Get in the Arena

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Yesterday I carved out time from my new job to return to my previous workplace and attend graduation for the last group of men to complete a program that has been in place for 21 years. I worked directly with part of the group through most of the time they were there. Just thinking about the experience, before and after, elicits a range of emotions, from sadness to pride, but I welcomed the opportunity to speak at the ceremony. Just days before, I picked up a book I purchased months ago, and what I read prompted my words to them. This is what I had to say:

“This week I started reading a book called Rising Strong, by Brené Brown, PhD. The timing of her words couldn’t have been better, because as I read, I thought of you and what I wanted to say to you as you complete this program and move forward with your lives.

She quoted from a famous speech, “Man in the Arena,” by Theodore Roosevelt in 1910:

“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 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 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.”

She continues to focus on the “ugly details” of failing – imagining that we are face down. The crowd may be silent, or booing, or all we can hear is the voice of someone telling us to get up and move on. We tend to think of arenas as some grand event, but these facedown moments can be small ones like our child lying to us about hitting a sibling or a disappointment at work or a “we chose someone else” call after a job interview – basically any moment where we risked showing up and being seen – feeling awkward trying something new, tough parenting moments, being in love, or sharing with your probation officer that you are craving that substance that got you into a world of hurt. She pondered the process of rising strong, of staggering to our feet and finding the courage to try again. What do the people who keep going have in common?

Her research has led her to believe that slowing down the rising and falling process is the key. To cultivate an awareness of the choices that are in front of us in the moments of discomfort and hurt. To take the time to weigh the consequences of those choices, and she has learned that incorporating storytelling into her research has been the most beneficial. And that is part of what you have been doing here for the last few months.

While in this program, you have been asked to share your stories, to become vulnerable. I know that wasn’t easy, because many of you clearly expressed your desire to avoid the pain of being vulnerable, particularly in this setting. I get that. But I watched something happen to you and your peers as you shared. You each grew – some with baby steps, others with giant leaps – in understanding where or why you had moments of failure, thoughts of how you could or would change to avoid that failure in the future, expressions of understanding why a peer is the way he is, and offering acknowledgement for the pain someone else had survived. It was truly amazing to see and I was honored that you trusted me in those moments.

Many of the stories I heard were about huge efforts to avoid feeling pain – whether extreme pain inflicted on you, knowing you hurt others, or the disappointment of neglect – and the failures were acting out the hurt, sometimes on others. Now it’s time to move forward. To be vulnerable with the people who count in your life. Here are the three truths you can take with you from this quote:

Get in the arena. You can choose courage or comfort. One or the other. You can’t have them both at the same time. Your acquaintances who are still using out there? They are choosing the easy way of blocking out pain rather than dealing with it. I’m not saying their lives are easy, but they are choosing what they know, what has become familiar. You know something different now. Take this new experience and build on it.

Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when you have no control over the outcome. It really is the greatest expression of courage, not weakness. Being vulnerable with your family, or your probation officer, to ask for help and support. Will you have people say “no?” Sure. But it’s their loss when you go on to experience success without them. That is courage.

A lot of cheap seats in the arena are filled with people who never venture onto the floor. They are always ready to offer put-downs or call you lame for trying to follow probation guidelines or stay sober. If they’re not interested in getting in the game and fighting for their lives, what they have to say about you means nothing. Can you still care and hope they find a way to change? Absolutely, but don’t let their criticisms from the sidelines define you. Will it take time for your family members or sober friends to trust you again? Absolutely. You’ve made promises to them before that have been broken. Prove by your actions that you want to regain their respect. That is courage. And you may be thinking you got the short end of the stick being the last group, with staff leaving and not getting everything  previous groups have gotten. But you’re here at the finish line, despite the additional challenges. That is courage.

In light of the upcoming championship games for my favorite sport of basketball: Get out there in the game, and play with all the courage you can muster. When you trip or foul or miss a 3-pointer, take a little timeout, think through your choices, talk with your coach, get back in the game with courage, and crush it.” (CHEERS TO KENTUCKY!)

I must add, that for years I felt like I was sitting on the sidelines, cheering for others, but afraid to play. Waiting for someone to send me in. Afraid of the criticism. Afraid to fall on my face. Afraid the voice in my head that told me I was not good enough was correct. Somehow I mustered up the courage to get back in the game. To return to school and finish a college degree at age 49. I can tell you – it feels infinitely better playing the game and crushing it!


