Welcome to an early look at an essay that Peter McGraw has been working on about how to live a more engaged life in the face of boredom or anxiety. Using a bullfighting metaphor, he presents ways you can identify “bulls” in your life and dance with them with proficiency and panache. After he finishes sharing his thoughts, Iris Schneider joins him for a brief discussion of the idea. You too can share your thoughts as part of the Solo community, which you can sign up for at petermcgraw.org/solo. Finally, McGraw’s latest book is now available for pre-order: Search Amazon for Solo: Breaking the Rules in a World Built for Two.
Listen to Episode #183 here
Solo Thoughts 10 – Dancing with Bulls
On occasion, I do a solo episode where I talk directly to you about a topic, usually one that I’m obsessed with. This episode is an early look at an essay that I’ve been working on. It came to me during a mushroom trip during my time in Bogotá, Columbia, where I went to finish the final round of edits to my third and perhaps final book.
Speaking of the book, I’m pleased to announce that it is available for pre-order on Amazon. Search for SOLO: Breaking the Rules in a World Built For Two. The idea is here in our work in progress. After I finish sharing my thoughts, I welcome Iris Schneider, a familiar guest on the show, to share her response. I too welcome your comments and suggestions as I hope to publish this essay somewhere for a broader audience. You can make your comments as part of the SOLO community, which you can sign up for at PeterMcGraw.org/SOLO. There, you will find bright, optimistic, and kind singles from all over the world. I hope you enjoy the episode. Let’s get started.
This is Solo Thoughts Ten, Dancing with Bulls. The matador stands elegantly in the arena, inviting a 1,200-pound beast to charge. Skillful matadors position themselves within inches of the bull’s horn as it rumbles past. The most celebrated matadors, however, possess more than superior skills. They display an artistry much admired by the spectators in the stands. What could this controversial tradition have to do with how you work, play, relate, and create? A lot.
Matadors face a bull in a severe test of skill. We too face challenges in our daily lives, be it a daunting work project, a delicate personal relationship, or even the simple task of maintaining focus in a mundane meeting. I present the bullfight as a metaphor for crafting a more compelling life, one that turns work into play, one that makes the mundane into the magical, and one that enriches your experience and often of those around you.
Before I go further, I want to be clear. My use of bullfighting is purely metaphorical. People rightfully criticize the act for its overt brutality and inherent cruelty. Indeed, bullfighting is banned in many countries, though it remains a cherished tradition in a few. My understanding of bullfighting comes chiefly from cultural knowledge, online videos, and Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon.
Aficionados underscore bullfighting’s deeply rooted cultural significance but to me, there’s something else to it. The bullfight leaves me unsettled yet captivated. Perhaps, there is something to be learned from the dangerous dance between the matador and bull. Metaphorical bull fighters view challenging tasks as bulls that they seek to engage with with proficiency and panache.
Becoming fully engaged in an activity can transform a daunting task into an elegant dance. This is what is often referred to as a state of flow, a satisfying psychological state where one is so engrossed in an activity that the world seems to blur and fade away. It’s like how athletes describe being in the zone or artists feel when they’re completely lost in their craft. In this dance, what once seemed boring captures interest. The stress can be transformed into satisfying moments, perhaps even triumphs. Let’s delve deeper into this metaphor by examining four key elements of the bullfight and see how they mirror aspects of your life.
The matador, if it isn’t obvious, is you. If you adopt the mindset of the matador, you are tasked with doing more than just survive. Your goal is to thrive by engaging with skill and style. The bull represents the creative challenge you willingly invite, big or small. A work presentation, a wedding toast, a first date, cooking a meal, hosting a game night, learning a new language, recording a podcast, or even visiting your family for the holidays, these “bulls” require more than participation. They demand strategy, skill, and a dash of daring.
The arena, The Plaza de Toros, as it is called in bullfighting, signifies the setting wherein lies the challenge. While it’s tempting to think our most memorable moments are those of leisure or passive consumption, that’s not true. Watching TV puts you in the stands with the other spectators. The real highlights of life more often come from times of active engagement, requiring problem-solving and creativity that stretch the body, mind, or both. They’re flow-worthy. Thus, the ideal setting to dance with the bull is one where there is an act of creation. The arena is where you live on your edge.
