Episode 41 - The Arena
Jen: Hey Pete.
Peter: Hello Jen.
Jen: I feel like you are someone who supports me. Do you feel that about me?
Peter: I mean, absolutely. I support you one hundred and ten percent.
Jen: I'm so glad to hear you say that. I also feel like you're someone who would get into the mud with me if I needed someone to get in the mud.
Peter: I mean, what? What is happening? Are we about to get into the mud? What's going on?
Jen: No, actually we're about to get into the arena.
Peter: I like it. Bring it on. I'll hop into the arena with you. This is The Long and The Short Of It.
Jen: Okay. So, I was messaging back and forth with a client of mine this week, and she used a series of phrases or descriptions of people in her life that immediately a) reminded me of Brene Brown and her love for the Roosevelt quote, and made me realize that perhaps it's a worthwhile exercise to identify who is actually in the arena with you.
Peter: Mmm, interesting. Okay, so should we recap the Roosevelt quote for those that don't know it? I think that's probably a good idea.
Jen: Yes, it would've been useful if I had pulled it up ahead of time, so it'll be a second here.
Peter: I was hoping maybe you just might know it off the top of your head.
Jen: So this is Theodore "Teddy" 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, who comes short again and again, 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."
Peter: Ooh, what a quote. Okay, so that's around, that's the quote that Brene Brown references quite a lot, as she talks about what she calls "being in the arena," to summarize it in a very short way.
Jen: And she often says, "If you're not in the arena getting your ass kicked, I'm not interested in your feedback."
Peter: Yeah, which has been such a helpful frame for myself, and I know so many others -
Peter: - like, to just have that, of, of, "Is this person in the arena? No? Okay, cool. I can ignore their feedback." That is -
Jen: Mhm. So this is what my client said this week, and she sort of said it in passing, and I was like, "Ooh, let us back up and get clear on what we are talking about here." This is amazing. She said that there are people in her life who are "balcony people," there are people in her life who are "basement people," and then there are people in her life who are "arena people." And I was like, "What?" So this idea, now I, these are my words, not hers, but the idea about the balcony people is that they are cheering you on, wanting for you what you want for yourself, and providing the support and validation that you need to keep going. The basement people are the people who are reaching up from beneath and trying to pull you down with their criticism, with their lack of belief, with their own baggage and fear that they're trying to lay on you. And then there are the people who are actually in the arena with you doing the work with you. And having that framework has made me want to investigate some of my own relationships. I'm so curious to hear your reaction to that.
Peter: Uh, yeah. I mean, I'm writing it down as we talk, which I don't often do, because I'm so interested in taking this beyond this call myself, of like, who are the groups of people that I would say are balcony people versus basement people versus those in the arena. I love this. And the first thing that jumps out when I hear this is, for whatever reason, when I heard this quote, and when I hear Brene Brown talk about being in the arena, I thought I was in the arena on my own, and that there wasn't anyone else in it. So hearing you describe that there are other people in the arena with you just made me realize, like, "Oh yeah, there are other people in the arena with me. It's not just me versus the lion or the tiger that are coming to get me in this Colosseum that is the arena."
Peter: So that like, just hearing that and thinking about that of, "Jen Waldman is in the arena with me, and like, other people that I work with are in the arena with me," that is, that's kind of relieving, in a way.
Peter: And empowering.
Jen: Yes, it's not a series of independent arenas where there is one human per -
Peter: That's honestly how I visualize it, it was like, a bunch of independent arenas next to each other, and it's like, "Oh, Jen's in her arena, which means I can take criticism and feedback and input from her, and I'm in my arena," but it's actually - what if we're in the same arena? Hm. I mean the thing, the other thing that, just to share immediate reflections is, we, being humans, I think get so caught up in the basement people. And so, my immediate reaction is like, what do we do about basement people? How do we think about dealing with critiques and criticisms from those that are not in the balcony and not in the arena.
