Overview: In this short solo episode (Ep. 123), Adam Williams shares about his experience with the conflicting voices in his head, including Brené Brown’s, Teddy Roosevelt’s and his imagined critics’, every time he creates as a writer, poet, artist, podcaster … whatever the creative medium. (Released on podcast on Jan. 17, 2023)

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About Adam

Art Credits
Podcast cover art and art below: Adam Williams

Intro/Outro Music

“Old Rope” by Joe Johnson | joejohnsonsings.com

Original Written Version

I often think of Teddy Roosevelt’s “man in the arena.” But I admit that it’s etched most firmly in my brain by Brené Brown, rather than any penchant for memorizing presidential speeches.

The renowned passage originally was part of a speech (“Citizenship in a Republic”) Roosevelt gave in 1910 at the Sorbonne in Paris soon after his second term as U.S. President:

“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.”

Brené gave her most famous TED Talk, “The Power of Vulnerability,” a century after Roosevelt initially spoke those words. She published her book, “Daring Greatly,” in 2012, citing Roosevelt’s speech. 

Both of those works (and many more) by Brené have resonated in the world, in multiple languages, endlessly. They’ve launched her into the hearts and souls of many millions. The TED Talk has been viewed more than 60 million times now, just counting the number of views noted on the TED website. 

For me, I carry two persistent voices in my head on a daily basis. One is a critical, inhibiting voice that causes me to want to shrink, to not express myself truthfully and freely. The other comes, when it does, through Brené Brown in the words of Teddy Roosevelt.

Brené has said she carries in her wallet a list of names of people whose opinions matter to her. I don’t know how many names she has on her list. I think my list ought to be shorter than I let it be. I allow far too many to preemptively inhibit me. “What would they think of [X]?”

"Roosevelt's Bullet" by Adam Williams | Humanitou

“Roosevelt’s Bullet” by Adam Williams

My wife and two sons. That’s all I need the list to be. They are the ones I have a fully honest rapport with. Other relationships are thorny with egos, superficial social niceties, and varying degrees of personal experiences, focused attention, empathy, interests, self-interests, self-confidence, self-honesty, knowledge of me (lack of), and otherwise interfering baggage that color the relationship dynamics. No one else is as close to being in the arena with me like my wife and sons are.

I have learned that those who know your experience (e.g. fellow creators), because they too are or have been in the arena you occupy, and have a strong measure of self-awareness and self-confidence, are empathetic with a compatriot in the struggle, whatever struggle.

Those who lack empathy and don’t know, run their mouths, fade-fight-fix and are presumptuously critical and dismissive, it’s either because their ego is injured by what they perceive as your successes and opportunities, and/or they simply aren’t there for you.

To those who shun our surges of confidence and self-belief, our extraordinary and bloody efforts and strong hearts, they shun themselves, using us as their target by proxy and their weapon.

That should make it easy to discern who is worthy of our attention, whose voices are worthy of consideration. Nonetheless, I hear the inhibiting, critical voice(s) in my head with every sentence I write, every podcast conversation I have, every work I create in every medium. It calls for ongoing effort simply to keep them at bay and resist their advances toward the uncontrollable seas.

I don’t hear Brené or Teddy in my head in equal measure to balance the scales against insecurity. As everything is and everything must be, this too is a practice: hearing the voices that support us, embolden us, push us forward, and sometimes drag us into our own possibilities of being. And otherwise cultivating self-confidence.

I couldn’t cite Roosevelt’s passage by any stretch. When it does come to mind (via Brené’s voice), it’s often in that battle within my head, the counterweight to the imagined critic’s voice. Saying to myself and to that critic, “They aren’t here in the arena; they don’t know; they don’t get to say. … They aren’t here in the arena; they don’t know; they don’t get to say.”

It’s tiringly difficult to be a feeling, expressive, thinking, creative being in this world. I was writing earlier this week with a grass-is-greener sort of vision of how being a simpler, more binary black-and-white thinker, who does not see and feel the gray terrain, would be a blissfully ignorant place to reside.

A satisfyingly strange thing happened, though, a creative writing flow I couldn’t have conjured intentionally had I tried. I imagined having a dial on my brain which would allow me to turn down the complexities of my highly intense and sensitive perceptions to a more tolerable level whenever I’d get tired of absorbing the world.

That idea wasn’t the strange part, this was: A film adaptation of it for not just one movie but two flowed through me and my pen onto the page. A story of a future society in which such technologies exist and are accessible only by the wealthy, who often use these dials/controls to minimize their empathy and feeling as they build their empires of greed and narcissism, and reduce what surrounds them – us – to rubble. 

I won’t lay out the whole idea now, but if Ron Howard or Steven Spielberg are interested in knowing the rest, they can hit me up and we’ll go halfsies on this blockbuster franchise-in-waiting.

The thing is I’ve never written fiction. I don’t think I’ve ever created in filmmaking terms at all. Yet this concept came out whole-cloth and, like I said, in two parts, parts for two feature length films. Where the hero’s journey and the story arc leads in the first film is the hero learning that it is, in fact, a worthy way of being to be a deeply feeling and expressive person, despite the daily struggles it presents.

The free flow of this writing and these ideas might well have been an epiphanous therapy session, a free-association through which I recognized that the grass is not actually greener, even if I could choose a numb-and-dumb approach to life. 

Feeling, thinking, expressing. Vulnerability. Being the human in the arena, risking heart and mind, caked with dirty sweat and dusty blood … it’s a worthy way of being and seeing.

Now, if only I had a dial to crank up on that, lock it in, break it off, and keep me feeling the booming bass of my own stadium-rocking soul. But …

"Schrank's Revolver" by Adam Williams | Humanitou

“Schrank’s Revolver” by Adam Williams

It’s a courageous practice to gird up and enter the arena every day, and with every act of voice and expression. And to avoid being one of “those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat,” as Roosevelt said. 

The arena then is in my mind. It’s the battle between the warrior voice (Brené, Teddy and my best, most confident urges) and the weak and timid onlookers who would prefer we not strive beyond the limitations they perceive within their own spirits and minds.

And so on we go, we must go, daring greatly, those of us who are aware of these capacities within us, bloodied and victorious by the effort.

Addendum: Roosevelt’s Bullet

In the artwork above, I’ve used as the base image an X-ray showing a bullet (left side of image) lodged in Teddy Roosevelt’s torso from when he, a two-term U.S. president, was shot prior to giving a campaign speech in 1912 by a saloonkeeper named John Flammang Schrank.

Here is the compelling story of the day via Wikipedia

“Schrank’s bullet lodged in Roosevelt’s chest after penetrating Roosevelt’s steel eyeglass case and passing through a thick (50 pages) single-folded copy of the speech titled ‘Progressive Cause Greater Than Any Individual,’ which he was carrying in his jacket. 

“Schrank was immediately disarmed (by Czech immigrant Frank Bukovsky) and captured; he might have been lynched had Roosevelt not shouted for Schrank to remain unharmed. Roosevelt assured the crowd he was all right, then ordered police to take charge of Schrank and to make sure no violence was done to him.

“As an experienced hunter and anatomist, Roosevelt correctly concluded that since he was not coughing blood, the bullet had not reached his lung; he declined suggestions to go to the hospital immediately. Instead, he delivered his scheduled speech. 

“His opening comments to the gathered crowd were, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot, but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.’”

Psychologists determined Schrank to be “criminally insane.” He was committed to the Central State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Waupun, Wisconsin, where he would live what would be the remaining 29 years of his life. He died of pneumonia.