Finally, the spectators are the audience to your struggles and successes. Hemingway wrote, “In bullfighting, the audience plays a role as vital as the matador and the bull.” In this metaphor, the audience is not necessary but often important. The audience bears witness, raises the stakes, brings energy, and expresses approval, a la the use of olé in an actual bullfight. To recap, the matador, bull, arena, and spectators are the four key elements.
How do you develop an engaged mindset and find more flow in a life that is otherwise too often dull or stressful? Start by seeing bulls. As a matador beckons the bull with a vibrant red cape, you can actively seek acts of creation and challenge a bull to be danced with. Some of these “bulls” might be pre-planned challenges like a long-anticipated work presentation while others may present themselves spontaneously, such as needing to spice up a lackluster dinner party.
In the realm of bullfighting, Toro Bravo or Toro de Lidia, the bulls, are bred for their formidable size, strength, and aggression. Novice matadors are paired with younger or smaller bulls while seasoned professionals confront the most intimidating ones. The same applies metaphorically. The first step in life is to recognize and select the right challenge to engage with, tailoring the level of difficulty to your skill and experience.
According to the science of flow, the balance between challenge and skill is critical. If the challenge is too low relative to skill, boredom ensues. If the challenge is too high relative to skill, anxiety ensues. Thus, selecting a challenge appropriately is crucial. For example, a pianist might venture into a piece a tad more intricate than usual. In the kitchen, selecting a recipe that pushes your culinary boundaries can transform a routine dinner preparation into a flavorful dance.
A novice presenter may make minor tweaks to that work presentation such as injecting a touch of comedy. An experienced presenter may take the bold step and forego PowerPoint slides for the work presentation altogether, thus testing their knowledge and storytelling ability. Next, develop your skills so that you’re prepared when you see the opportunity to dance with the bull. For the bullfighter, every flick of the cape and calculated sidestep is a dangerous choice, demanding physical skill. Like other athletes, bullfighters train intensively to hone their agility, balance, and mental fortitude.
Consider the legendary matador Juan Belmonte. Belmonte practiced relentlessly studying the bulls, understanding their movements, and perfecting his technique. Stories are told of him spending hours in the training ring replicating challenging scenarios and pushing his limits to perfect his craft. Similarly, to achieve proficiency in any field, you’ll need to practice and learn. It’s not just about the number of hours you put in but the quality of those hours.
Coined by researcher Anders Ericsson, deliberate practice refers to a purposeful practice where people challenge themselves with tasks beyond their current competence and comfort. It’s all about focused improvement, receiving feedback, and pushing one’s boundaries. For example, a pianist doesn’t just play the same piece over and over and expect to improve. Instead, the pianist pinpoints specific difficult sections, works on them separately, gets feedback from a teacher, and then integrates those improvements back into the whole piece.
Developing skills allows the matador to face more challenging bulls as their career progresses. Metaphorical matadors like you also can transform greater challenges into flow-worthy activities. After developing your ability, develop your flair. I’m fond of the quote attributed to Pablo Picasso, “Learn the rules like a professional so that you can break them like an artist.” The best matadors are more than athletes. They aspire to be performers and artists. There’s a beauty in the dance with the bull, potentially brutal yet elegant, a certain creative style that captivates spectators.
Matador Juan Belmonte was more than just a world-class athlete. He was an innovator. While most bullfighters positioned themselves far away from the bull and used their capes to invite it, Belmonte introduced a style that brought him dangerously close which not only showcased his dexterity but added the thrill of intimacy and the crowd rejoiced.
Breaking the rules like an artist makes life more exciting for you and others. Muhammad Ali was more than a great boxer. Brimming with bravado, he was an advocate for social change and a showman. His signature move, the Ali Shuffle, was a quick floating step that he used to both confuse his opponents and entertain the crowd.
