Why Roosevelt’s Battle of Life is Relevant Today
“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.”
This quote is on the walls of many fighting arts and MMA gyms. Its been on our walls at Stout PGH , my organization and schools in Pittsburgh, since I started them. Why? It’s not because I like to glorify politician or necesarily share Roosevelt’s political philosophies. I want to explain why it is meaningful and very relevant to me and the world we live in now.
I first saw this quote when I learned to read, n the wall of the Brookville high school wrestling room that my grandfather coached in for many years. Theodore Roosevelt was a wrestling, boxing, and Jiu Jitsu enthusiast. He had mats in the white house when he was president and trained with Mitsuyo Maeda who was Helio and Carlos Gracie’s first teacher. While this is interesting, this isn’t why my grandfather had the quote on the wall. He found it meaningful, especially for student athletes who he was trying to mold into stronger, better people. My grandfather Les Turner always emphasizes doing over talking. I think that this idea, eloquently stated in the quote, is what makes it most important for him. Renzo Gracie, a leading member of the Gracie family, a great fighter, a former world campion Jiu Jitsu competitor, and a master teacher who gave me my blackbelt said in a documentary: “This is all you need to know about life” pointing to the “Battle of Life” on the wall of a boxing gym. He didn’t elaborate. Let’s see if I can articulate why it is meaningful to me and maybe why it is to these other two men that I respect.
Roosevelt was comparing the critic against the person of action in the quote. Another recent public voice that has put forth similar ideas is Nassim Taleb with his concept of “skin in the game”. In the quote “daring greatly” refers to some sort of personal risk or, as Taleb says, “skin in the game”. If a critic has not assumed personal risk, and/or is not willing to take action then they don’t count. In other words these critics should be ignored. Anonymous and semi-anonymous social media accounts have become a big part of many people’s lives. This may be contributing to our society becoming more critical, that is, becoming more like critics in the sense that Roosevelt is against in the quote. The bare minimum of skin in the game is personal accountability for statement. I also believe criticism, when it comes without any action or risk to the critic, promotes two a subtly pernicious mental landscapes. One is internal and one directed outward.
The first internal problem is that criticizing without ability to act or make a real change, is just putting focus and energy on negatives. In this case even if the criticism has some truth it will have no impact and “won’t count”. This type of criticism becomes a vicious cycle where the critic, in order to validate criticism, looks for more and more negative observations to bolster the original criticism. This is at best a waste of time and energy, at worst something that causes a generally negative outlook on life outside of your self (ego). This creates a negative outlook with no actionable way to change the external world. We all know that people tend to see what they look for. Think about if you buy a new car and suddenly see that type of car everywhere. If you spend energy looking for why people are wrong that you disagree with you will see conflict everywhere! In addition people with this outlook become entrenched in their opinions by focusing on bolstering them constantly.
The second externally focused mental problem this type of criticism creates is divisiveness and tribalism. Criticism of this bad type usually implies, a moral position rather than a call to action. Criticism where the critic does not have balanced risk, stake, and/or knowledge as the one criticized is not the same as advice. It is often just a morality, tribal, or, status statement. These types of critical statements are really meant to imply that; “ I am morally superior to you, of higher status than you, or I am other/against you.” Many times it can be interpreted to mean all these things. Advice that is constructive can come from either peers or people with more experience, knowledge, or actionable ideas. Peers can be defined as people who have similar risk and stake in a specific area. Hence it used to be frowned upon for people with no experience to advise someone in an area in which the person giving advice has no stake or experience in. The idea of moral relativism has opened up areas of politics and morality to be an open field for criticism (not trying to weigh in on moral relativism, good or bad here). This attitude seems to have transferred to all areas from sports to health to childrearing. It may also be because experts have been less than trustworthy in recent times, often being bribed or subject to group think. Social media has been the biggest amplifier of the “critic”. Social media amplifies criticism by rewarding divisive moral and political statements with engagement and exposure through organic means and through algorithms that control what is seen. Whatever your view on this (way beyond the scope here), it is bleeding into other areas of life. For a relatively less serious example, think of people will criticize professional athletes’ performances when they have never participated in the sport on any level.
The counter reaction to this type of criticism is often appeal to some kind of authority or status. This is also usually not productive. This is because status can be conferred artificially, without being earned, while at the same time being very concrete (Harvard degree, you have it or you don’t). On the other hand, real experience, risk, and knowledge is harder to be sure of. This is especially true since we are bombarded with more and more information so that our attention to any one thing is diluted. Who has time to investigate if someone claiming authority is authentic? Who has the energy to learn if someone making a claim has taken action with regard to the solution? Does someone espousing an idea carry any risk with regards to the idea? It is hard or impossible to answer these questions outside of a few areas that you yourself have experience. Being a great movie actor doesn’t necessary qualify or disqualify someone to opine on a scientific disciple, for example.
Roosevelt’s point is that unless action and risk is or has been attached to criticism it should not “count”. It should be ignored. Further than this it hurts the critic for the reasons I’ve described above. For these reasons and because of the huge change social media is making on our culture and society I think this quote is more important and timely than ever. We are all tempted to be the critic sometimes. Next time you are tempted to be the critic or are criticized by those “not in the arena”, think of Roosevelt’s Battle of Life.