Arenas, Tables, and Other Places We Need to Show Up

Oct. 20, 2020
I’ve built a career out of telling people’s stories and the story I think we need to start telling in our board rooms, conference rooms, and living rooms is this: Show Up.

One of my favorite quotes has got to be from her royal majesty of Oprah’s Book Club, Brené Brown:

“For me, if you’re not in the arena also getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback.”

Brown is world-renowned for her work studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. She’s a professor, an author, a podcast host, and the chair of the University of Houston's Graduate College of Social Work. She’s given TED talks, done Netflix specials, and often works with companies large and small on how to improve their efficiencies and employee culture.

There’s a lot more to her aforementioned quote that sets up the arena a**-kicking, but this particular part is what always stands out to me. Maybe it’s because I’ve actually been down on the ground post-kick or maybe it’s because I’ve been on the receiving end of unwarranted criticism, but I agree with the sentiment of "those who don’t, shouldn’t."

Most people reading this don’t know me personally. You know I like to write, I like to be witty, and I like to empower people, especially where their work life is concerned. What I don’t like is people who have no experience in my reality offering unsolicited opinions on what I’ve done, created, or built from the ground up. Don't even get me started on the frustration I feel when I see Shirley from Sheboygan go on a social media rant about a product she's never touched or used a day in her life, but Heavens to Betsy is she fired up because she doesn't like the name of it.  

I imagine there are plenty of people reading this that feel similarly. You put hard work, countless hours, sweat, and maybe some tears or even blood into something you're proud of. Maybe you found a better and more efficient way to do something on the plant floor. Perhaps you came up with a new product or reformulation that you're certain will have a positive impact on the bottom line. You eagerly and excitedly roll the byproduct of this blood-sweat-tear combo to your team and then you hear... nothing. Or, worse yet, you hear a complaint from someone who doesn't know a widget from a woohoo and never had skin in the game to begin with. 

Chairs to You, Shirley Chisholm

Another favorite quote of mine is from an amazing woman whom I hope many of you reading recognize. In response to her being the first African-American woman elected to the U.S. Congress, Shirley Chisholm famously said:

"If they don't give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair."

Like many of my brothers and sisters before me, I’ve lost track of the number of folding chairs I’ve brought to tables I wasn’t invited to. I've been on the side of the room when things that impact me are talked about in front of me... but not to me. I've watched. I've waited. Then I got tired of the watching and waiting and I started to create. 

What I’m talking about is Innovation. Product Development. The actual immersion of your hands so far down into the muck of life that you have no other choice than to create a product or an opportunity that breaks “the old way” wide open. I felt that way when I was talking to Rizal Hamdallah during our most recent podcast episode. I was enthralled as he talked about what they're doing with the Lighthouse Incubator program. 

Congresswoman Chisholm didn’t just bring a folding chair to the table, she built an entire conference room for the women and other people of color who had never even been allowed near the table. Think about the kind of bravery and resilience she must have had to endure all of the naysayers who told her she shouldn’t.

Kicking Butt

One of my most memorable moments during my 10 years in martial arts was during one of my Brown Belt tests. I was sparring with 6’5” former Marine and he was the only thing standing between me and my next rank. I, standing a very confident 5’4” tall, felt like his legs were almost as tall as my entire body. I didn’t duck and weave so much as deflect and defend. I let my guard down for precisely one second and that’s when it hit me, or rather, he hit me. His foot went squarely into my right ribcage.

His kick was so fierce it knocked me across the room. I was down on the floor gasping for air, assessing whether or not I’d cracked any of those ribs he’d just kicked. I could hear someone off in the distance telling me to stay down, that I shouldn't get back up and fight anymore. It was that exact moment that I knew my life would be defined by whether or not I got up or stayed down. I did get up and I kept fighting. I lost the match, but gained the rank; I also gained a new mentality.

Whether I’m at a dojo or a conference room table, feedback offered by those who aren’t down on the ground doing the hard work isn’t welcome. I’ve built a career out of telling people’s stories and the story I think we need to start telling in our board rooms, conference rooms, and living rooms is this: Show Up.

Show up and be counted. Show up and do the hard work. Show up and get your hands, your face, your everything dirty because that’s the only way you’re going to learn anything. Once you’ve felt the pain of being kicked down on the ground and told ‘No, you can’t because….’ only then are you qualified to offer feedback.

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