To recap, I suggest that you seek moments to engage creatively with the world, find your bulls, and make moments of play. In the meantime, work to develop relevant competencies, perhaps your storytelling skills or cooking ability. Aim to get good enough that you can start to bend the rules, even break them, to entertain yourself and others around you.
Before we continue, a brief note about the bull. Matadors have a unique relationship with their bull. Your relationship to the task at hand, whether a work presentation or making a meal for a dinner party requires a similar perspective. I call it respect. The matador can’t fear the bull. Fear makes bullfighting a fraught endeavor, especially uninspiring to spectators.
To fear the bull does not allow the matador to take risks necessary to entertain. The matador, moreover, cannot ignore the power of the bull. To do so is outright dangerous. Finally, the matador can’t resent the bull. The bull is not an obstacle. It is a partner in the dance. Thus, respect your challenge like you would a dance with a partner, even a clumsy one.
I’ve become obsessed with deadlifting. Deadlifters pick up a heavy barbell off the ground to hip height. The exercise is excellent for building strong muscles and bones. Overcoming the challenge of lifting such a heavy weight is also rewarding to the mind. Deadlifting, however, can be downright scary. When done incorrectly, it puts your body, your back especially, at risk.
Fear of the bar puts me in a precarious situation where I cannot pull hard enough to get the bar off the ground. I must respect the bar as the matador must respect the bull. Whether facing a bull, a challenge at work, or even a barbell, the key is to strike a balance between fear, recklessness, and resentment, allowing one to engage fully and skillfully in the task at hand.
All of this may seem theoretical to you. I’m going to give you three brief case studies from my life. Occasionally, I will find myself at a boring dinner party. Since I don’t drink, there’s no easy way to cope. In those situations, I’ve devised a game that I introduced to the table. I call it Who Would Play You in the Movie of Your Life?
I sparked the conversation with suggestions, “Perhaps Bradley Cooper for Rick. What about Jennifer Lopez for Anne?” A mundane dinner transforms into a session of playful casting where everyone is the star of their movie. Who doesn’t like that? When I’m asked who would play me, I say Samuel Jackson but I jest. The true answer is Jeff Goldblum.
The next key study is this episode. I saw this episode as a bull to be danced with. I stretched my writing skills and I tried to stretch myself by recording it. You’re reading a second taping. I scratched the first one and rerecorded it after gathering feedback and realizing that I could deliver the message with a touch more flair.
The last case study is a work in progress. I teach an undergraduate course in consumer behavior and I enjoy doing so despite the inherent challenges of teaching a large undergraduate class. I’ve always tried to inject a bit of charisma and comedy, ideally self-deprecating comedy, into the class. However, the next time I teach this class, it’s going to be my bull.
I’m largely doing away with PowerPoint and relying more on storytelling. Each class will kick off with a thought-provoking question linked to the day’s topic like, “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you happy?” To start the semester on day one, which is often a boring review of the syllabus, I’m bringing in a DJ to create a soundtrack for the first session. That should set the tone.
As we start to draw to a close, here are a few tips to become a better matador. Embarking on a journey to become a metaphorical matador, fully engaging with life’s challenges, and crafting meaningful moments is a progressive endeavor. Like any art form, it requires dedication, patience, and a willingness to break the rules.
Here are some ways to sharpen your skills. Be patient. Every matador, real or metaphorical, starts with the basics. Developing a life of engagement does not happen overnight. It may take months, years, or even decades to develop skills and even longer to demonstrate artistry. Engage in regular ritualized practice. Developing any skill requires consistent effort. Establishing a routine helps you practice regularly.
As mentioned in my book, Shtick to Business, rituals can act as a catalyst, ensuring that you not only practice but also refine your craft daily. When I got serious about my writing, my writing sessions were torturous. I had difficulty concentrating for even short periods and my writing sucked. I created a ritual where I wrote every morning accompanied by a delicious cappuccino. Eventually, my writing and my enjoyment improved.
Next, try a splash of flair. Once you’ve built a solid foundation, it’s time to experiment with your unique touch. The best matadors have distinct ways they carry themselves. Similarly, find ways to sprinkle your personality into your endeavors. This could be in the form of your personal style, unique approach, or some signature touch that sets you apart. Overall, seek authenticity. Maybe make a statement with fashion.
