5 Actually Useful Career Lessons I Learned as a Circus Performer
Many years ago—before I became a marketing strategist and started my own company—I was a fire performer in a street circus. “Circus performer” was definitely not in my five-year plan, but surprisingly, it was my foundation for a successful career.
These lessons have helped me focus and grow in my professional life, and, whether you’re blazing the trail for your first job or trying to scale within your current workplace, I hope they’ll help you, too.
1. Don’t Be a One-Trick Act
Everyone in our circus learned more than one skill. Whether it was juggling, walking on stilts, acrobatics, or hula hooping, we knew that more skills meant more stage time (and variety both in our tasks and the show as a whole). All of these things translated to better gigs, more money, and bigger audiences.
Similarly, the more skills and abilities you have, the more opportunities you’ll qualify for. No, your resume shouldn’t be a random mish-mash of everything from marketing to finance, but continually learning new things that complement your existing skill set can make you a more marketable job candidate.
Some companies will support your desire to learn more. If management gives you the green light, look into blocking out regular times for professional development. You could attend a webinar, take a six-week class, or practice another skill that’s crucial for the company’s progress (as well as your own). Another option is to design a self-study program that fits with your hours and learning mode. Check out websites such as Edex.org, where some of the best colleges offer courses online at no cost to you.
2. Develop Your Signature Move
While you’re broadening your horizons, continue to hone the skills you’re already known for. Our truly unique acts were often inspired by the performers’ day jobs. For example, our resident stunt man was a tree-climbing arborist. The creator of our flaming double-dutch jump rope taught sixth graders. You need to uncover what makes your experience unique to your community. What will you offer that no one else can?
To answer that question, all you need is a whiteboard or a notebook and something to write with. Write down your five greatest achievements, personal or career-related. Write down five words that other people would use to describe you (yes, you can “phone a friend”). Write down your five favorite activities. It doesn’t matter how weird or tame they are. Finally, write down your five biggest goals. Then, start combining items from each column to create a “You Algorithm.”
For example, let’s say an achievement you have is raising $2,000 for charity—that translates to fundraising. People say you’re friendly, which could mean you’re perfect for roles centered around ongoing public interaction. And let’s say you love to fish (activity), and hope to travel more (goal). Add this all up, and maybe you want to work as a fundraiser for river conservation groups, or a seasonal guide to outdoor outfitters and hiking groups.
This exercise should bring to light what’s really important to you as well as your ideal work environment.
3. Fill the Stage and Dazzle Your Audience
Ever notice how Cirque du Soleil seamlessly pulls off dozens of different acts and performers all on stage at the same time? This means that there is something to look at from every angle. Each act complements the other acts and serves a larger story or theme.
This multi-faceted approach can be applied to your career and personal brand, too. After all, you are a compelling story that can be showcased in different ways.
So, get visible with social media. Craft a personal (and honest) brand strategy that tells your individual story and unique work attributes over several channels. People will get to know you through a variety of media formats—Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, Vine, Medium—whatever you have fun with and will update a regular basis.
However, don’t take on so much that you let the spinning plates fall! During an unexpected hiatus from Twitter, I lost an average of five followers (including key influencers) every day. Now, I use automation services such as Hootsuite, Buffer, or IFTTT to keep my LinkedIn articles, blog posts, tweets, and Facebook updates spinning on a regular basis and leading people where I want them to go. This also frees up my time to build my brand in other ways (such as having face-to-face meetings to grow my network).
4. Get Confident in the Spotlight (Regardless of Obstacles)
A performer at the top of his or her game knows that fear hinders any notable stage presence. You can’t let them see you sweat! Yes, failure and mistakes will happen—especially when there’s fire involved—but they also make you stronger.
The lesson: Even if you hit a career roadblock (you blow a major presentation, maybe you even get fired), you can’t give up. You’ve got to get right back out there, and even better than ever. Consider, for example, attaining thought leader status outside of your office by publishing an article or landing a guest spot on a successful blog, or using those graphic design skills to put an awesome infographic into the world. Network and pitch your skills. And remember: The worst thing anyone can say to you is “no.”
5. Don’t Forget Who You Are Off-Stage
At the height of my performance years, I ate, slept, and breathed all things circus. In the process, however, I stopped doing a lot of other things I used to enjoy, such as writing, painting, and hanging out with friends. As a result, I developed a dangerous tunnel vision for my passion.
When my dreams of a life-long career as a circus performer fizzled out, I suddenly felt empty and directionless. What I learned is that hobbies and interests provide an important counterbalance to day jobs—and this healthy balance is essential for achieving your larger career goals.
The most successful people understand that every aspect of themselves contributes to their overall productivity and what they bring to the table. A paycheck does not determine a rich life; a day filled with enriching activities does. Whether you’re working toward a career in dentistry, politics, education, marketing, retail, or something else, don’t sacrifice the other activities and people that make you happy at your core. Let them inform and inspire what you bring to your career.