The Man in the Arena

The Man in the Arena

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.

Theodore Roosevelt, excerpt from Citizenship in a Republic

I’ve been listening on Audible recently to Brene Brown’s book The Power of Vulnerability (if you haven’t come across Brene yet do go and seek her out, she has a lot of wonderful things to say) and it reminded me how much I love this quote from Theodore Roosevelt.

Some days it can feel like I really should just give up: my work, my passions, my relationships, my house. Things fail, it seems so hard and so not rewarding and I wonder why I bother. But these experiences, in the same way as good experiences, are just a reminder that you are alive, that you tried something and entered the arena and got your hands dirty. If you are to do anything worth doing in your life you are going to fail, but failure isn’t the end. You’ve got to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and carry on anyway. And as Roosevelt says, “It is not the critic who counts”… turn away from the critics that point at you, who tell you what you should have done instead or how they could have done better: the fact that you did it in the first place is the only thing you need to know to be confident in yourself.

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Fleeting thoughts

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It has not been a great morning. I managed to make both my daughter and my husband shout and scream before 8.30am. I seemed to get plenty of sleep but I’m still doggedly tired. I left later than I planned to. I forgot Phoebe’s nursery bag so had to drive home to get it. I had to leave her screaming at nursery because she’s scared of going in. I rushed in for a meeting only to find out it’s been cancelled. All in all, not a great start to the day.

I feel utterly wretched, tired, hormonal, angry and guilty. However, the difference between how I feel now and how I would have felt a few years ago is that I know it won’t last. In 2014 I took part in an online course called Happy School (now called Thrive), which taught about the Three Principles psychological theory. I feel like the terminology around it is a bit confusing and complicated at the moment, however the basis of it is being aware that all of our feelings are created by the thoughts we have, and our thoughts can change in a moment. So, I feel guilty because I left my daughter crying at nursery and my thoughts say I’m a terrible Mum, I should find ways of making her settle quicker, I should put her in for more days so she gets used to it, maybe I should take her out of nursery altogether. My thoughts are basically saying that I’m doing it all wrong. However, at some point today hopefully my thoughts will change to realise that it’s very normal for kids to be scared when going to nursery, she will be going for more days in September, after a few minutes crying I know she gets on fine there as the staff tell me and really I am mostly a good Mum. My feelings will then reflect these new thoughts i.e. I won’t feel so crap.

Sometimes, this change doesn’t happen all day, or even for a few days. Sometimes it happens almost immediately. Sometimes writing or talking about it helps, sometimes not. Sometimes distracting myself with work or walks or yummy food takes my mind off it and I suddenly realise it’s not a problem anymore. But knowing that thoughts are so fleeting and temporary, that they can change in an instant and give you a completely new perspective on a situation or a day or your life makes bad mornings that bit easier to handle.

This video by a guy called Prince EA sums is up quite well:

Feeling like a fraud

I’ve had a little germ of an idea for a business for a little while now and over the weekend my thinking got to the point of deciding that I was ready to start putting time aside to work on it properly. So, this morning I dutifully sat down to start writing a development programme for leaders. An exciting and creative start to the day I thought. Goodness me, I’ve never felt so inadequate in my life. And I’ve barely even done anything or shown anyone yet.

The problem with starting anything that you haven’t done before is that you can’t help but feel like a fraud. All the more so when you’re advising and guiding other people. When I started the current job I’m in, I went in as a leader of three areas that I had never worked in before. I had a bit of understanding of what they did, but mostly I was learning as I went along. Man, did I feel like a fraud there for a while. I still do when I’m having a low confidence day. I feel like everyone is watching my every move, deciding whether I’m going to be any good and whispering behind my back. Judging or opposing my every suggestion and choice. To be honest, there are people I work with who seem to find it hard to hide the fact they are judging me, even though perhaps they don’t mean it that way or I’m reading into it too much (not in my team luckily, they’re all lovely).

So, what to do about this feeling like a fraud business. Because, the thing is, if everyone stopped at the point where they felt like they were faking it, nothing would ever happen. No new ideas would come about, nothing new would get made, businesses wouldn’t start or grow. Somehow we have to push past this feeling of fraudulency and carry on.

One piece of advice that struck a chord with me was from Liz Gilbert in her book Big Magic. She talks about creative pursuits being simultaneously both the most important thing you can do, and meaning nothing at all. In terms of being a fraudster, it is key to realise that your creativity, input and guidance is of imperative importance to whatever you are trying to do, your unique perspective will make it something which no one has ever done quite the same way before. You may not feel like you have enough experience, training, knowledge or expertise but you will have more than you think and you will have passion and that’s more important than anything else. On the other hand, it makes no difference at all. In the great grand scheme of things, in 1 or 10 or 100 years time, all will be forgotten. If you don’t do what you do, or you don’t do it right, the only person who misses out is you. In fact, you could create or write or lead something and no one need ever know. Take this light hearted look at your work, play with it, make it seem like a game. Because that’s all that life is anyway.