Matadors have intricate outfits that add to the spectacle. Clothing is functional. It serves the purpose of covering and protecting our bodies. Fashion, however, is art. Like Florence Griffith Joyner, Flo-Jo, you don’t have to conform to the norm. Flo-Jo wasn’t just a world-class athlete. She was an icon merging her athletic prowess with a distinct fashion sense. From her one-legged body suits to her iconic nails, she understood the power of standing out.
When I teach, I dress up for class wearing my Stetson. It tells my students that I care about the endeavor and it makes me less painful to look at. Finally, find inspiration. Look to figures in various fields who have successfully combined skill with style, whether it’s Muhammad Ali’s charisma in boxing, Flo-Jo’s flair in track and field, or Belmonte’s innovation in bullfighting. Numerous people turn their skills into art. What are the challenges of an engaged life? Living a life fully engaged is undoubtedly rewarding. However, it’s not without difficulty.
Here are three challenges that one might experience when dancing with bulls. There is a risk of failure. Every matador knows that every flick of the cape could be the last. Similarly, anyone who dares to engage deeply in any endeavor runs the risk of metaphorical goring. Failure, setback, or disappointment is a possibility. Get used to it. The rigor is mastery. Skill development, let alone, mastery in any domain is arduous. Easier roots beckon. Instead of being a matador, one can be a mere spectator of life sitting in the stands. Yet, the essence of life unfolds in the arena amidst the dust, dirt, and sweat.
The final challenge is the judgment of others. In the words of Theodore Roosevelt, it’s not the critic who counts but the person in the arena. When you’re out there laying bare your soul and skills, some will cheer and some will jeer. Muhammad Ali was adored by many for showmanship yet detested by others for the very same reason. The challenge is not to get swayed by these external opinions as fickled and varied as they may be. It is so easy to criticize yet so difficult to create.
In conclusion, a final wave of the cape. Life, too often, oscillates between boredom and stress, leaving people uninspired or anxious about its challenges. By adopting the creative mindset of a matador, I contend that you can transform the ordinary into the extraordinary. Invite your bulls, respect them, and dance with them. Remember, it’s not about conquering but rather about engaging. Whether it’s a work project, a hobby, or a personal relationship, it is about immersing yourself in the moment, mastering the skill, and then adding your unique flair. In this pursuit, I wish you many olés.
Thanks for reading. I welcome Iris Schneider to give me some feedback as I had been discussing this idea with her prior to taping. Welcome back, Iris.
I am happy to be back.
We chatted about this at length on phone calls and then I put together the episode, recorded it, and shared it with you. I’m eager to hear what you think.
I listened to the episode. We already talked a little bit about this matador metaphor but I was surprised at how well it came together and how much it clicked with me or how much it resonated. I’ve been thinking about a few of the things going on in my situation already using this matador metaphor. It’s been super helpful because it combines different elements of what can be a challenging situation.
The bull, yourself, the audience, your skill. I found it helpful in thinking through some of the things that I want to take action on. It’s such a wonderful way to give imagery to things that can be somewhat abstract sometimes like, “What is a challenge? What is exactly the challenge? What is my role here? How should I approach this?” I found it useful. It was fun for me to hear how you talked about that in your thoughts.
I put in three examples from my life because I was worried it seemed a little too abstract. You’re already using an abstraction with the metaphor. People have different challenges in their lives on the boredom side or anxiety side. I used the taping of the essay as one of those examples because I had taped it and shared the taping. It was fine and acceptable. There were a couple of little issues with it that I didn’t like and then I thought, “I can do this better.” I was tempted to let it be. I was like, “It’s good enough,” and so on. I then said, “Here’s a bull to dance with. Let me redo this and see if I can do it better.” I’m curious what the circumstances you’ve used it with are.
