7 things I learned from working in the circus

by Trevor Aung Than on May 21, 2012

It’s been around 12-weeks since I’ve officially finished working with Cirque du Soleil so I’ve had a chance to reflect on what I’ve learned as a result of my time in the circus. What I’ve done is compiled the top 7 things I learned from my time in the circus and how I think it applies to life, work and everything else. Hope you get something from it.

Take the leap..don’t be afraid! (Photo courtesy of http://gozonews.com)

1. Life is too short to be afraid

When I was growing up as a kid I was always too afraid to jump off the diving platform, that same kid that was too scared to climb the big tree in the school yard. As I grew older I realized that I was still afraid of doing those things that were a bit “out there”, those things that required that inner daredevil that we all have inside of us. And I realized it was because of my conditioning I had as a small child from my parents who were always too afraid to let me; go outside and play in the rain, to go outside with no shoes on in-case I stubbed my toe, to not climb that tree in-case I fell and broke my arm. Those things I was not allowed to do as a kid transferred to fears in my adult years when I had to face the real world all by myself…and I was a step behind.

Going to work in the environment of the circus, here I was surrounded by individuals that had been daredevils all of their lives. Trapeze artists, bungee jumpers, fire twirlers: these people had all gotten to where they were; working for the penultimate performing arts company in the world; by NOT being afraid.

In fact, the circus probably wouldn’t exist today if it weren’t for people overcoming their fears. So as I was surrounded by these amazing people I began to challenge my own fears; of heights, of my insecurities. Because once you acknowledge your own fears it is half the battle and you are already one step closer to overcoming your fears and trampling them to the ground.

When I speak of fears it may be that fear of speaking in front of a crowd; too afraid to leave your job and go out and be your own boss; too scared to speak to that girl serving you coffee every morning, whatever it may be, we all have our fears.

2. Persistence pays off

Some of the artists I worked on at ZAiA were just natural athletes; they were super flexible, strong and coordinated. You could see that when they moved – flipped, somersaulted, or jumped on the teeterboard, that they were moving efficiently with minimal effort as their bodies were highly conditioned for that particular skill.

On the flip side of that there were those artists that got to be where they were through sheer hard work; what they did have in movement they made the most of. They weren’t the most skilful or graceful at what they did but they were consistent and reliable. Speaking to a number of these artists they had literally persisted at what they did until they were good at it; they didn’t give up when the going got a little tough. And it was really eye-opening when those artists were actually the artists that were chosen for certain roles ahead of their more talented counterparts. Their hard work had paid off.

3. Be humble

To me there is nothing worse than a showboat. One of the groups of artists I had the pleasure of working with in Macau were supremely talented; some of them were probably in the top 10 in the entire world in their particular discipline, yet they were so, so humble. They carried themselves with a dignified air and weren’t showy at all. Meeting and getting to know these artists I was struck by how down-to-earth they were – they had every reason to be arrogant and brash but were far from it.

Sorry, what did you say??? (Photo courtesy of http://jadedbride.wordpress.com)

4. Spoken language is overrated

On our circus there were people from 25 different nationalities all working together; from Kazakhstan to Hungary, New Zealand to Romania. It was not unusual in our Performance Medicine clinic to conduct assessments in Russian, Spanish, Mandarin and English all in the same day. Now I’m not saying that I’m fluent in all of those languages, actually far from it, but knowing a few words and then using body and sign language, nods and smiles actually got us a fair way in circus interviews. I think as native speakers we can get lazy with the ease at which we can communicate. Have you ever watched two animals when they meet for the first time? It is all about glances, nods, a slight turn of the body. This doesn’t mean you have to give up speaking altogether (although for some people this may be an improvement) but remember that a smile goes a long way.

Philippe Petit certainly didn’t set limits (Photo from AP Photo/Alan Welner)

5. Don’t set limits

Boundaries. Limits. Whatever you may call them, these are the artificial constraints we put on ourselves. One of the images that sticks with me from my time at Cirque is the time we were assessing the range of lumbar extension of one of our aerial artists. Lumbar extension is just the fancy term for bending backwards from the spine. The artist wanted to improve her backwards bending so we had to find a marker that she could compare to see if her treatment was working or not. Usually lumbar extension is measured from standing, and is around 30degrees in a normal individual. Now, our aerial artist was not quite in the range of ‘normal’, and when she bent backwards, she went way past 90degrees and we ended up having to measure her extension as how far her fingertips were from her ankles!! – she actually was in a full bridge position with her hands on the floor. So the limits I had set myself in terms of normal human motion were totally upturned; upside down/inside out and backwards. Similarly, limits in life can constantly be broken as our horizons change.

6. Be like a gypsy

Meeting old-school circus folk you get to realize how itinerant their life can actually be; they travel from country to country depending where their contract may be – it might be France for months at a time, then in Germany, and then over to Vegas for a few months. You may think to yourself: ‘Wow, that must suck to live out of a bag for months at a time’. But often I think about that life and what I think to myself is: ‘Wow, that must be great to not have a mortgage’ or ‘That must to be cool to not have to worry about car repayments’. So my meaning when I say to live like a gypsy is not to pack-up and hitchhike for the rest of your life, but what I really mean is to simplify things. We can get so caught up in accumulating material things that in the bigger picture really have very little meaning. I think Bruce Lee said it best: It’s not the daily increase but the daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.

