In the fall of 2020, I signed up for a Dare to LeadTM workshop that Pam, a mentor I met through my coaching program, was co-facilitating. I was craving a cohort learning experience and was looking for a different kind of professional development opportunity as I contemplated my next chapter. I had read Dare to Lead in the summer of 2019 and was eager to explore the lessons in community with others.
One of the metaphors that Brene’ Brown uses to describe courage and vulnerability is that of being in the arena. It comes from a quote by President Teddy Roosevelt:
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 them 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, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in 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 fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
To bring this concept to life, we engaged in a visualization exercise in which we were asked to describe our own personal arenas and what it feels like when we’re faced with something that scares us. One of the participants said that she imagined herself streaking through the stadium which was both hilarious and such a powerful representation of what it can be like when we feel vulnerable and, ahem, exposed.
I had a different interpretation. I walked into the arena slowly and quietly, but with a healthy dose of confidence. Cautiously optimistic, you might say. I took in the sights, sounds, and vast landscape in front of me. My eyes were first drawn to one side of the arena where my own personal cheering section stretched from the floor seats all the way to the middle deck. There were rows and rows of t-shirts, posters, and banners expressing their unconditional support for me. My kids were yelling, “Go, Mommy, Go!” My husband was wearing a t-shirt with my face on it. My siblings, extended family, and friends from all different chapters of my life were chanting my name and went ballistic when I entered the stadium. My mom was the loudest with her trademark whistle (so embarrassing even just in the thought exercise).
On the other side of the arena, all the way up in the top level where the cheap seats are located, I saw and heard the critics: former bosses that focused on my flaws instead of my strengths, the disgruntled colleague with whom I could never really connect despite my best efforts, the boy who made fun of me in elementary school for being fat. All of the negative voices that have taken up real estate in my subconscious over the years: the haters, the doubters, the saboteurs. They were all there. They, too, had posters and pom poms, but they were clearly - and unapologetically - rooting against me. They were just waiting for me to fail, to slip up, to misstep. They were few in number, but boisterous and energetic with their face paint and foam fingers. Next to a former boss, I noticed a hazy outline of a figure who was sitting in the bleacher section, but was subdued and quiet. They didn’t seem to belong there, but didn’t know where else to go. I started to cry. I knew right away that the figure I was envisioning in the cheap seats was my father.
My father had passed away two years prior and yet his presence in my life was (and still is) very strong. At that particular moment, I was at a significant crossroads as I contemplated a big career transition. I was considering leaving behind the professional pathway I had cultivated over a period of 20 years and an employer I had worked for for more than a decade (along with colleagues I valued and a healthy 403(b)) to start a business which I knew absolutely nothing about in something with which I had no direct experience.
The logical, rational part of me believed it was ludicrous to leave my job without a concrete, viable option waiting for me. That was most definitely my dad’s influence. And, yet, the dreamer in me was compelled by my passion for helping others using my innate skills, eagerness to learn, and audacity to believe that I could create something sustainable from scratch. That was also my dad’s influence.
He was trained as a doctor, but had an entrepreneurial spirit when it came to building his practice and establishing his professional reputation. When he was first starting out, he would go door to door to introduce himself to physicians whom he hoped would eventually refer patients to him. Fast forward to the many winter breaks I spent during high school and college delivering dozens of thank you gifts in the form of chocolate feet to offices all over the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex (it makes more sense if you knew that he was a podiatrist).
This is precisely why I found myself craving his wise counsel during this period of contemplation. Despite my deep desire to hear his actual voice, I could only guess what he might have advised me to do. I didn’t want to make the wrong move for me and my family, but, more than anything, I didn’t want to disappoint him. It had been two years since his passing and I still wanted him to be proud of me.
With some coaching from the facilitators and additional self-reflection on my part, I started to realize that I had the opportunity to reimagine my father in the depiction of my arena.
Pam said encouragingly, “I’m sure your dad would be in the front row of your cheering section, Marissa.”
“No, that wasn’t really his style. He had a big personality and a strong presence, but he wasn’t overly demonstrative with his feelings. He would be there and play an active role, but not like that.”
I paused again.
“My dad would be the bouncer at the arena. He would be present, but behind the scenes. He would be walking around with a headset and walkie talkie making sure that no one entered who shouldn’t be there. His way of showing support would be to mitigate the risks and keep me safe.”
Looking back, there were many times when I interpreted that tendency as being critical or demanding even though he often tried to mask it with humor ("A 99…what happened to the other point?!"), but now I can appreciate it as his way of ensuring that I had more choices available to me. He didn't want any doors to be closed to me. Ever. He wanted me to always feel as though I had the ability to pursue my passions. It was his way of showing that he cared, and it was the best he knew how to do given his own upbringing. That was his love language.
I gave notice to my employer the following week.
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