One thing I wanted to respond to what you said is what is interesting is that you go from the concrete. There’s a challenge and then you move it to the abstract. One interesting example from my life is that I have difficulty sitting in meetings that I don’t particularly see the purpose of. At the same time sometimes, I have to be in certain meetings. Some parts of the meetings might not interest me or I might think that it could be shorter even though the topic does concern me. We’ve talked about this before. Those kinds of things can be a bull.
What helped me think about using the metaphor is to see the different types of behaviors that I show in that arena. One of them is running away, never attending, and pretending that there are no meetings and that I’m not there. The other is taking it head on so being a bit annoyed and trying to cut meetings short or complaining, which is not very elegant. It could also be using a little bit more flair, taking it more lightly, and maybe approaching things that I don’t like about the meetings with a bit more poise and grace.
That’s why I was particularly thinking about the audience part. It is like, “If I do confront a bull, do I want to do that in an ugly way, get down in the mud, push back, and get super angry, or do I want to do that with a little bit of flair?” That also spoke to me. When I do sit in meetings, I can show a little bit more grace, poise, and flair even if it is something that I find challenging or that tests my patience. I don’t have to be blunt about it.
I talked about that. I had that little section where I talked about your perceptions of the bull. It’s still a little messy. I have this sitting in this sweet spot between not fearing the bull but also having that healthy recognition that the bull is dangerous and that it has a challenge to it. I don’t know if I would call it orthogonal but there’s this other idea that this doesn’t work very well if you resent the bull and see the bull purely as an enemy.
There’s something more useful in approaching life from a positive view rather than a negative view. Let’s say a part of what makes a meeting unpalatable is the person running the meeting, for example. They let people over-talk, they may not be very good at what they’re doing, and so on. It’d be very easy to see that person as an enemy. Your job is to defeat them and even to vanquish them in a way that might be entertaining.
I happened to think that puts too much negativity into my life in that sense. I would rather be dispassionate at worst but at best see them as a partner in this even if they are a clumsy partner in that way. It makes it easier to enjoy the process there and see them as a collaborator in a sense, even if they don’t realize that they’re collaborating. That’s there.
I use the word respect, although there might be a better way to think about that section. It’s a little bit underdeveloped at this moment. Should I develop this idea further? This notion of respecting the bull is a big one. When I think about it, it was the thing that came first with regard to the metaphor. I started thinking about this notion of respect first with deadlifting. I remember my first insight. The first inkling about this idea of dancing with bulls came from the idea that I need to respect the bar in the same way that a matador needs to respect the bull. That’s the genesis of that idea. It got planted in the gym, not in the meeting room but it’s equally applicable.
I’m not a native speaker but I have a sense of what you mean that respect is maybe not exactly the right word. I do think the meaning or the intention of what you’re trying to say comes through pretty well. What I find helpful is that using this metaphor to think about challenges transforms the challenges into challenges whereas they might start as a threat. When you think about it, when you strip away a little bit more of the embellishments of the matador against the bull, there’s a situation of danger. It’s a threat. There’s a wild, big animal that is dangerous and there is a human trying to defend himself or herself against that.
In the metaphor and bullfight, dealing with that threat is elevated to something where you can express creativity, grace, and flair. I like that because usually, better solutions come from seeing things as a challenge rather than a threat, which can make you more narrow-minded, scared, and not creative at all. Using that metaphor to put different labels on the different elements in whatever it is you’re facing can open up new solutions to these problems or how you would approach these situations.
I’ve also used it to deconstruct the situation. In situations where I was already dealing with something, at some point, I thought, “What am I doing here? Am I dancing? Am I pushing? Am I lying on the ground here and letting people walk all over me?” In that sense, it also helped me to change my behavior mid-situation. If I were dancing, then what would I do? Why does this feel so difficult at the moment? Why is there so much resistance? I’m going into it head-on instead of maybe sidestepping or moving along or with the flow a little bit more.
One thing that’s important to remember is bullfighting is dangerous. The nice thing about the metaphor is it’s not dangerous. There’s no chance of physical harm. We are domesticators and domesticated as humans. One of the things that I’ve been writing about and recognizing, and it’s had a big effect on my life, is how sensitive we are to the “harms” of other people’s judgment. We care a lot about what other people think. Our human capacity to care allows our species to thrive. It creates harmony, cooperation, and so on at the societal level or the group level although it doesn’t always serve us at the individual level.