Another thing that helps me live with my imposter syndrome is to realise my humanity. Every single person on this earth will feel this way some time. Every person who starts a new job or business, every new parent, every child on their first day of school, every creator who invents something new, feels small and foolish and scared and like they have no reason being there and doing what they’re doing. There is no optional choice in this, we are human. And to be a human that can live to their full potential and experience all the bits of the world they want to, we have to be new at things sometimes.

So, I’m going to acknowledge this gut wrenching, heart palpatating feeling of inadequacy, get up and go back to the writing. I’m going to keep pushing through, despite all the voices in my head telling me it really isn’t worth my while. I’m going to pour my heart and soul into it and then realise its insignificance. Because that’s what I must do to keep going, and so must we all.

Feel the fear and do it anyway

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I took my three year old daughter swimming at the weekend. She hasn’t been for a little while and was really looking forward to it. She’s always seemed to love all the waterfalls and slides and tippy buckets.

However, this time she had developed some fears about bits of the pool. I’m not sure if there was a specific reason for it. We went to go on the flume (which she LOVED last time we were there, so much so I had to stop her going on again as she was shivering madly) and she was terrified, screaming not to go on. Now, it would be a very normal parental response to accept this, take her back to the pool where she was happy and carry on. However, logically, there was no reason for her fear. She had been on many times before and she had enjoyed it. Nothing significantly scary had happened in the meantime that involved big slides. Perhaps she had seen a scary video, or got scared of a different slide, or perhaps that’s just something that happens when you turn 3, I don’t know. Anyway, I decided to take her on. A bit of bribery with sweets and she let me carry her up the steps. She was fine whilst we were waiting in line, got a bit distracted with seeing a train out of the window. She was pretty scared when we went to sit down on the green slide entrance, gripping on tightly to me, but she wasn’t in any danger. I made lots of fun “wheeeee!” noises on the way down. I’m not sure she actually smiled but she didn’t cry on the way down. When we got to the bottom she had a little cry, maybe because of the adrenaline of doing something scary. I asked her if she wanted to go on again and she said no, so we went back to the little splashy pool.

Now, perhaps other parents looking on would have thought me a bit cruel and heartless, forcing my child to do something she didn’t want to do when she was supposed to be having fun. However, I never want her to not do things in her life because of fear. Fear can stop you harming yourself, yes, but it can also stop you living life entirely. It’s a totally natural, normal human emotion, but not one that should be listened to all the time, as I’ve discussed previously. I want her to grow up knowing that things in life, maybe the best things, are scary, and that sometimes you just have to feel the fear and do it anyway.

(There’s a book named that by the way, written by Susan Jeffers. It has been recommended to me by more than one friend, just in case you’re interested).

I asked her later that evening what her favourite part of swimming was. You know what she said? “The big green slide”.

Start celebrating failure

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My opinion of failure has completely changed in the last few years. I’ve obviously always known that failure is something to be avoided, something that makes you look like an idiot and means you should stop doing whatever it is and focus on the things you’re good at. This was emphasised at school, where getting a low grade in a test was seen as a bad thing, or building something that fell down meant a patronising pat on the back, never mind maybe you’ll do better next time. I was actually pretty successful in my classes and tests at school, but this added extra pressure to not fail – I obviously couldn’t possibly get less than an A in Maths, I was really good at it and one of the top in the class. Urgh, talk about pressure.

And then when we did fail it was sort of swept aside, excuses were made for it or we were told to just try harder or revise more. What lacked from all my failures was an air of curiosity, interest, a chance to learn, even celebration. Because failure is just that – a serious of experiments for you to learn from.

I’ve been particularly inspired by a recent TED Talk and flurry of related articles by Astro Teller (best name ever right?) who leads the team at X, Google’s moon shot company. They are creating some of the most crazy but world changing projects in existence, including a self-driving car and floating balloons to bring the internet to billions of people around the world. And they don’t just allow failure or find it curious at X, they literally celebrate it:

“We work hard at X to make it safe to fail. We killed over 100 investigations last year alone. I didn’t kill them. The teams themselves killed each one. And teams kill their ideas as soon as the evidence is on the table because they’re rewarded for it. They get applause from their peers. Hugs and high fives from their manager. They get promoted because of it. We’ve bonused every single person in teams that ended their projects, from teams as small as two to teams of more than thirty.”

How great would that be? “Amazing Alex, you completely failed that exam, well done! I’m so proud of you!” “Congratulations, what a fantastic failure on that presentation Alex, you completely didn’t cover anything that needed to be covered, hurray!”

OK, joke examples aside, failure is INEVITABLE in everyone’s lives. EVERYONE. 100% guaranteed, you will fail and will have failed. You’re not special because you fail more than other people, people fail all the time, they either don’t tell you or they don’t see it as a failure. Revising more or being more careful or preparing further in advance won’t guarantee that you won’t fail. And that is fantastic, because if you fail more it means you’re trying more new things, spending more of life doing the hard stuff and learning loads on the way.

