The man in the arena

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Bradley Reilly
  • 14th Operations Group
I want to provide you an opportunity to come to terms with your life, your career and your service. I want, for your own self-worth, and for the future of this great institution, to save your military soul. I want you to decide today, and until your last day wearing the cloth of our nation, if you are going to stand in the arena and be a doer of deeds--or just be another faceless critic jeering incessantly from the side.

On April 23, 1910, Theodore Roosevelt gave what would become one of the most widely quoted speeches of his career. Roosevelt delivered a speech called “Citizenship in a Republic,” which, among some, would come to be known as “The Man in the Arena,” he said:

“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.“

Are you a critic, or are you a doer of deeds?

Being a critic is fairly easy work. From the security of the sidelines it’s so easy to simplify the efforts of others, jeer the unpopular, laugh at failure and bluster on about how much better you would do if you were to go in there. More, as a critic, you don’t really need to know much about the fight going on in the arena, you actually can get away with knowing nothing at all! We live in a time where, without knowledge, understanding or credibility, anyone with an opinion and access to a handheld device can anonymously provide vast quantities of uninformed, undesired and unhelpful criticism to those striving valiantly to make a difference. A critic risks nothing, fails infrequently and in the end, switching when it becomes convenient, always seems to land on the popular side of the opinion. As a critic, it’s hard to get blamed for doing anything wrong--chiefly because you do very little.

Standing in the arena on the other hand is tough, thankless work. There is not always a clear end to your strife, nor a clear victory to be won. You must be willing to divest of your own self-interest and embrace the chaos and the quagmire, knowing that the machine only moves forward with the efforts of the few. There is danger and sacrifice in the arena, and careers are made or broken striving valiantly. But without risk, there is no valor. There is no better place in life than to stand, with great enthusiasm and great devotion, than in the arena. To share the dust and the sweat and the blood, to feel the depths of defeat and then rise again to the triumphs of high achievement. Better, to do it amongst other champions, brothers and sisters in service, which through the fight stand undauntedly by your side.

What matters is what you do. Not what you say you will do tomorrow, not what you thought about doing yesterday, not what you might do one day when it is more convenient--but what you do today: for your people, the mission, the Air Force, and the Nation.

Get in the arena; get some skin in the game.

Stop riding the sidelines of life. Quit dabbling with military service and serve. Now and for the rest of your career be an “all in” leader. Invest in yourself and your career, be more critical of your deeds and stop worrying about what everyone else is doing. Invest in the lives and careers of others, strive to make champions of the airmen you serve with and lead. Invest in the greater organization, be present, be visible and be relevant.

I promise you that you will find more satisfaction from living one day in the arena, victory or defeat, than a life spent standing on the side. And if you fail, fail daring greatly--then get back up, dust yourself off, and get back in the fight.

“So that your place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”