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Finding Inspiration in Life’s Arenas

September’s rains have brought with them a change in pace and mood. This summer’s fires, both literal and figurative, are no longer raging but are still live beneath the surface. As August turned to September BP announced that they were selling their Alaska assets to Hilcorp. These are two very different companies with two very different business models and attitudes towards employment, wages, benefits, and philanthropy. We do not know how this transition will shake out for the state and local economy, but the early consensus opinion is “less”. I agree with the direction of the consensus, but I also believe that we need to give Hilcorp space to grow into their role in Alaska and not immediately conclude that doom is upon us. BP’s exit has been years in the making, and so too will it take some time to discover what Hilcorp’s expanded presence, and the loss of an oil major, truly means for Alaska.

With the change in season, mood, and pace I’d like to write about something inspiring instead of the challenges facing our literal and political economy. Several weeks ago, I volunteered to provide the “Words for the Day” at my local rotary club’s weekly meeting. I chose to quote Teddy Roosevelt in a speech from April 1910 after he left the presidency:

“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.”

This paragraph is perhaps Roosevelt’s most famous from any speech he gave. They came to my attention via the wonderful author and researcher, Brené Brown. Roosevelt’s focus on a single gender betrays the quote’s age, but for me these words are an easy source of inspiration and a reminder that what matters is be a person in action. The choice to be in the arena of life, and not just a spectator, is where the opportunity for personal fulfillment and making a difference lie.

Roosevelt’s words are a ready source of inspiration, but the universe can drop inspiration on us in the most unlikely of ways. My son, who loves cross-country skiing but who has no love of running, is participating in high school cross-country running this fall; a fact which has led me to find one of those unlikely, but incredible, source of inspiration: JV/Open cross-country races. Why these races? If you go and watch a varsity cross-country race, I guarantee that you’re going to see a great race. These races are filled with athletes who through hard work and the gift of natural talent are almost certainly capable of running at least Div. III at the college level. So again, why JV/Open? I love the JV/Open races because it is where the bravery of the arena and Roosevelt’s words shine at their brightest. The runners in the lower division races span the gamut from the student who is trying to make the varsity team to those runners for whom simply competing in the race is an act of bravery and courage. It’s where you’ll find the student who would be the #5 runner on the varsity team at any school that had 600 students instead of 1,200 students, and where you’ll find the student for whom simply completing a 5K without stopping is a personal record. Stand before the finish line and you’ll see athletic duels and personal battles which mean nothing and yet mean everything. These athletes run just as hard and with as much bravery, courage, and competitive spirit as you’ll find at any level of athletic endeavor. They do it knowing that their race will never make the newspaper nor earn them a varsity letter and they do it knowing that in comparison to the varsity runners their bodies are much more likely to fail them in full view of spectators. That is the definition of stepping into Roosevelt’s arena.

So, let me wrap this back to the economy. It’s easier to start a business when you’re sitting on significant free cash flow or when you have backers ready to just hand you money; that’s the varsity team. It’s a lot harder when access to capital is tight, you haven’t built a significant reputation, or when you’re worried about where your health insurance is going to come from. It’s in these conditions that we find it hardest to be in the arena, but it’s also where some of our most creative and exciting new companies come from; the ones which add so much to our communal richness. I’m thinking really intensely about Anchorage’s plethora of new breweries, a certain ice cream shop which opened a test kitchen in midtown, a dental company which turned the traditional dental model on it’s head to serve lower income customers, fishermen who are direct marketing, a local coffee roaster who now roasts for Costco, and that cool little coffee/craft shop in Nome that I visited in July. These sources of bravery and inspiration are all around us, but it took a decision to step into the arena to make them come to life.


Jonathan’s Takeaway: Where could your life and community be enriched by stepping away from being the critic and spectator and stepping into the arena? What’s the skill you’ve always wanted to develop? Who are the non-profits that need your gifts? What is the work of your life that’s left undone?
If you do want to be a spectator, be the best kind. Throughout this school year and every school year there are student athletes that would love to hear you clap, shout, and cheer encouragements from the sidelines. Your positive presence rewards their bravery and binds the community together. Cross-country season runs (pun intended) through October 5th when the state championship will be held at Bartlett High School.

Jonathan King is a consulting economist and Certified Professional Coach. His firm, Halcyon Consulting, is dedicated to helping clients reach their goals through accountability, integrity, and personal growth. Jonathan has 22 years of social science consulting experience including 16 years in Alaska. The comments in this blog do not necessarily represent the view of employers and clients past or present and are Jonathan’s alone. Suggested blog topics, constructive feedback, and comments are desired at askjonathan@apcm.net.


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