One nice reminder is that these moments of challenge, conflict, and so on are only so challenging. They are only so dangerous, in a sense, in comparison to what’s happening in an actual arena. When you realize that you can take those moments of challenge, make them more playful, engage with them, and perhaps create flow, it has almost this flywheel effect, I believe.
For example, in the Solo Thoughts, I was talking about how I’m going to make changes to my class. I can anticipate that I might have colleagues who frown upon my decisions. They think this is inappropriate, it’s a little bit too light, or it’s not rigorous enough. It’s not the way it ought to be done in that sense.
There are two ways to view that. One is to become anxious about the opinions that they may share with me or whisper behind my back that they may outright say to me, “This is inappropriate.” Certainly, that is not beyond the pale in academia for someone to unsolicited tell you how you should teach your class. The old version of me, Pete as I call him, might still go ahead with it but feel anxious or worried about it or may curtail some of the rule-breaking that I envision.
Peter, this new identity that I’ve embraced, simply sees this as another bullfight. He sees another bull to dance with, which is like, “You want to give me feedback about my class. Let’s talk about it. Let’s go. If you want to do that, let’s have a nice, long conversation about that.” I will also have a conversation with you about academic freedom. I will ask, “Do you want to invite me into your class to give you extensive notes about how you should be improving your teaching?” I’ll ask you to solicit it rather than it being unsolicited.
I see this situation as like, “I don’t have that much to fear, first of all. It’s not a real danger in my life. Moreover, this could be a fun moment where I get to have a conversation with someone who might be, let’s say, clumsy.” That is a good word. I’ll keep using that word. That is well-intentioned. These are not my enemies. These are my colleagues. I can respect their opinions without resenting the way they may be going about doing it, at least in this hypothetical situation. This may never bear itself out in any way.
It also makes me think that there’s another advantage of thinking about situations in terms of this metaphor, which is not a real bullfight. It also puts things in perspective like, “This is not a real threat. At least I’m not in an arena with an angry bull.” It’s very optimistic in that sense. It is also more constructive and gives way to more creativity in approaching life and situations that occur. You and I’ve also talked about chaos and order in our previous conversations about the idea that, for me, it’s always helpful to have an order on one side so that I can deal with the chaos on the other side.
I was thinking about that as well when listening to your thoughts on this. The order here is the practice, preparation, and making sure that you’re prepared. It is honing your skills and craft. In the case of the matador, it is also to be fit, healthy, and athletic. The chaos is brought in by the bull. Using that order or practice and honing your skill prepares you for when some disturbance, challenge, or chaos arrives in your life. I like that a lot as well.
For the reader who may be unfamiliar with you or forget, you do research on ambivalence and this idea that you can have these contrasting experiences happening simultaneously. You can love and hate simultaneously. You can be both bold and fearful simultaneously. I remember you telling me about this notion of having one foot in the world of chaos and one foot in the world of order.
I find it quite compelling. It’s a worthwhile idea for you to continue to develop in part because too often, people vacillate between the two. They hide in their tidy world, in a sense, and then they venture out into the world of chaos. It becomes overwhelming and then they seek refuge. That’s fine. I certainly do that a lot in my life but I like the idea that they don’t have to be juxtaposed. They can be simultaneous.
Thus, our tidy, safe world never becomes too boring. The chaotic world never becomes too overwhelming, in a sense. I share that belief. There is this notion of skill development as a path to I wouldn’t call it safety. I’m not sure the exact word that you would use to juxtapose chaos. Stability maybe. It provides stability.
As a younger man, I played lacrosse. One of the things that was very dangerous was being a new lacrosse player. I remember my first year playing lacrosse how badly I got hurt, in part because I was not adept. I put myself in a very dangerous situation because of my lack of ability. As I got better at it, I could handle more challenging situations. I was safer on the field even though the level of play was much higher. It was those moments oftentimes that I was most alive, both in my stability and in the chaos of the game, in a sense.
