when you are in everyday life.
It seems to me that the best advice I can give to my fencers and my own children is just that – apply yourself with your entire being to everything that you do in your life. Be it in fencing, school, work, or any other endeavor.
I couldn’t say it better than Roosevelt.
if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly
I encourage you to dare greatly.