When What You Want Scares You to Death


Yesterday was the end of the first week of a new venture for me. Just over one year ago, I had to begin the painful experience of making student loan payments. They really cut into the budget when you complete an undergraduate and two graduate degrees. So I started looking into part time side gigs that would offer a decent wage as well as use my education and experience. I applied for related openings as an adjunct at a local community college. It took nearly a year before I received any communication at all, which was frustrating and relieving at the same time. I know I’m capable, but new things are scary.

I was nervous about the interview, just because I always am, I suppose. Something about second-guessing myself, wondering if the interviewer will “get me” and what I’m passionate about. Unexpectedly, it went much better than I imagined, and I had an appointment to complete hiring paperwork by the end of that week. It was a pretty awesome feeling. When I realized it was my responsibility to complete the syllabus beyond the skeleton of expected assignments, the panic started, since I still imagine that I’m expected to be perfect, as I wrote about in this post. I was down to the wire completing it for approval, waiting with apprehension for the response, but it passed with flying colors. (I’m hoping the first time is the worst time!)

Because I have a full time position that I love, it was just in the week before school started that I was able to drop by the school, pick up copies, and ask a few last minute questions. Last weekend, I gathered up and organized all my materials to be ready for arriving early and getting settled in the classroom. Of course, nervous energy had me in  somewhat of a frenzy on Monday morning. I arrived at the classroom just ten minutes before class was to start with a plan in mind to get acquainted with students and help them feel comfortable with me on their first class of their first day. They were very gentle and accepting, completing an icebreaker activity, and asking a few questions, so the class itself went relatively well.

However, when I walked out of the classroom and across campus to my vehicle, rushing to get to my other job, all I could think of was the mistakes I had made. The computer in the classroom only had a blue screen and I was unclear as to how to reboot it without completely ruining something. (Of course, on Wednesday, I remembered that computers are generally hearty enough or have built in protections to withstand the inexperienced user.) I didn’t remember seeing anywhere about how to complete attendance, and because I hadn’t been able to use the computer, I had not been able to investigate where that should be done.

As I left campus, I got a text alert about my account balance, and my fuel light began flickering, reminding me that I had planned to leave the house early to fill up. At that moment, this venture that I had pursued eagerly suddenly felt like a failure. Would I be in trouble with the staff for not completing attendance? Was I expected to know where? How? How can I expect students to start taking responsibility for themselves if I was not prepared? What was I thinking, believing I was capable of such a task? My own negative self-talk had me calling in and quitting.

Fortunately, I began thinking about my purpose in pursuing this kind of task in the first place. How could I encourage the love of learning and inspire students to not just start, but continue on this educational journey, if I quit when I just feel like I failed? How will they learn that success comes because of perseverance despite failure? I don’t want to only tell them, I want to show them that small battles will be lost, but the war can be won. And besides, the first day has to be the most difficult and traumatic. For teachers and students. It has to get better from here, right? Besides, I told too many people what I was doing to back out now. (Accountability is uncomfortable, but it supports consistency between words and action.)

So, I punched fear in the face. I asked questions. I learned more about how things are supposed to go. I went to class two more days. No students threw rotten vegetables at me. And many are asking questions and making strong efforts to complete homework, leading me to believe I didn’t scar them too badly. I believe I even related to them by being real.

The coolest thing about Monday was a role reversal that was unexpected. At the end of my day, after I made it to the gas station on fumes and addressed my low account balance, I made my way into the restaurant where my daughter works. She rushed to give me a hug, asked about my first day, and offered me a free iced tea! She assured me that it wasn’t so bad. And when I asked about the cheesecake special of the month, she bought the slice of Caramel Apple Cheesecake for her mom for my “first day.” (I can hear Carly Simon singing “Coming around again” in my head.)

I’m looking forward to this semester and many more. And I’m hoping the journaling of this experience continues to be a reminder that one perceived failure is only part of the growth process. Not the end of goals and dreams. Success is not free of mistakes and failures, but enhanced by them.

This is a test … this is only a test.

Today was spent in orientation and training for a new gig – teaching college students at the local community college. Much of the conversation, as could be expected, was how to be effective in helping students learn. To increase their love of learning. To share a passion for learning that will be embraced. To empower students to create the life each one desires, rather than accepting the proverbial “lot in life.” During this event, I was reminded of a recent conversation I had with  my “lifeline friends” regarding the interview for this position, and a string of associated thoughts came to mind.

