5 things I learnt about business from the circus

You may or may not know that I ran away to the circus last week. I was accompanied by my daughter, who just happens to be an aerial student, but it was really me who ran away….

You see I always fantasised about joining the circus, enjoying the life of a traveller, with the smell of the greasepaint and the buzz-like-no-other of performing to a thrilled audience in raptures. But there was no circus school nearby when I was little, and my parents were middle-class professionals – they weren’t exactly going to seek one out to satisfy my whimsy.  I did ballet and jazz and musical theatre and that was enough. It was wonderful, if a little controlled and contained.

But I always loved the circus. And then I forgot that.

I forgot that incredible thrill that the big top offers…until I saw Cirque du Soleil when I was in my late 20s. I remembered how intensely terrifying it is to watch the tightrope walkers and high flyers on the trapeze, I remembered the squeamish marvelling at the contortionists, I remembered the childish joy of the clowns.  The feelings surfaced again, those feelings of freedom and unadulterated joy that I had when I was so small.  So when Miss 9 was asked to join the performance troupe with her circus school, there was no hesitation. Living vicariously may have to be enough.

The first performance trip with the troupe was to The Lismore Show last week. Three days, nine performances and a whole lot of fun and craziness in between.  Obviously I was there to support the kids but interestingly I learnt some things from the coaches and support crew that I didn’t expect.  Things that can directly be applied to the world of business.

5 things I learnt about business from the circus:

1. There’s a contract between performer and audience that must be fulfilled

When someone buys a ticket to your show, you need to show up and show up brilliantly. They want entertainment, they want escapism, they want to learn something. When someone buys a ticket to your business (read: workshop, event, coaching session, consult, presentation, retreat, treatment), you need to show up and do so in the absolute best way possible. Regardless of mood, appearance, desire, it is your obligation to fulfill that contract at the specified time.

2. Nothing beats teamwork to get a job done quickly and with ease

Circus people are not people who are used to being alone. They live in close quarters, they work in close proximity, and there are no real ‘stars’ of the show. The clown also sells tickets, the acrobat helps put up the tent. Our circus was no different. Our support crew were sadly let down by some folk, so drove 500 km to pick up chairs for the audience. The tent leaked under torrential rain, so the 80 year old mother was on mopping up duty after each act.  The kids all helped hang the flags and put up the sidewalls so the tent would be ready on time. And so it is in your business. Regardless of whether you employ a team, collaborate with others or call in favours… teamwork is imperative to success. Don’t be afraid of asking others for expertise or plain ole manpower to get a job done.

3. Each performance is different – embrace that

No matter how many times you rehearse an act, no matter how well you know your presentation, each time you do it will be slightly different.  The equipment won’t work as expected, the weather will change how you operate, your nerves will fluctuate, the crowd will respond differently.  This is something to be welcomed, embraced and worked with – not annoyed by or shied away from.  This is life as a human!

4. Rise to the challenge

Sometimes you get a request from left field. Sometimes your partner doesn’t show up. As was the case in our circus. One of the girls in a duo trapeze act was unwell so couldn’t perform. My daughter was asked to learn the routine (in 15 minutes!) as she was a similar size and strength to the sick child. She had seen the routine a thousand times, but hadn’t ever performed it herself. She was terrified but she did it, because she knew that if she didn’t her friend couldn’t perform. She got flung off the trapeze, but she got back up.  It was one of the highlights of the whole trip. She got the biggest clap of all – from the audience and her team mates, whom she didn’t even know had snuck out to watch her. The unexpected often happens. It’s how we rise to the challenge that shows our true character.

5. The show must go on!

Come rain (we had an 18 hour downpour), come heat (we had 36 degrees and no breeze), come blood sweat and tears (there were all of those), the show must go on.  Whatever situation you find yourself in, it’s quite possibly not what you had planned or hoped for.  Regardless, you must deliver your value, your skill, your talent, and do so in the best possible way on the day.

Circus is hard work. Business is hard work. But they’re both also incredibly exciting and rewarding.  And the hard work fades into the background when you begin to feel the flow, when you fly higher than you’ve ever flown, when you’re more graceful than you’ve ever been.  Give of yourself and you’ll get back what you need. Whether it’s reassurance, support, love, ideas, enthusiasm or just a bloody big clap and cheer.

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