I still find it hard to fail. When I mess up a project or meeting at work, I still feel a fool and like I want to hide in a hole. I often find myself thinking I am really not cut out for my job / parenting / coaching / whatever else I feel I’ve failed or fallen short at. However, more often and quicker I’ve been addressing that rude little voice in my head that says I’m a failure and asking it “OK, so what went wrong? Is there something I can change? Can I learn something from this? What will I do differently next time?” I haven’t got to the point of actually giving myself a mental high five for failing yet but maybe that’s what I should aim for.

The most important thing I want to do is instill this curiosity around failure in my daughter. I always want her to enjoy failing, be inquisitive about what could be done differently, try the hardest thing because she knows that’s the thing she’ll probably fail at and therefore learn the most from. I was disproportionately upset about the fact that when she started doing jigsaw puzzles she wouldn’t try the harder ones, or would get so frustrated when she couldn’t do them that she would sweep all the pieces angrily to the floor. I’ve been trying to gently encourage her to try again anyway, maybe later, but always keep trying, keep experimenting, keep light hearted about not achieving and keep learning.

Failure could be one of our greatest allies. In the words of Astro Teller:

“How are we going to try to kill our project today?”

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A conversation with Fear

Sometimes Fear wins. Despite wanting to do something, thinking positive, knowing we “should” be fine, preparing for something, thinking it’s silly to be scared, being egged on or even ridiculed by others, sometimes Fear just puts all its legs and claws out like a cat going into a carry basket and says “NOPE. No frikkin way I’m doing that, whatever you say or do I don’t give a shit, I’m out”. And it makes all sorts of very compelling arguments why you should listen. Maybe Fear has a point.

And then you get that horrible Fear hangover where you feel a bit grotty and like you just wanna hide in a hole for a while (maybe forever). And that you missed out. And that everyone else is better / having more fun than you. And you’ll just go back to your alright life and it doesn’t really matter, you didn’t want it that much anyway. Except deep down somewhere you can’t help feeling that you’re a crap, fearful and rubbish person and you’ll never do anything you really want in life cos Fear always wins.

Well, Fear does sometimes win. It’s very good at winning, it’s had your whole life to practice at it. If it’s used to winning it will know exactly which buttons to push. If you’ve been used to it winning you may have forgotten what to say to fight back. But it doesn’t have to win every time. It might win today. But maybe not tomorrow. Maybe it needs to lose on a seemingly small and insignificant thing first – Fear will think “Pah, that was nothing, I don’t care that I lost this time, I usually win”. But it will have shown a weakness. And next time it will have a harder time trying to convince you that it’s always right. And you’ll know that it can lose.

Sometimes Fear not winning might be a big event: coming out about being gay by shouting from the rooftops or jacking in that job, selling your house and moving to the Bahamas. But Fear can be shown that it doesn’t win just a little bit every day. You walk into that new class with a smile, even though you know no one. You disagree with someone about their opinions, even though you always avoid conflict. You walk through that crowd even though there’s so many people you can’t see which way to go. And every little success you have over Fear, the more Fear’s arguments become weaker and less important.

I used to lose out to Fear a lot. Fear would tell me I was no good at acting compared to others so why bother auditioning. That I was annoying or boring so please stop talking. That I wasn’t as pretty as my friends so why would any boy want to go out with me. That if a boy was talking to me then watch out, they’re probably taking the piss behind my back. That I shouldn’t travel on a train because there was no escape if I suddenly needed to get out. That I was going to be stuck in a career I didn’t like for life because that’s what my degree was in. Fear kept me trapped like a prisoner in some weird relationship where we were both convinced it was ultimately a good thing as it would keep me safe. Except every time Fear won it got a bit more confident for next time and slowly got involved in more and more of my life until it was my main adviser and my world felt very, very small.

There wasn’t really one major thing I did to turn the spiral round to start it going back up again. I remember once I went to a rehearsal for a show because I wanted to join a theatre group. I didn’t know anyone so Fear told me I was bound to make a fool of myself, no one would notice or care I was there, they wouldn’t want me in the group and therefore the whole thing was a bit of a waste of time. Well, that day I told Fear to do one and thank you for your advice but I’m going in anyway. I did join the theatre group for about year, got to know a few people and was even in one of the shows. It didn’t completely change my life, but it did show Fear that it wasn’t always right. And there were other times too when I won a small victory and over time the victories became more significant and suddenly I was winning Fear arguments I never thought I would. This year I’m going to a festival on my own with my three year old daughter. I never thought Fear would let me get away with that one.

Fear still chats to me fairly regularly. Sometimes I listen and it convinces me to stay at home, not spend money or stay safe. But more often than not now I dismiss Fear’s arguments because I know they don’t make sense and my life will be so much richer and fuller if I put its very good points aside and carry on regardless.

Just because Fear won you over today doesn’t mean it will win you over every day, or in fact ever again. Don’t dismiss those little wins. Everyone has to start somewhere.

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