I’m a big fan of archeology. In particular, I have been fortunate to visit Roman ruins on a few occasions and find myself imagining what it must have been like for those individuals actually in the Roman arena, striving and fighting, often for their lives. The Gladiator battles, the damnatio ad bestias (a charming Roman innovation that was not simply execution, but execution via wild animals), and the other entertainments of the day. One can only imagine what it was like for those individuals on that sandy surface.

I’ve been thinking about those players over the past couple of weeks and cogitating on Teddy Roosevelt’s famous quote:

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

The impetus for this musing was my involvement with a start-up company that sadly failed recently. The details of the particular initiatives are somewhat irrelevant, but suffice it to say that this failure was splashed across the newspapers, opined upon on TV and radio, and given a post-mortem of epic proportions. I’m OK being in the media (obviously) but hitting every single newspaper for an entire week makes me sympathise with our politicians and sports stars.

It was certainly interesting being on the other side of the fence. I spent 15 years or so as a technology industry commentator during which time I would often be asked to opine on particular companies’ technology or business strategy, the robustness (or otherwise) of their platforms and organisations’ approach towards technology deployment.

During this time I tried (and, mea culpa, often failed) to separate the individuals from the technology. I guess I was trying hard to play the ball, not the (wo)man. Fundamentally I was trying to live by the adage of “not being a dick.” As I said, oftentimes I failed in that aim, but at least I tried.

And so it was interesting to see some of the commentary around the aforementioned demise that I was involved with. In particular, it was fascinating to hear from people who were in no way involved – not customers, not investors, not employees, not board members – opining on exactly what went wrong and clearly apportioning blame for what they perceived as the causative factors.

Perhaps most humourous was the commentator who himself was a board member of a company that failed spectacularly a few months ago. This sage individual determined that the fault lay entirely with the board and that said board wasn’t fit for the “age and stage” of the business in question. If only this individual would put his mind to finding a cure for cancer or securing peace in the Middle East we would be lucky.

Or the person who suggested that, because there were men on this particular board, the failure was an obvious example of misogyny and an inherent bias against women in general and the female founder in particular. And, yes, this commentator had zero knowledge of the business or the individuals involved. Joy.

I think there are two issues here that are the most interesting. Firstly, and as reflected in the Roosevelt quote, the tendency of people who have never actually had any working knowledge of a situation or context, to weigh in and opine on said situation. Starting and growing a company is really hard, and there are many people who sit on the sidelines not doing it, but critiquing the actions of those who do. Forget the specifics of a situation, but unless you’ve walked a mile in another individual’s shoes, you probably shouldn’t comment on what they do right (and wrong).

It’s a situation we see playing out with regards the current Middle Eastern conflict where people with zero understanding of the context and nuance see fit to opine broadly.

But secondly, and perhaps even more troubling, is those who decide that any situation is a good chance to gain some attention. It is amazing how some people manage, within 100 words or so, to go from a third-party discussion about a particular situation to a diatribe laced with self-absorption. You’ve seen these people before who, with superhuman ability, manage to turn every single conversation around to be focused entirely on themselves.

Both these examples remind me of another favourite quote of mine:

’tis better to Remain Silent and Be Thought a Fool than to Speak and Remove All Doubt

Sometimes folk would be far better off not having reckons, I reckon.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

  • As a ‘gladiator in the arena’, you also have a spectator platform to spread ill-formed opinions on people and businesses that you’re ‘no way involved in’. Then you turn down the opportunity to learn more about the reality of the target of your criticism. In New Zealand, degrees of separation are condensed – people commenting might not be in the arena, but they know employees, suppliers and investors who are.

  • Well put Ben. I believe that those with a true understanding and /or experience (and who have learned from it) often remain silently supportive. Others just have a crack because they can, usually misinformed and almost always negative. Technology and social media have enabled these folk to become more visible and provide them with a platform. Not sure many of them would walk into a room full of people and criticize people face to face… ill informed or otherwise.

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