The Arena

About two weeks ago, some intense things happened in my life.

(An excerpt from the poem "Salt" by Nayyirah Waheed)

The first was an article on race issues in Singapore and the second was the privilege walk experiment by UNSAID. The article that I wrote has been shared more than 4000 times. I was part of the team that helped to produce the vide

o and I also took part in the experiment, which has since been shared a few hundred thousand times. Both the article and the video were published online at about the same time.

There were so many responses for both of these pieces of work, and it was overwhelming. I have never been so heard and misheard before in my 22 years of existence. A lot of the feedback was noise.

Some people are really horrible on the Internet. This is something you and I both already knew. But when I first read some of the responses, I really think a lot of people forgot that there were real, living breathing people with feelings behind what they read and saw on their screens. There were thankfully a lot more constructive than negative comments though, and that was great.

But even the positive responses made me anxious and when people shared their own stories with me, I really felt the weight of their experiences on my shoulders.

I didn’t know what to do with all this anger+ hate+ encouragement+ sadness that was buzzing around me, and I don’t know how my team mates in UNSAID coped, but I dealt with it the only way I know how. I put on some upbeat Kelly Clarkson songs, went for a run, came back and ate a lot of Cadbury.

So after the Kelly Clarkson and the Cadbury, I watched a video of a talk by Brene Brown, a researcher and social worker, about critics that really helped me to organize my thoughts.

Brene shares this quote from Theodore Roosevelt about criticism and critics:

“It’s not the critic who counts. It’s not the man who points out where the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done it better. The credit belongs to the person who’s actually in the arena, whose face is marred with blood and sweat and dust, who at the best, in the end knows the triumph of high achievement and who at worst, if he fails, he fails daring greatly.

To be honest, this quote didn’t do much for me. But what she said afterwards did.

For Brene, the quote made her realize something, and that was what really inspired me:

“It’s not about winning, it’s not about losing, it’s about showing up and being seen.”

It is so hard to show up and be seen. It is the hardest thing in the world. It’s what keeps me up awake at night. But it is also incredibly empowering.

She goes on to explain what “being seen” means and this is the part that really helped me:

She explained how she decided that:

“This is who I want to be. I want to create. I want to show up and be seen in my work and in my life. And if you’re going to show up and be seen, there is only one guarantee, and that is, you will get your ass kicked. That is the guarantee. That is the only certainty you have. If you’re going to go in the arena and spend any time in there, especially if you have committed to creating in your life, you will get your ass kicked. So you have to decide at that moment…if courage is a value that we hold, this is a consequence, you can’t avoid it.”

This is the crux of my struggle. This exactly what keeps me, and so many people I know, afraid to say and do what we really want to do. Do you dare to be brave? Can you?

The next thing she said, is a philosophy towards criticism, that I decided to adopt wholeheartedly. This is when I stopped reading the comments to both the article and the video.

“The third thing that really set me free, is a new philosophy about criticism which is this: If you’re not also in the arena, also getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback. If you have constructive information and feedback to give me I want it…but if you’re in the cheap seats, not putting yourself on the line and just talking about how I could do it better, I’m in no way interested in your feedback.”

It is so easy to stand outside the arena and comment. But courage is not a spectator sport.

So why don’t I just say I don’t care? It’s because of this:

“When you armour up against vulnerability, you shut yourself off. Vulnerability is certainly a part of fear and self-doubt and grief and uncertainty and shame but it’s also the birthplace of love, belonging of joy, trust, empathy, creativity and innovation. Without vulnerability, you cannot create.

“I don’t care what people think, I don’t care about the critics in the arenas [is it’s own problem] we’re hardwired for connection, when we stop caring what people think, we lose our capacity for connection. When we become defined by what other people think, we lose our capacity to be vulnerable.”

So instead, reserve seats for our critics.

“The three seats when you walk into the arena, to share your work with someone, that will always be taken are shame, scarcity and comparison. And you have to decide who the fourth seat is for: is it a teacher, a parent…”

“Reserve a seat, take the critics to lunch and to simply say I see you, I hear you, but I’m going to do this anyway. And I’ve got a seat for you and you’re welcome to come but I’m not interested in your feedback.”

Perhaps the most important seats to reserve are for our supporters. For this, I will thank my parents and Gaurav. For your loyalty and friendship and most of all, for telling me what I need to hear, rather than what I want to.

We often make the mistake of thinking we’re trying to impress strangers:

“ I’m trying to win over the people who hate me, I’m looking for the stranger in the mall, that’s who I’m trying to win over.”

But now we know that we can reserve seats for the people who believed in us before we believed in ourselves.

And lastly:

“The world keeps going, whether you know it or not. The critics are in the arena whether you identify them and think about the messages that keep us small [in our work and ambitions].

I had my day in the sun. It was empowering. I saw that my words made a difference. I, like many others, have lived most of my life feeling like a ‘nobody’.

Someone told me the other day, “I think you’re a great writer.” I smiled and thanked her, but I know I’m not a great writer. I’m a good writer and an honest writer, and if I worked really hard at it then maybe one day I’ll be a great writer. But would you believe it? That the tiniest seeds of greatness could lie within me? Would I dare to believe it? When I think about how all my work is written from the bedroom of a nondescript HDB apartment, in an entirely unremarkable neighbourhood in Jurong, it seems audacious to dream in this way. I look at myself in the mirror and I see a haphazard mix of stretch marks and bad sentence structure and typos. But something shifted in me that week. For the first time I really believed that my words and actions could make a difference. I am only 22 years young, it can only get better.

#reflection #writing #courage #dreams

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