I recently wrote about five financial lessons I learned at Ringling Bros. and at Barnum & Bailey’s Clown College. But Clown College not only offered financial lessons, but also valuable life lessons.
It was a topic I used to talk to my students about. For the last 16 years of my career, I taught accounting at the university. I encouraged students to lead reflective lives and learn from their experiences. I would share a brief PowerPoint presentation, “The 10 Best Life Lessons from Clown College.” I illustrated each lesson with pictures of clowns, acrobats, or elephants. I was hoping the students would find it fun. When I started teaching, I discovered, to my surprise, that some students thought accounting was boring.
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1. We stand on the shoulders of the giants. During its more than 130 years of existence, Ringling Bros. he appointed only four master clowns: Otto Griebling (born 1896), Lou Jacobs (1903), Bobby Kaye (1908) and Glen “Frosty” Little (1925). All four were the first to be inducted into the International Clown Hall of Fame. The three youngest were among the many instructors we had at Clown College when I attended in 1978. Clowns know that their job is much better when the best ones teach them.
2. Appearances are important. A good, durable pair of custom-made, custom-made clown shoes costs at least $ 300. Professional clown wigs are handmade with yak hair. Clowns spend a lot of time and effort on their costumes. Applying makeup usually takes an hour. Good clowns spend time and money doing everything right because they know appearances are important.
3. The show must go on. The Flying Wallendas had a seven-person, three-person human pyramid walking down a loose rope in Detroit in 1962, when the main walker lost his balance and the pyramid collapsed. Two people died and a third was permanently paralyzed. They were all family members. Karl Wallenda, the patriarch of the troupe, suffered several broken ribs. But the next day, he returned to the thread.
The country’s largest circus disaster was a fire in Hartford, Connecticut, on July 6, 1944. The fireproof canvas was reserved for the U.S. World War II effort. To ensure that it was waterproof, the Ringling tent had been coated with paraffin. When the fire engulfed the tent, 167 people died. Five circus officials were criminally charged and all profits for the following years went to restitution. However, a few days after the fire, the circus performed again.
When faced with adversity, we often need to follow the advice of the now-famous maxim, “Keep Calm and Keep Going.”
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4. It is important to have contingency plans. Ringling used jeep-like vehicles to move animal cages and props. During the intermission at a show, these vehicles moved in a circle around the cage of the big cats that began the second half of the show. Each vehicle faced the cage and had a driver ready to turn on its headlights. A clown asked the director of the performance the reason for this unusual arrangement. The director replied: “Early today, this building has lost energy due to storms. There are still storms in the area. If we lose power again, I do not want an interpreter in this cage in total darkness with all these animals “.
5. Almost anyone can master the basics. Decades ago, as an undergraduate student, I taught juggling as a physical education class. As an accounting professor during the last years of my career, I also occasionally taught a physical juggling class. (My wife is quick to point out that she has made absolutely no progress in 40 years.) I tell students that anyone can learn to juggle if they receive good instruction and practice. He would give good instruction; they must provide the practice. The students learned to juggle.
6. Being good at something requires hard work. The first thing taught in juggling is the basic three-ball cascade. From here, a new juggler could learn to throw from different positions: under the opposite wrist, behind the back, under one leg. I like to juggle with a couple, exchanging balls at certain times. A juggler can go from balls to rings and clubs, even lit clubs, which I can still do. All of these skills require significant training and practice. The difficulty increases exponentially.
7. Pursue your dreams. Have long-term plans. I learned about Clown College when I was in high school when Ringling Bros. arrived in my hometown. As I showed interest, one of the clowns spoke to me about Clown College and submitted an application. Seven years later, I was walking the streets of New York City with a juggling bag in one hand and homemade stilts in the other, leading me to an audition at Madison Square Garden.
8. Give credit where you have to pay. In 1967, Irvin Feld bought Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Circus to descendants of the original Ringling family. The circus had only 14 clowns, most of them over 50. Feld said he knew Ringling’s clowns could fall, but he didn’t know if they could get up again. In one year, he opened Clown College. During its 30 years of existence, Clown College trained 1,400 clowns. Thanks to Feld, the American clown was revitalized.
9. We have different strengths and abilities. At Clown College, some people seemed to be natural musicians and formed a clown band. Some had the ability to ride a unicycle or stilts, while others had problems with both. Some excelled at juggling or throwing cake, others did not. That’s all right. The circus needs all these skills, just as the world needs people with all kinds of strengths and abilities.
10. What unites us is greater than what divides us. The circus usually had shows from at least a dozen countries. Since its inception, people who identify as LGBTQ have been part of the circus. Small people were always welcome. Many years ago, most clowns were white males. But for the past 50 years, the circus has had many talented black women and clowns. The question that is always asked of a performer is not about race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, but rather, “What can you bring to the show?”
This column first appeared in Humble Dollar. It was republished with permission.
Larry Sayler is the only person with an MBA from Wharton who also graduated from Ringling Bros. and at Barnum & Bailey’s Clown College. Early in his career, he served as Chief Financial Officer of three manufacturing and service organizations. For 17 years before his retirement, Larry taught accounting at a small Christian university in the Midwest. His previous articles include Gifts with Interest and Making a Difference.