It’s what you talk about with this flow as well. This flow experience is also exactly at that point where challenge meets preparation. You’re skilled enough but you’re also challenged enough for it not to be boring.
This idea is quite aspirational in some ways. It gives people something that they can pick their spots but it also can lead them to aspire to pick more challenging spots later. For example, you can think about a boss as a bull to dance with. You may not be prepared to do that quite at the moment but it could be something that you can work to develop to be able to do so in the future.
Even to pick the right spot at the right moment where your competencies are at their maximum. I want to ask you a question about the arena. I agree with you. The arena matters. It raises the stakes. It makes the flair more fulfilling and fun. I’m a little bit of a show-off and vain so it probably matters more to me than the average person.
I interpret it a bit differently, maybe because I have a different approach. For me, it was more about showing this flair in the arena and successfully dancing with the challenge in front of you. What makes that possible is a lot of hard work and maybe also discipline, dedication, and reflection. That’s the part that the audience doesn’t necessarily have to see. That’s how I thought about it.
One way to think about it is, “It’s okay. I’m going to show people the flair but I’m not going to show them all the struggle that is part of that per se, or at least not all of them.” It’s also a matter of what you want to show when dealing with this challenge. Do you want to be like, “This is also difficult. This is all challenging. I don’t know what to do,” or you try and do it as gracefully as possible without pretending that it’s easier than it is or anything? You try and do your best, show grace, and not necessarily involve everybody in your process.
I talk about Muhammad Ali in the Solo Thoughts episode. He has a quote that’s quite apt to what you were discussing. It’s, “The fight is won or lost far away from the witnesses, behind the lines in the gym and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.” The audience doesn’t need to be privy to your struggles, challenges, and the hours that you put in the gym, in the lab, or, in front of your typewriter. They’re interested in how you perform in the arena.
That’s not to say that you have to pretend that things are easy. That’s to say that the audience is not your comrades. Your friends and close others are the ones who support you when you don’t want to run that extra mile to keep it in an athletic training setting when you do struggle or you don’t know what to do, but not the audience in the arena.
That spoke to me a little bit because I tend to overshare. I can’t hide emotions. They show on my face and posture a lot. For me, thinking about how to be more graceful when dealing with certain challenges is more of a theme than showing off. It’s more on the other side. I don’t need everybody to be privy to what’s going on in my head as I process or approach a problem.
I put a version of the famous Teddy Roosevelt Man in the Arena speech in there as a reminder. We are sensitive to what other people think. It’s wired within us and socially reinforced. The problem with that is that it keeps people from doing great things, daring greatly, and risking failure. It keeps them in front of the television set or the stands so to speak. I want to gently or not so gently remind them that life is meant to be lived. It’s not meant to be viewed passively.
Steven Pressfield wrote a wonderful book called The War of Art. In that book, he talks a lot about this notion of resistance and the many ways that we, ourselves, and the world more generally, and you might even say the universe, make it difficult for us to make art and create. He has an apt quote also that I’ll read to you that probably, in some unconscious way, fed this essay.
This is from The War of Art: Break Through the Block and Win Your Inner Creative Battles. He writes, “It’s better to be in the arena getting stomped by the bull than to be up in the stands or out in the parking lot.” He was probably influenced by Teddy Roosevelt for this line in The War of Art. I read it years ago. It had a big effect on me as a reminder that it’s better to try and fail than to never have tried.
When you said prevents us from daring greatly, that reminded me of what Brené Brown wrote on vulnerability. She places the vulnerability in the arena metaphor. You are more vulnerable in the arena but that’s also where the magic happens. At least that’s what I often draw on and maybe because of my behavioral science psychology background, we know from research that people are bad at predicting their affect in the future. When I find myself fearing future negative affect, I always think, “Probably it’s not that bad because I’m bad at predicting how bad I will feel if this fails.”
In some way, maybe that is functional to know that how bad you think things will feel is probably not how bad they feel if they even turn out negative, which they don’t have to. You can win the fight, do it with flair, and create something new. Even if they turn out not in the way you expect them, usually, they turn out in a way that’s meaningful and that gives some space for growth and experience that adds something to your life.
