Why every job is like joining the circus

I used to be a circus performer. Well, kind of.


When I was in graduate school my brothers decided to spend their summer earning money busking as a street circus act. One of them learned to juggle, one of them learned to ride the unicycle (and juggle) and the other one learned to breathe fire. They had a pretty good show, and would even have performed for the Prince of Wales if the Mounted Police hadn’t turned them away for having flammable gas in their equipment bag. Fire breathing is apparently dangerous.

I was feeling a bit left out of this, so while I was doing my PhD I signed up for trapeze lessons. I was living in Montreal, so it was pretty inexpensive to take trapeze lessons at the local community centre. The teacher also worked for the National Circus School and the Cirque du Soleil. After the class, I stayed on as a solo student, and trained regularly on the trapeze. When you are working on something intellectually difficult, it is fantastically focusing to spend time trying to hang by your toes.

I also watched a lot of circus, and learned about how ‘new’ circus plays with the limits of the body and the emotions. Characters are developed through movement and impossible tricks, and what becomes clear are the amazing capacities of humans to push beyond themselves while still retaining all their foibles. Although contemporary circus doesn’t usually involve animals, it almost always involves clowns, who act as naive observers and make you laugh by usually pointing out what is obvious but you didn’t want to pay attention to.

I stopped training on the trapeze when I moved to the UK, and spent my postdoc years rowing (well, it was Oxford). I went back to aerials for a time to learn the silks, but for the moment I’ve retired.

However, as I’ve headed back to work (in a new job!) I’ve been thinking again about circus. Here are my 5 reasons why every job is like joining the circus. I have said ‘every job’ in the hopes that many people can get something out of this list, but these things apply particularly to jobs where taking initiative, being creative, and working together are important.

1. Fear will stop you

When you are doing aerials, you are often many metres up in the air performing moves where you have to leap or fly. If you think too much about being afraid to do these things, you’ll never do them. Part of rehearsing is about acknowledging the fear and repeating the movement enough times that it fades. When I protested that I would surely die before learning how to tumble from the top of the trapeze to the bottom, my teacher matter-of-factly informed me that “we are here to do impossible things”. Most jobs involve learning how to do things that make us afraid. The trick is to refuse to let the fear stop you doing them. Practice helps.

2. Pyramids need all kinds of acrobats

A human pyramid needs enormous strong people on the bottom, people who are stable and flexible in the middle, and tiny nimble people at the top.  All of the human pyramid participants have different qualities, and all are essential.

3. The easy moves are the hardest

This is related to #1. You are more likely to fall doing something simple than something really complicated. In a way, the fear that motivates us to practice the difficult figure sometimes also causes us to ignore the simpler transition that comes right afterwards. Do not underestimate how hard easy things can be.

4. Lose yourself

In a compelling circus performance, the audience is amazed at the ability of the artist to take a risk, to defy gravity, to hang by her toes. But the performer is not doing it to impress. She is lost in the flow of the art. Through the frustration of practice, she has located a way to do what she is doing for herself, even when there are people paying her.

5. Clowns speak the truth

This is the most important lesson. We laugh at the clowns because they tell the truth we do not want to hear. This is their simple humanity, and the gift they give to all of us. Every workplace can benefit from the humanity of the clown. This doesn’t mean tell jokes or try and make everything funny, but it does mean recognizing the irony of truth: that a conflict is resulting from someone’s hurt feelings; that power is being enacted that makes people uncomfortable; that an idea that seems good on the surface might be damaging. In these situations, the gentle naivite of the clown (or the Shakespearean fool) can be helpful, even if it is just being played out inside your head.

Work is hard, no matter what it is. But it’s worth remembering that everyone can do impossible things.