7. Follow your passions/dreams

Pretty self-expanatory…The circus would not exist today if it weren’t for people following their dreams, no matter what people may have said to them, no matter when people said ‘No’…or ‘You’re not good enough’. I’m finding that a lot of people in my generation are saying NO to big incomes and lofty positions but instead are following their dreams – they’re doing what matters to them. And I applaud them because it takes courage and guts to not follow the norm. To create a ‘ruckus’ as Godin calls it. A circus friend said this the other day: “You can shake the sawdust from your feet but you can’t shake it out of your heart”. Apparently an old circus saying. It really resonated with me at the time and it stuck in my head for a few days after. When we follow our dreams that’s exactly what it’s like; we can’t shake that feeling from our hearts.

Well, there it is. I actually have a few more things that I’ve learned but the number “7″ just seems to be perfect for this post. Like Seven Samurai; The Seven Wonders of the world, Seven-card stud, the Seven habits of highly effective people. So I’ll just leave it as it is – if you liked this post please comment and/or share it with your friends via Facebook or Twitter!! I’ve got a bunch of material ranging from health, wellness, tall circus tales, inspiration and also my journey for finding the ‘sweet-spot’ in terms of work/life balance. Hope you’ll stick around!

NB// I wrote a recent follow-up to this article – Go here for Part 2!

{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

Rodrigo Tapia June 19, 2012 at 1:34 pm

Very nice! Thanks for sharing this with everyone!


Trevor Aung Than June 19, 2012 at 1:38 pm

Hi Rodrigo,

Thanks for following. I’m glad you liked it! Where do you perform flying trapeze? I really admire what you guys can do in the air…very
inspiring in itself ; )



Wendy June 19, 2012 at 7:50 pm

Hi Rodrigo,
Excellent article!!! Really well-said, thanks for sharing! I’ll keep them in mind!


Trevor Aung Than June 19, 2012 at 10:01 pm

Thanks for reading Wendy – great to have you on-board!


Lindsay June 20, 2012 at 12:13 am

Hi Trevor,
Darin flies with us and shared your blog yesterday. These are most of the reasons I fly on the trapeze personally and hang about enabling others to share my passion.


Trevor Aung Than June 20, 2012 at 4:56 am

Hi Lindsay,

Thanks for reading. There’s certainly a lot ot be said following or living our passions!
Keep up the great work..



Kyla Duffy June 20, 2012 at 12:41 am

Great post! I’m inspired by your discussion of the athletes who really had to work at it and didn’t give up.


Trevor Aung Than June 20, 2012 at 4:58 am

Hi Kyla,

Great to have you along! Yes, I would say those athletes were most inspiring because they made the most of what they had and didn’t let it get in the way of awesomeness…



Jonathan Freeman June 20, 2012 at 8:22 am

Very nice, well said!. Thanks for sharing!


Trevor Aung Than June 20, 2012 at 9:30 am

Hi Jonathan

Thanks for reading!
All the best.



Martin Dsouza June 23, 2012 at 12:12 pm

Wonderful. Great insights for life.


Trevor Aung Than June 23, 2012 at 6:54 pm

Hi Martin,

I’m glad you found it insightful! Thanks for following.

All the best,


Buddy June 25, 2012 at 6:35 am

Thank you for sharing these well documented insights, but … now that you have learned these lessons… would you consider sharing how you will apply them in your next chapter of life. I think I can learn a lot from your perspective, ambition and purpose.


Trevor Aung Than June 25, 2012 at 9:12 am

Hi Buddy,

Thanks for the comments. I think you’ve just given me inspiration for my next blogpost : )
Thank YOU!