Jen: I've been thinking about that particular question a lot lately in relationship to an assignment I've given to the people who are going through my summer program, where we set up a, sort of, adapted and borrowed a framework for how to do a comprehensive pre-mortem, with, like, very specific questions attached. And it had never occurred to me to look at it this way until I saw someone else's framework of this. But one of the questions is, "Who knew I would fail?"
Jen: And when people are answering that question, and I just got to say to the listeners, if you're like, "Why are you predicting failure?" the pre-mortem that we're talking about is something we unpacked in episode one, the very first episode of The Long and the Short of It, and it is essentially an exercise when you're getting out of the gate with something new to imagine a scenario in which it fails so that you can identify the things that contributed to that failure and avoid them as you move forward. So it's actually a very positive exercise, not a negative one. Anyway, as people have been answering that question, they've had deeply emotional responses to having to state that there is someone that they have allowed into their life who is expecting them to fail. So when you think about that in terms of basement people, the question becomes, should we eliminate basement people from our life entirely, or should we use them as inspiration to reach for the balcony? So I've really been struggling with this. It's - and it might be an individual preference for me - I love people telling me I can't do something. That's one of the things that feeds my fire. It's like, "Tell me I can't do it. I will find a million ways to prove to you that I can." It's useful to me, but for some people the weight of that negativity or nay-saying is so heavy that it prohibits them from taking a single step forward.
Peter: Mmm, yeah, that feels like a very Jen Waldman posture, of like, "Okay, I'll just come up with three thousand ways that I will prove you wrong," and then proceed to execute on all of them. What's interesting is, like, intellectually I understand, like, we've talked about a lot before of "who's it not for" and "who it's for" and how our work is always going to be for a group of people, and as a result, not for a very, very large percentage of people. And so I understand that intellectually, and I get it, you know, emotionally as well. It's just, I guess, every, every now and then, and I think this happens to a lot of us, we trip up, like, someone from the basement grabs our ankle, and we, it trips us over, and so I guess it's remembering that that's kind of their role in this play, if you like. If there are three characters in this play of the balcony, the arena and the basement, the basement people are just playing their role, which is to try and trip you up every now and then. So I wonder if that, like, visual frame which I just made up is useful, because - another thing I've been, just to build on this, this basement people a little bit more, a thing I've been thinking about a lot lately is that if a critic says, "I don't like your work," they're right. They don't like your work, so I'm not going to try and change their mind, because they're right. They don't like your work. That's okay. And so, where I think it gets interesting is when they say things like, "No one will ever like your work," because that's actually not true. Because I imagine the person delivering the work, they like their own work. You know, if I put out an episode of the podcast, we do it because we think it's of value. So if someone says, "No one's going to like this episode," it's like, well that's actually false, cause Jen and I like this episode, versus, "I don't like this episode," I'm like, "that's probably true. You don't like this episode. So I don't have to try and give you my energy and almost try and persuade you that you should like it." I think it's more about being like, "Okay, people are entitled to not like a certain thing, I guess."
Jen: What I love about that is, going back to your idea that there are many other arenas with a single person facing a lion in them is, a person who says, "I don't like this work," there is an arena for them somewhere else. However, a person who says, "Nobody will ever like your work," is in your arena in the basement trying to pull you down.
Peter: Aah, I like that.
Jen: So I think there are, not that we need to like, catalog every personal relationship in our life and go, "Okay, that's a, that's a balcony person, that's a basement person," but I do think it's a, a useful filter when you feel triggered by something to ask yourself, when you feel triggered by feedback, to ask yourself, "Is this person in the arena with me?" And then to also recognize that not everyone who is the arena with you is a person in the balcony cheering you on. This reminds me of the thing that we talked about in the "Feedback" episode, the Brene Brown square squad, one by one, like, who are the people whose opinions really genuinely matter to you? And one of the things I mentioned there, but I think it's worth repeating, is that sometimes there are people who really have the capacity to help you get better at your work, and they don't unconditionally love you. That might be the person who is in the arena. Let's say they are the the lion tamer, but today they're trying to get the lion all riled up for you so that you have to really, like, use your skills -
Jen: - elevate your skills, and they're not necessarily cheering, you know, waving a banner with your name on it.
