You Can Be a Spectator or You Can Be in the Arena

by Tom Koulopoulos

You Can Be a Spectator or You Can Be in the Arena

The difference defines what it means to be an entrepreneur.

Last week, I was reminded of what it means to be an entrepreneur when a good friend shared with me the pain of watching his business fail after years of hard work. He wasn’t bitter about it but he was thinking hard about the risks and rewards of yet another startup. He’s well off financially, so it’s a rational question of where to place his bets.

What he was really asking was the question that separates entrepreneurs from everyone else: “Do you want to be a spectator or do you want to step into the arena?”

Spectators place bets and take risks. Nothing wrong with that. But when you’re in the arena, it’s not about the odds; you don’t come to bet, you come to win.

The single greatest misconception about being an entrepreneur is that it’s about gambling. Wrong. Entrepreneurs will bet on themselves long before they drop a quarter into a slot machine. When Elon Musk invested his entire fortune in Tesla and SpaceX, he wasn’t betting it all on red or black at the roulette wheel, and he certainly wasn’t placing all of his chips on double zero. Musk was not a gambler. He was in it to win. However, I can guarantee you that if you had lined up 10,000 people at random and asked them to make the same bet, to put their entire fortunes on the line during the recession of 2008 and live off of loans from friends (yes, that’s what Musk was doing), they would have seen nothing but risk and run off faster than a Tesla P85D going from 0 to 60.

Musk’s moment of truth is hardly unique. I have yet to encounter an entrepreneur who hasn’t faced that dreaded long night without money in the bank to make payroll the next day. Terrifying? Damn straight it is! So why do it? Because here’s the difference between an entrepreneur and just about any other sane person: You’re in the arena because you believe enough in yourself, your vision, and your team that there is only one option–winning.

“Do you want to live a life on the sidelines, filled with reasons why you didn’t try, or do you want to live a life in the arena, filled with stories of how you did?”

Crazy? Perhaps it is to most people, but there’s nothing naive or Pollyannaish about it. You know what the downside looks like. You understand the steep precipice of failure and its equally steep price, but you plow forward anyway–all the while surrounded by critics and naysayers, who come up with a near infinite number of reasons why the odds are stacked against you and failure lurks around the corner.

You do it because, at the end of the day, the question you’ve already answered is a very simple one: Do you want to live a life on the sidelines, filled with reasons why you didn’t try, or do you want to live a life in the arena, filled with stories of how you did?

I’ve already used up 500 words and I promised 134. Here they are–Teddy Roosevelt said it much better in a lot less:

[Bracketed] additions are mine and are not counted in the 134 words.

“It is not the critic who counts: not the [wo]man who points out how the strong [wo]man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the [wo]man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself [or herself] for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if [s]he fails, at least [s]he fails while daring greatly, so that his [or her] place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”

–from Theodore Roosevelt’s Speech “Citizenship in a Republic,” delivered at the Sorbonne, Paris, April 23, 1910

Take those 134 words and pin them up on your mirror. Read them daily to remind yourself why you’re inside the arena rather than sitting on the sidelines.

This article was originally published on Inc.

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Thomas KoulopoulosTom Koulopoulos is the author of 10 books and founder of the Delphi Group, a 25-year-old Boston-based think tank and a past Inc. 500 company that focuses on innovation and the future of business. He tweets from @tkspeaks.

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