Stay tuned,


PHILIP MAINA- OCIRCUS the acrobat June 25, 2012 at 5:55 pm

I am very grateful with your lesson during your working in circus……it gives me moral…..mostly the lesson of following you dream and passion- although i am a legal scholar…..i love PERFORMING ACROBATICS very much and due to this, it is my believe that, although i dream/ want to/ of becoming a lawyer….i will not come out ACROBATIC SHOW and i will remain to be an acrobat since there is where my passion is. Due to passion in acrobatics- i am able to do wonders such as…..walking in the tight rope-I AM FUNABLIST……juggling bottles, capes/ hats, rollers, balls- I AM A CONJUROR……balancing bottles- THE PERFECT BALANCE…..chair to bench balancing…..contortionist/ yoga show…..among many others……apart from performing- this discipline of acrobatics have taught me to be HUMBLE….HUMBLENESS HAS MADE ME TO MOVE ALL OVER MY COUNTRY….perform to great people and above all to work with the community- through my project i founded called KENYAN KIDS CIRCUS ACADEMY…..this project work or trains acrobatics, dances, arts and designs/ crafts among other performing arts and arts in general……this projects gives its services of training performing arts- on volunteer basis and no trainee is charged anything….only passion we recommend from all trainees- through passion we are able to conquer the difficult stunts in acrobatics…..KENYAN KIDS CIRCUS ACADEMY- HAS or works under various departments such as- DEPARTMENT OF STREET KIDS,,,,this department offers trainings of acrobatics to street kids/ boys, with an aim of transforming them through performing arts/ acrobatics…..DEPARTMENT OF CHILDREN HOMES OR CENTERS,,,,,,here we offer our trainings to children who are confined in children home or center, which caters or takes care less privileged/ vulnerable children/ children in need…..the other department is the COMMUNITY DEPARTMENT,,,,,,it works with kids in the community who may be idle on weekends, holidays, afternoons when they are not in schools- the aim of working with the community children is that, we need them to discover their talents early enough and due to this, we can be able to nurture them, above all to keep them busy during their vacation, whether it takes long or is short so they can shun away from social evils……DEPARTMENT OF YOUTHS,,,,,this department is dedicated with the service of youths, it tries to develop and promote their abilities/ talents, also as a way of promoting their potential- the department also links youths with various job vacancies such as in CIRCUS, through the help of, agents, talent scouts and promoters among others.
SOON KENYAN KIDS CIRCUS ACADEMY WANT to broaden it wings and start to work with/ offer it services of training performing arts to, prisons mostly juveniles, remands and Bostons…..also it wants to challenge itself by trying to nurture the talents of those kids with PHYSICAL CHALLENGE/ ARE DISABLED- for the project believes that- DISABILITY IS NOT INABILITY AND EVERY CHILD CAN CONQUER HIS CHALLENGE…..as we inaugurate this two departments we are happy with the , theme set for this year during the INTERNATIONAL DAY OF AFRICAN CHILD- which is based with disability.
KENYAN KIDS CIRCUS ACADEMY welcomes the people of good will who may wish to donate anything which he / she may think, will be of great help to this project based in Africa….so far we have got some help of training equipments from one acrobatic artist all the way from Austria…..the training equipments have been of great help to KENYAN KIDS CIRCUS ACADEMY AND TO THE TRAINEES THEMSELVES…..MAY ALMIGHTY GOD BLESS ALL THE WELL WISHER, DONORS AND ALL THOSE WHO HAVE WORKED IN THIS PROJECT IN ONE WAY OR THE OTHER……THE PROJECT MOTTO IS- EDUCATION + TALENT = SUCCESS….which we should sacrifice for.
IN case you may want to contact me- you may reach me through my email address- maina1986@yahoo.com / kenyankids.circusacademy@yahoo.com
Yours faithful,

PHILIP MAINA- ocircus the acrobat


Trevor Aung Than June 25, 2012 at 9:41 pm

Dear Philip,

Wow, thanks so much for your heartfelt reply. You are truly doing a great service with the Kenyan Kids Circus Academy; I wish you the best of luck! Stay in touch.

Wishing you the best,


Mary Duke Smith June 25, 2012 at 9:31 pm

Thank you so much for this great article! I feel inspired and supported by your words.


Trevor Aung Than June 25, 2012 at 9:42 pm

Thanks for reading Mary! All the best in your circus endeavours!!



Ruthann July 7, 2012 at 5:34 am

One of the best articles I’ve read in a long time! Not just relating to movement, focus, and art but also how to think one’s self out of the “box” or maybe even into a new one! Really fabulous and thanks for inspiring and kickstarting those of us who SO admire folks who “do what you do!” Wishing you much continued success!


Trevor Aung Than July 7, 2012 at 7:19 am

Hi Ruthann,

Thanks for the kind words and support! Keep fighting the good fight and wishing you all the best too!



Dan hales July 14, 2012 at 5:30 am

Hi Trevor
Thankyou for your artical, I found that it has just consolidated my choice for my family to commit full time to Performance and body focused work. To commit completely with a full heart, with mind unclutered by doubt, to see the vision and take daily steps in its direction. So thankyou once again for the inspirit-ation.

Go well travel safe


Trevor Aung Than July 14, 2012 at 5:39 pm

Hi Dan

Thanks for reading, you are quite inspiring in your decision as well!
All the best for you and your family.



money penny August 4, 2012 at 10:19 pm

everyone should follow this for life. we all would be much happier , and the world would be a much better place!


Bluedrop February 11, 2013 at 5:14 am

Thank you so much. I have been looking to join a circus and needed this words. :) Hopefully I get the job.


Trevor Aung Than February 22, 2013 at 9:28 pm

Hi Bluedrop,

Thanks for your comment. I’m sure you will knock their socks off!


Marce March 12, 2013 at 8:39 am

Fantastic article, and so very motivating.
I have a question, though… the circus life… how old is ‘too old?’ I’m the prime example of #2 on this list.. Not very strong, not very flexible, but so motivated! Even if I’m never good enough to join a company, I plan to continue training for myself, BUT it’ll take some time, so I’m wondering if there’s ever a chance of fulfilling that side dream.


Trevor Aung Than March 12, 2013 at 12:00 pm

Hi Marce,

Thanks! Never ‘too’ old…lol
Like I mention in the article, often that drive and determination can get you there. We had artists performing well into their 40′s.
Don’t give up the dream, if you want it bad enough you will find a way.



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