My father, Ken Keller, passed away almost four years ago from a heart attack. It was a Monday afternoon after I came home from work when I received a text message from my stepmother saying my father collapsed and to come to the Mon Valley Hospital. That was the longest hour long car ride of my life. My wife and I were driving and we wanted to stay positive while waiting, hoping for a phone call to tell us he’s alright. As we got closer to our destination, reality began to set in and tears were streaming from both my wife and I’s faces as I drove and she sat in the passenger seat looking at her phone, waiting for a call that would never come. When we got to the emergency room, I ran inside looking for anyone I knew. Looking from side to side until finally I stumbled across a nondescript room where I saw my stepmother crying. In that moment a rush of emotions hit me and I collapsed into a chair and cried. I cried like I never did before. I was suffering from the type of pain that can only occur when hit with the wave of emotions when you lose someone you truly love without any notice.

The days following were a blur. I remember bits and pieces but, as I think back, it now seems like a distant memory I’ve tried to bury.

One of the saddest things for me personally, other than losing my father, was all the things my father talked about doing someday. We used to talk everyday on the phone about sports or my day or work. At the time I was really unhappy with my job and the direction I was going with my career. I never talked to my father about the things I really wanted to do like writing or public speaking. The week of my father’s death I was taking an improv course at the Steel City Improv that used to be located over in the North Side. The week my father died I was supposed to have a class show and invite my friends and family to see it but I didn’t invite anyone other than my wife.

Why? Because of the critic.

The best description of the critic is a quote from Theodore Roosevelt’s speech Citizenship In A Republic, delivered at the Sorbonne in 1910. If you’re a fan of Brene Brown, this is where she found the title of her book, Daring Greatly.

The Man in the Arena

“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.”

I was afraid of opening myself up for criticism, to the questions. It seems dumb and trivial now, but I was trapped by a need for acceptance. The week my father died, I was about to go up on stage conquer one fear but then not invite anyone actually knew because I was afraid. It really defeated the purpose. I never got to perform in that show because I was planning my father’s funeral but after those days I realized what I needed to do.

I needed to start living the words uttered by Morgan Freeman’s character, Red, in The Shawshank Redemption, “Get busy living or get busy dying.”

I was dying, spending years suffocating my creativity and life because I was afraid of how other people would react. I needed to get busy living. Since that day I decided I needed to change. I decided to leave a career in finance at a place where I could have gotten an MBA, lived comfortably, and worked the rest of my life but I didn’t enjoy the work and I usually complained about it to my wife. I decided I wanted to work with technology, I playing with code, I wanted to pursue that passion.

I’d been writing for years on and off in a journal but I was always afraid to share it with anyone. That’s when I decided I wanted to start writing a blog and posting it to social media. On November 30, 2015, I will have completed my first year of writing a daily blog post on my website

Ever since I signed up for that improv class, I realized I enjoyed and I needed to speak in front of a crowd. About a year after my father’s death, I thought about signing up for another improv course but I was reading about Toastmasters and working on my public speaking, it was more convenient for my schedule and cheaper. It was perfect for someone like myself who was hesitant to jump right into the arena and open myself up to criticism. In June of 2013, I gave my first speech. Today is my fifteenth and my 8th speech in 6 weeks with the goal of completing every week until the end of the year.

If you look at any successful person. Especially the mega successful people like Oprah, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, or Mark Zuckerberg. They’re all creating something: content, business, investments. They’re all open to criticism.

Even if you take it down another level. Look at people like Lena Dunham, Gary Vaynerchuk, Seth Godin, or any entrepreneur. These people are famous and wealthy only because of the content they’re creating. Lena Dunham has a show on HBO called “Girls,” published a New York Times bestseller, and runs popular newsletter called, Lenny Letter, that deals with women’s issues. She also doesn’t come off as what we’ve all been lead to believe a Hollywood leading lady should look like. Look at any show that requires a host. The women typically looks like a supermodel and the men are usually nothing special. Why isn’t it the other way around? Lena Dunham isn’t like everyone else. While many people are hoping to make it in Hollywood based on looks alone. The people who are really making it are entering the arena, creating content, and facing the critic. Now she chooses what she wants to do.

Gary Vaynerchuk started publishing poor quality videos about wine on YouTube. He’s turned his social media status into a PR agency with clients who are some of the largest brands in the world and runs a $25 million dollar investment fund. He never even went to college.

Seth Godin has published over 18 best-selling books but he’s famous in some circles because he writes a daily blog about marketing and entrepreneurship that usually only consists of 100 words.

The Toastmasters International Mission states:

We empower individuals to become more effective communicators and leaders.

Toastmasters wants to empower you as individuals to improve your communication and leadership skills. This is an opportunity to create your form of art.

The Club Mission:

We provide a supportive and positive learning experience in which members are empowered to develop communication and leadership skills, resulting in greater self-confidence and personal growth.

The club provides the environment to work on your process without the danger of the critic. This place does offer critical feedback and if you flop we’ll let you know it but that feedback is about trying to help you improve for your next speech.

When you look at Toastmasters International Values:

1) Integrity: The quality of being honest and having strong moral principles; moral uprightness.

2) Respect: A feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements.

3) Service: The action of helping or doing work for someone.

4) Excellence: A talent or quality which is unusually good and so surpasses ordinary standards. It is also used as a standard of performance as measured e.g. through economic indicators.

This is what we believe as Toastmasters and it’s what you are aspiring to be.

Why are you here today? What do you hope to achieve in the coming year? Do you just want to work on your public speaking or is it more than that? Do you have a passion? A drive to be more than you currently are?

Are you done waiting in line? Holding a ticket. Hoping someone will come and select you.

Most likely it’s not going to happen.

Nobody would have handed Lena Dunham an HBO series. She went out and created it.

Gary Vaynerchuk ran his parents liquor store in New Jersey. Now he runs one of the hottest PR firms in NYC, manages $25 mm in assets, gets paid over $50,000 each time people ask him to come speak, and USC begged him to teach a course but he turned them down.

Seth Godin doesn’t do any consulting, teaching, or investing. Not because he isn’t offered to do those things. He doesn’t want to do them.

These people created their own future. They took the chance on themselves. Choose themselves and completed the work to make a difference and they found an audience.

I’m not saying everyone can have a brand and be a celebrity. They can’t, but we live in a world where most people, like yourselves, have the opportunity.
I look back at that awful day when my father passed away. I think about a lot of things. Mainly I think about all the missed opportunities. We were going to do a lot of things like go to the NCAA final four, fishing in Canada and Alaska, and he always wanted to take some cooking classes and become a chef after he retired. He was an amazing cook.

Sadly, I won’t be able to do any of those things with him. That made me think about the things in my life where I was saying, “someday.” Someday I’ll write that blog, someday I’ll learn to code, or someday I’ll join Toastmasters.

I wasn’t getting into the arena and facing the critic.

Are you standing on the sideline?

What do you want to do? Do you want to start or grow a business, start a blog, write a book, land your dream job, or uplift the spirit of your audience?

When you look back on your life will you have contributed more than you criticized?

Go get into the arena before it’s too late.