I have this book coming out that I wrote under duress. I had a friendly reader, my friend Shane Mauss, look at it. He has read my previous two books. He is an essential character in my second book, Shtick to Business. He said to me, “Without a doubt, this is your best book.” The thing about it that I have to remember is I needed to write those two books previously to be able to write this one. This would not be nearly as good if I hadn’t tried and had middling success with the previous ones.
This notion that you get to build on your previous experiences, whether they are full successes, full failures, or something in between, makes later moments of creativity better as a result because you learn from them. I want to end here with for the person who stuck with us to the end and didn’t find the metaphor to be aversive, didn’t find all this to be too abstract, and found it to be a compelling way to think about their life, what advice would you give them as initial steps if they want to start developing this matador mindset or they want to start dancing with bulls, small or big?
The first step that you need is to take a step back from things. Before you can start using any type of metaphor, you need to step back and see that this is a situation that you can think about in a different way without being in it. Taking a break from whatever the challenge is to reflect is the first step anybody should try and take when assessing life.
The second one is to view situations and select them carefully. Don’t use all situations for that. Find situations where you can practice this without a huge risk. Those are maybe not high-stakes things like moving to another country, divorcing your spouse, or whatever it is. Try and find small challenges where you can try out different ways to approach a challenge maybe with more flair. In seeing things that are difficult or that you’ve never done before that, to some degree, make you insecure or scare you, you see them as a challenge to develop something and to try a new behavior.
Start small. With anything new you’re trying, start small and make it low-stakes so that you can play around with it. See how it feels. If you get small success experiences, that will give you more courage to approach a situation that’s maybe a bit bigger. Remember that even if it’s not successful, it’s still successful because you’re trying to learn. It brings something to the table.
I’ll add a friendly addendum to this notion of reflection, and maybe even make it a little bit more practical. Anybody who knows me knows that I will encourage people to journal. That is helpful to have a practice of personal journaling. It could be on your phone. I prefer an actual paper and pen to be disconnected from the world. It is being authentic and brave within your journal, writing for yourself. I would be horrified if people read my journal. They would think that I’m an anxiety-ridden egomaniac but I write my journal for me. I don’t write it for the man in the arena.
There’s a gratitude practice in which at the end of the day, you write down three things that went well and why. That’s a very common practice. It’s useful to do in journaling. It has a wide array of benefits, not only to make you more thankful for your life but it also teaches you how to cultivate moments of positivity. You learn because you think about why something went well. You could be like, “I had a nice interaction with the barista.” “Why did that go so well?” “It is because I smiled and said, ‘I love your hat.’” You recognize that compliments can feed positive interactions, for example.
There’s a version of this, which is something like bulls I danced with and bulls I could have danced with. When you reflect on your day, you can probably naturally find a moment where you danced with a bull and you did so unconsciously. You were in the right moment at the right time with the right skills. You did that so you can recognize, “I’m already doing this in my life in some ways.”
You then recognize the moments where you might have missed an opportunity, which is not to beat yourself up about it but to learn that you can better recognize those opportunities in the future, in a sense. Reflecting as you said with pen to paper, thumbs to keyboard, or whatever it is could be a path to starting to learn how to make this a more automatic mindset.
That’s a great way to step away a little bit. Seeing your thoughts on paper also gives you a different insight into what’s going on. One thing I sometimes do is when I’m journaling, I write an overview journaling prompt. It is like, “What am I anxious about? What am I excited about?” One thing to add to that for me would be, “What are the bulls in my life at the moment? Am I dancing, am I lying down, or am I running? How could I approach that differently? Where am I successfully dealing with them?”
Let’s end on that note. That’s excellent. Iris, thanks for your time.
That was great. Thank you.
- Iris Schneider
- SOLO: Breaking the Rules in a World Built For Two
- Death in the Afternoon
- Shtick to Business
- The War of Art
About Iris Schneider
Iris Schneider is a Professor of Social Psychology at the Technical University Dresden. She studies ambivalence and difficulty in decision-making and judgment.