Teddy Roosevelt — who legend has it never wanted to be called by that name — is back in the news, at least to the extent that we are finding reason to quote him of late. In response to an earlier post of mine, a friend who had a challenging year sent me the following quote from Theodore Roosevelt:
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, and 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 the 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.
The quote comes from a speech Roosevelt delivered at the Sorbonne in Paris on April 23, 1910, just after the completion of his presidency. He ponders a world which is increasingly industrialized, the role of the common man in its development, and the critical nature of risk in our capitalist economy. Roosevelt is optimistic about America’s role in the New World, the rising living standard for the middle class, and the importance of learning — academic and experiential — to the evolution of our civilization. “The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer,” spoke the former President. He was a champion of character. He had no appetite for the voice of the cynic.
There is a lot of substance in Roosevelt’s reflection, but the essence for me comes back to the notion of the creative process, whether in business or government or science or art, what it means to put oneself in the public light with new ideas. I write a good deal about innovation and creative destruction, how it is essential to the evolution of our norms, but not enough about the drive behind that process, the extremely hard work of dodging the ordinary and then attempting to get others onboard where they might otherwise be uncomfortable. Getting attacked is no fun, but it comes with the territory of the new. Creativity is not only exhausting, it’s messy.
I think this is what Roosevelt was getting at, how leaders in any field first dare themselves to expose a new idea, then attempt to explain that idea to others, then prepare themselves to share the bounty in success or accept the blame in failure, as if neither is more likely or important than the other. The point in finding the courage to advance an untested notion is specifically that, to test it. If the notion proves of merit than the win is broad, but if not, the win is equally broad because the test has eliminated a dead-end we all can acknowledge and use as a new reference point for further testing.
It is the courage to address the critic, the skeptic, that is so uncommon. We know it when we see it, but we don’t see it enough. We are hungry to hear ideas, but too often all we hear is naysaying. It is much easier to be a critic than an innovator, in that the innovator approaches creativity with self-critique an implicit part of the process, a means, not an end. The critic whose work begins and ends there offers opinion, even explanation, but if there is no build on the work of the innovator, then what is the value added?
We hear our political candidates bash each other for sport, so much so that we become numb to it. They are not listening to each other and we are not listening to them so what good is being accomplished by the perpetuating standoff? When this happens in business, companies are lost. When it happens in science, we run in place. When it happens in the arts, our culture becomes stagnant. Roosevelt looked forward and advised us to fear the downside of not trying more than the downside of coming up short.
The individual who has a story to tell risks all, because the more that story is original, the more it is likely to be rejected. Think of the powerful corporations who did not believe we would all have our own computers someday, and the few individuals who thought we would and got them to our desktops. Think of Martin Luther King’s vision for a desegregated America, the resistance against his ideals, and the normalcy today of celebrating diversity. Think of The Beatles dreaming in those seedy clubs in Hamburg, when much of the music establishment was convinced that guitar bands were on their way out. Think of the first doctors and medical researchers to propose the notion of a vaccine, how frightening that seemed to so many, and the diseases we would still suffer today were it not for their willingness to persevere.
Not all ideas are good, and not all visionaries are right. True visionaries know this, and they know that failure will always be part of the package. As we listen to those around us attempting to tackle the more complex problems of the day, perhaps we would do well to remember that even if an idea proves wrong, the people courageous enough to explore that idea might be doing something right. Everyone wants to win, but not everyone is brave enough to want to try. Where we are unable to find that courage in ourselves, let’s not forget to praise it in those who are exposing themselves to critique.
Look for the spark in the brave people around us who worry less about what others say about them, and worry more about overcoming constraints on what can be possible when we appropriately embrace courage. To be honest, they don’t much care what the crowd thinks, but the crowd has everything to gain by inviting themselves to the party. We have more challenges facing us today than the Progressive Republican President Roosevelt could have imagined, yet even more paths to triumph through knowledge if the most inspired creative voices are heard.