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 soul who neither know victory nor defeat. – Excerpt from Theodore Roosevelt’s speech, Citizen In A Republic

Barbarian Warrior by Marcus Ranum
Image: Marcus Ranum (

This is one of my favorite quotes on failure and success.

When I found out that the infamous US President Richard Nixon himself mentioned this in his resignation speech, my first reaction was intrigue. So I read more about Nixon and the Watergate scandal and when I got to the part when he only had $500 in his bank account, having lost most of his money to legal fees, and that to earn more, he had to further expose himself to the public by writing memoirs and appearing in interview shows, I have to admit, my pity for the man was growing. Because if you carry that national shame and guilt over the scandal, the first instinct is to hide your pain from everyone.  Nixon didn’t have that option.

My second reaction was that I wasn’t surprised in Nixon’s selection of the passionate quote. There is true and real comfort in Roosevelt’s permission to fail while daring greatly. And this phrase, while daring greatly, was what got to me. For I take it to mean that when you fail while doing something great, that’s the failure that matters or should matter in your life, not the other blunders and mistakes that we sometimes obsess about.

A close friend of mine once introduced to me the term discernment, which means the ability to judge well. It wasn’t the first time I heard of the word, but it was certainly the first time I understood it deeply. I recall it now because Roosevelt has this message right from the very start on discerning what matters and what doesn’t and that knowing the difference is the key to accepting. In the beginning of the quote, he says:  it is not the critic that counts, not the man who points…the credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena. 

Nixon’s careful selection of the quote also reminds me of this one line from Yann Martel’s  best-selling novel, Life of Pi:

The lower you are, the higher your mind will want to soar.

Meaning: when you’re feeling defeated, kind and loving thoughts to yourself are in order. It’s the only way to have hope of redeeming yourself. And Nixon, I believe, did not only soar after the scandal, but soared on the winds of his own making. According to Wiki, he continued to travel and think and visit world leaders, talking to them, not forgetting his accomplishments and political experience. He must be thinking, Who knows the value of my contribution if I don’t even try? The site also says that Bill Clinton even asked him for some advice. And when he passed away, at his funeral, five US Presidents and no less than 40,000 people paid their respects to the beloved elderly statesman. A well-deserved farewell for the Man in the Arena.

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