I’m a huge fan of vulnerability researcher Brené Brown. Her work has influenced me, and so many others, both personally and professionally. I love how she weaves data, research and “academics” into useful and deeply personal “popular” wisdom. On the days when my own work as a risk-taking educator feels extra challenging, I find that I often return to her perspective on criticism. Not feedback, mind you, but criticism.
In her humorous and humble talk at 99U, Brown tells a story of being stuck in a deep funk from reading too many cruel and negative online comments aimed at her personally, not her professional ideas. She stumbles across this quote, and in her words, it changed her life:
Brown explains that Roosevelt’s words summarize everything she knows about vulnerability, and confirm that there’s no way to avoid struggle if you want to create something meaningful. Most importantly, the quote inspired her to shift her mindset regarding criticism, and she gives us this:
These words will no doubt resonate with anyone who makes things and shares them. I love how the 99U audience full of designers erupts into cheers at her statement.
This powerful metaphor about “the arena” and criticism came back to me recently when I was interviewed by Andrea Hernandez of Prizmah for her new blog about innovative educators. Andrea and I had a great conversation beyond what appeared in the actual published interview. At one point Andrea paused and said, “It makes me so sad that you have all these experiences, ideas and research stored in Evernote. Why don’t you share them? Why don’t you blog?” Her comment stuck with me after the interview ended.…running right alongside my own doubts. Rather than focusing on the joyful opportunity I just had connecting with another technologist, educator, and innovator – I was instead focused on every flaw in what I had said. And there I found the answer to Andrea’s question about why I don’t blog. Perfectionism.
Perfectionism is fear dressed up in a lot more syllables. It’s the fear of not being good enough, smart enough, or enough, period. It’s the fear of not having a totally 100% unique idea that is brilliant, mind-blowing, scalable and replicable with an enviable value proposition that will save education and the world as we know it. Perfectionism is the armor you wear when you fear you’ll be a target. Perfectionism is criticism from the harshest critic of all. I thought I had kicked the ass of my own self – critic and left him in a defeated slump in the corner of the ring. Yet here he was again, unwanted and decidedly unhelpful.
The arena can be an intimidating place. It’s loud and rowdy, there’s flashing lights and screaming people and the blasting music ricochets and echoes off the hard, concrete surfaces. The floor is sticky, your seat is uncomfortable, you get jostled, bumped, and knocked around. You’ve never been hungrier and the line for food and drinks is impossibly long; most of your drink will be spilled anyway, and probably by the guy next to you. And…that’s just the spectator experience!
Yet, Andrea’s words kept haunting me – her encouragement actually weighing on me. I have been entertained and informed by the efforts of others in the arena. I have cheered them on, benefited from their bravery, and found validation in their words. As Andrea says, I am withholding ideas that others may benefit from. Not everyone can talk to me directly. Not everyone can visit my classroom. This strikes right at the heart of my deepest values, growth and service.
So – this is me getting excited about wrestling with ideas. Publicly. This is me entering The Arena. I don’t know who will show up to face me, or join my team, throw tomatoes or cheer me on – but I’m here. Maybe the blasting music will be my THEME SONG. Maybe I’ll be jostled around because everyone is scrambling to high-five me. Maybe the flashing lights are there not to disorient, but to light the way. Who knows – maybe we’ll be teammates! Or, maybe it’ll just be me.
Thanks Andrea, for the inspiration. Now, hold my cape and hand me that mouthguard – I’m going in.