I have always hated strongly disliked tests. In elementary school they weren’t so bad. The occasional standardized tests didn’t faze me and I didn’t do too badly on the typical regularly scheduled ones. In fact, I did quite well on spelling and grammar. (I made a point to memorize the spelling of weirdly spelled words after I overheard my parents commenting on mispronunciations, e.g., potpourri, Chihuahua, etc.) My first difficulty with tests was related to high school algebra. (I wouldn’t have passed two years of algebra without a smart friend who helped with the daily homework.) And general science. (We would need to know metric conversions in the future, they said. It would be easier, they said. Has someone created a related meme already, or do I need to do that?) And biology. (Thank you, Mr. Higgins, for assigning drawings for homework that helped me pass, since your handwritten tests were so intimidating.) And American Literature. (I love to read, but essay questions were not my thing. At all. Details do not want to stay in my memory.)

Unfortunately, the difficulty with tests, coupled with significant loss in 9th and 10th grades, became the start of the I-can’t-do-math and the I’m-not-smart belief, followed by the I-can’t-do-college-so-I’ll-bail choice after only three semesters. A few years later, I discovered personal computers, motivated by the need for a job and a boss who, somehow, believed I was capable of running his small, start-up life insurance office. He handed me the manuals and told me to go for it. I was hooked, completing the tutorials and learning the basics of word processing and merging, long before Windows was The Thing. (Yes, I know you youngsters are thinking I’m ancient to have worked with DOS and Basic programming.) I took a few classes at the Junior college and surprised myself at how well I did, and those got me a better job when the other one ended. However, I moved across the country just short of completing a certificate in computer science, and the motivation to finish was replaced by the joy of a coming baby.

In the last 10 years, I returned to school, transferring in some credits to finish a baccalaureate and two graduate degrees. Fortunately, most of those classes did not include major tests, although my fingerprints have been altered due to the hours of typing papers and answering discussion questions online. Therefore, when I was required to take board exams for two different licensures in my field, I became paralyzed with fear. The I’m-bad-at-taking-tests bug hit me and I was shaking and nervous, thinking that I was guaranteed to miss the mark “by that much.” And I felt the same trepidation when I interviewed for the adjunct position I will be starting in a few days.

When I was leaving the  interview, which was the most casual interview I have ever experienced, and realizing on the spot that I not only had the job, but also had a choice of not only one, but possibly two classes, it finally dawned on me that tests were not the problem. My own self-doubt is the problem. I got to thinking about the major tests that I have taken over the years (other than my driving test, that I firmly believe was due to taking it in a car I wasn’t used to driving). Every. Single. One. I. Passed. The. First. Try. Go Figure.

“Crash” Course for the private pilot’s exam, immediately followed by the exam – Passed. (Yes, bad choice of names for a course on passing an exam for flying an airplane, but, I kid you not, that was what it was called.)

Flying exam – Passed. (First week of January. In freezing-cold Oklahoma. Flying two hours to a different airport to take the exam, where a pilot had crashed due to ice earlier in the week and knowing the examiner was mean tough.)

Two American History CLEP exams – Passed. (Huge savings of time and money, as they replaced six credit hours! They were no picnic.)

Life insurance sales exam – Passed. (What on earth I was thinking, believing I could influence people to buy life insurance, I do not know.)

ABCAC exam for substance abuse counseling licensure – Passed. (It took six weeks to get the results, and I had to catch my breathe before opening the envelope, then contain my excitement because the rest of the house was asleep.)

NCE exam for professional counseling licensure – Passed. (The proctor surely thought I needed counseling as I hyperventilated and started crying when she handed me the paper with the results.)

So … finally. FINALLY. I get that tests are not the problem. I am the problem. I second-guess myself far too much. I forget the success I have already experienced and somehow focus on the failures, believing those are the points that matter. That FAILS are what define me. Those things have an impact, sure. But they do not define who I am or limit what I am capable of accomplishing. At all. Should the fails be forgotten? Only after the lesson is learned and a fresh, new TRY is implemented. Should they be focused on? NEVER.

Maybe I’ve finally passed this test – being done with self-doubt – by writing it down to get it out of my head. And occasionally coming back to read it  – as a reminder to focus on what has been accomplished and move forward with confidence.