Every boy needs to learn about Teddy Roosevelt. My oldest son is in fifth grade. His teacher recently assigned the class to pick out a historical speech and present it to the class. It didn’t have to be memorized, and there were really no other requirements. The teacher just wanted them to build their comfort level speaking in front of others. When my son told me about the assignment and asked which speech I would recommend, there was no doubt about what I was going to recommend: Teddy Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” speech.
Teddy Roosevelt’s Man in the Arena Speech
“The Man in the Arena” is an excerpt of a much longer speech entitled “Citizenship in a Republic” given by Roosevelt on April 23, 1910, at the Sorbonne in Paris. While I suspect most of you are familiar with it, here’s the content:
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.
The speech has always been a source of inspiration to me, a kick in the ass to stay off the sidelines of life. Before going to law school, I taught history and government classes to high school students. Every year, I made my American History students memorize this speech, partly because it was famous, but primarily because of the life lesson it teaches: anyone can be a critic, anyone can sit on the sidelines, but only those with the guts to enter the game and compete are worthy of credit.
Most Men Have Exited the Arena
My guess is that we all agree with that idea. In fact, there was probably a time when that idea stirred our hearts, when it inspired us to make lofty goals and take focused action. But here’s the reality: I see too many men who are done. They’ve tapped out, laid down their sword, and walked out of the arena. The reasons for it are myriad, but it’s a fact.
Some of us are exhausted. The responsibilities of a career and a family have run us into the ground. We’re on a gerbil wheel of long commutes, long work days, and endless family duties and never feel like we’re making any progress. We get up, start the rush, run all day long, and then collapse on the couch, trying to muster the energy to do it again tomorrow. Rinse and repeat. The idea of being inspired to do something great, to do something that makes our heart pound, something that improves our lives in a significant way, is dead and buried. The result is often a dead marriage and distant kids.
Some of us are simply coasting. We got a good job. We got married. We had some kids. We have a nice house. We’re creating a nice man cave with a huge TV and a full bar. We are by and large viewed as successful. We have some buddies. Life is pretty comfortable. And we’re gonna ride that train off into the sunset. The idea of taking on a challenge, of pushing ourselves beyond our comfortable existence, sounds silly. What’s more, it sounds hard. “I’ve already paid my dues, I’m just gonna enjoy what I’ve earned.”
Neither man is thriving. Neither man is bringing his full value to his family or the world. Neither man is experiencing life as it could be. Both have settled. The first man has settled for a life that controls him. The second man has settled for a comfortable mediocrity. Both have left the arena. Neither is striving towards high achievement.
I tend towards the second man. While my four kids keep me running, I can create a fairly comfortable life. But comfort is not my mission. I have to keep pushing to be good at being a man. This means staying strong, developing and modeling courage, developing new skills and teaching them to my family, producing value and providing for others, and connecting with other men for their friendship, evaluation, advice, and support.
How to Enter the Arena
Pursuing those things is what it means for a man to enter the arena. This is the fight that we’ve been given. The particulars of your fight may look different than mine, but both will include the focused pursuit of those manly virtues. Here’s how you know: can you point to a particular area that you are working to improve? Not just wanting, wishing, or hoping to improve, but working to improve. If you’re actively working to improve as a man, I salute you, because you’re living life in the arena to some extent. If life has overrun you, or you’ve decided to coast or rest on your laurels, it’s time to change. It’s time to commit to a battle, to plan a mission, and, most importantly, to start executing on the plan. Getting started is much more important than having the perfect plan. In fact, there is no “perfect plan”. Most of the time, our “planning” is simply an excuse to delay action, either because we’re too lazy or too scared. Instead, enter the arena.
It will not be comfortable, as it will certainly involve seeking out and embracing discomfort. You will not be cheered on by adoring crowds. Many will choose to sit on the sidelines. They will criticize you. They will laugh at you behind your back. So what? They don’t count. The lion doesn’t worry about the opinion of the sheep, and a man doesn’t worry about the opinion of those on the sidelines.
We are made for the arena. The sidelines don’t suit us. But many of us have been on the sidelines for so long that it seems like home, and anything else seems unnatural. Enter the arena anyway. Determine which beast in your life needs to be slayed and meet it head on, without fear. Start your training routine. Leave the office early. Take walks with your kids. Go on dates with your wife. Learn a new skill. Push yourself mentally and physically beyond what is comfortable. Insist on getting better. Insist on being courageous. Insist on a life lived in the arena.
If you do, you will see both success and failure, both victory and defeat. But you can be sure that you will sit with the best men, those who have lived the life they were created for, rather than with those who were too scared to get in the game.
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