The Wrong Arena

Common sense dictates you should “pick your battles,” but the advice often comes at the expense of a much bigger, even more important decision: picking your battlefield.

From Nixon to Mandela, Brené Brown to LeBron James, it has become popular – and somewhat cliché – to quote the “Man in the Arena” bit from Theodore Roosevelt’s “Citizenship in a Republic” speech, delivered more than 100 years ago to French academics, soldiers, and citizens at Sorbonne University:

“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, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds.”

It’s hard not to feel inspired by these words, but against the backdrop provided by Ryan Holiday in The Daily Stoic, Roosevelt’s words leave much to wonder about: Roosevelt was a workaholic, desperately chasing often life-endangering thrills in his spare time, even begging to go to the battlefield at 59 years old. “We choose to be at war—in some cases, literally—when peace is in fact the more honorable and fitting choice,” Holiday wrote.

Life is not the Hunger Games. No one pulled your name out of a hat, handed you a trident, pushed you out some gate and said: “There you go. Now fight for your life.”

You don’t have to study like crazy to get good grades. You don’t have to graduate summa cum laude. You don’t have to slave away for 80 hours each week to look good in front of your manager. All of these are choices, and you can choose a different path whenever you find none of your current battles are battles you’ve deliberately decided to face.

Yes, effort matters. True courage followed by real actions is admirable – which makes it all the more tragic when said courage and actions are committed to the wrong ends. Once you find something worth fighting for, give it all you’ve got. Until then, make sure you don’t end up in the wrong arena. There’s nothing worse than holding a prize you were never meant to win.