It’s not the critic who counts

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The day after the fireworks, the parades, the hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill, is a good day to remember these words from a great American:

“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 errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for 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 he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”

Theodore Roosevelt said those words one hundred years ago at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1910.

If you’re like me, no matter how many times you read the Bull Moose’s words, you feel a tingle, a stirring, an inspiration. We who have “strived valiantly” and know “the great enthusiasms, the great devotions” can identify with the man in the arena, and know the futility of listening to the countless, discountable critics.

I’ve shared these words with you every year for the past seven years for three reasons. One, I’m a big Teddy Roosevelt fan. Two, it gets me off the hook for my usual Sunday 3 p.m. deadline for writing this newsletter (hey, I like to take the long weekend off too!) And most importantly because, if your reaction is similar to mine, you feel that Teddy gives voice to the best which is inside of us: perseverance, determination, resilience, and grand aspirations.

Last week, I was driving around Southern California and thinking about writing this Fifth of July newsletter. I spoke on career management to the Kellogg Alumni Club of Los Angeles and a group of life science professionals in La Jolla, and I attended the big annual trade show for HR — the Society of Human Resources Management — in San Diego.

As I was tooling around the highways in my Hertz rent-a-car, I hit “scan” on the radio. There’s something wonderful about the amalgam of languages that come across the airwaves here in our immigrant nation, and Los Angeles is home to stations broadcast in Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean and Japanese, reflecting its Pacific connections.

I eventually landed on a classic rock format, and smiled with nostalgia when these lyrics blasted out over the killer drum line:

Oh, we’re not gonna take it
No, we ain’t gonna take it
Oh, we’re not gonna take it anymore

We’ve got the right to choose and
There ain’t now way we’ll lose it
This is our life, this is our song

We’ll fight the powers that be just
Don’t pick our destiny ’cause
You don’t know us, you don’t belong”

I found the video here on Bing later, complete with awesome double-jointed drumming and cameo from Animal House’s Neidermeyer.

And I got to thinking about what this teen angst anthem means for us this Fourth of July (because nothing says “American democracy” like a 6′ 1″ rock star in terrifying drag, right?)

Do you remember how you felt when you first heard “We’re Not Gonna Take It”? Do you remember shouting the chorus at the top of your lungs? Do you remember the defiance, the energy, the power that you felt you had within yourself, and against the world?

Sure, perhaps the song is juvenile, and sophomoric, and just another entry in a litany of teen rebellion rock songs, and yet… and yet…

There is a similarity to the defiance contained within Teddy’s words and Twisted Sister’s lyrics. There is a common connection across the years. There is a bond, an assertion of the American character that is expressed, however different the form.

America was the first country in the history of the world to put the individual at the center of its power. By establishing a democracy 234 years ago, we said that it is the citizen him or herself who was the most important person in the country’s political system. And that assertion of the individual’s right to determine what to do with their own life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, is the basis for both Teddy and Twisted Sister’s words.

It is only when the individual is at the center that you can have a man in the arena. Elsewhere in his Sorbonne speech, Roosevelt states “The good citizen will demand liberty for himself, and as a matter of pride he will see to it that others receive the liberty which he thus claims as his own.”

It is only when the individual is at the center that you can rock out the lyric “We’re free” and have the right to say you won’t take it.

What will you do this summer with that liberty which has been earned by others and given to you? Because your freedom cost somebody something, you know. Your liberty was paid for from somebody else’s account. Your fellow citizens today, and their predecessors from Valley Forge to Fallujah, gave and gave and gave in order to make this world you’re living in.

So what will you do with it this summer?

Will you take inspiration from Roosevelt’s calling to the “great devotions”? Will you declare your defiance of the status quo? Will you tap into that teenage energy that you once had and turn it towards creating success in your adult life? Will you be the man (or woman) in the arena, and refuse to “take” what the critics, the naysayers, those timid souls have to dish out for you?

This summer is your summer to shine.

This summer is your summer to spend yourself in a worthy cause.

This summer is your summer to pick your destiny.

And today is a day for reflection. Today is a day for you to find within yourself the power and the energy to achieve great things. Today is a day for you to consider what you will do with that liberty which has been given to you.

Earn it.