Peter: I think, just to build on your, your lion tamer metaphor, it's almost like at times, at times that's a coach, right, is - "I'm in the, I'm in the arena with you, but hey, I'm going to ask you some really hard questions, and you're going to have to answer them. And this is in the interest of you getting better, but it might feel like at times, I'm not sitting in the balcony cheering you on, but I'm down in the arena making you do the hard work." And so I think there are, yeah, to your point, various people in our lives and in our work that we want in the arena with us, but may not always feel like they're our best friend.
Peter: The other thing that is useful, I think, in this metaphor, because even just in the first half of this episode, it's interesting, we've spoken a lot about the basement people. I think it's, it's, it's worth remembering to look up at the balcony.
Jen: Oh yes.
Peter: You know, and to look up at the people that are there, and the positive things that they're saying about you and your work, and the support that they give you unconditionally often, and to just be mindful and grateful and thankful for all of those people that are sitting up in the balcony cheering you on.
Jen: I love that. This makes me think of baseball, the American pastime of baseball. Do you like baseball?
Peter: I mean, I understand it vaguely, but it's not super common to see baseball in Australia.
Jen: Okay, well one of the - I think maybe "hilarious" isn't the right word, but I, that's the word that's coming to mind - one of the hilarious practices that we have with American sports, and maybe you guys have this in Australia, is like, immediately following the game, a reporter rushes the player who either had the best play or the worst play, and is basically like, "What happened? How did you do it?" And it's so funny, because it's basically the same answer every day. It's either like, "I was just really on my game today," or, "I just, I just didn't have it today," where it's like, it's the most vague answer. And why? Because you cannot explain to the balcony people the ins and outs, the minutia of what is going on on the field. That's really for the people who are at ground level there to know. And one of the things I have found with a lot of the artists with whom I work, they try to explain these minute details about the way our industry works to people who are not in our industry. And it's like, first of all, they don't care, but second, they don't get it. They're looking at this from the balcony, not from the field or the arena. We're mixing metaphors, but you know what I'm saying.
Peter: Is it a Colosseum? Is it a baseball field? No one knows anymore. No one knows. Okay, so like, what to do with all of this wisdom? Is it like, I mean you joked earlier about us classifying our friends and network into various groups. I don't think we need to go that extreme, but how, yeah, how were you thinking about applying this?
Jen: Well, the sort of macro version of this is simply, have an awareness that there are people looking at your work from these different perspectives and speaking to you about your work from their particular perspective. I find that to be really a useful frame when I'm thinking about commentary and criticism and feedback. And then the other thing I think is, when you know, or when I know I'm dealing with an arena person, like, when I'm in conversation with you, for example, I can push myself, because you're in the arena too. Like, I think there's some tool of permission. Like, "Ooh, I'm in the arena. You're in the arena. Let's say we get a little bloody."
Peter: Yeah. Yeah, I like that. I think, building on the macro version, it's like, this is such a useful metaphor for me in terms of having empathy and practicing empathy, which I know we've spoken about in a number of episodes. This idea that everyone is right in their head, right? Everyone is behaving in a way that they believe is rational, is correct. Everyone has their own version of right and wrong. And so, remembering that the balcony people are right to not understand what it's like to be in the arena, and so they're right to not have to know the nitty gritty and the ins and outs of what it's like to be in the arena. Remembering that the people in the arena are right to challenge and push you and to get bloody with you when it's, when it makes sense. And remembering that those in the basement are right to critique you and try and trip you up, because that is their role. That is their version of what's true, is they don't like this particular piece of work, or they don't necessarily resonate with the change you wish to see in the world, and that that's okay, and that everyone in this mixed metaphor arena/field is doing their best with the role that they have, I think is sort of where I'm thinking about it. So for me it's, yeah, it's helping me empathize with those in the basement, those in the arena, and those in the balcony.
Jen: And that is The Long and The Short Of It.