Post: Outside the Box: 10 things being a clown taught me about life

Recently I wrote about five financial lessons I learned at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Clown College. But Clown College didn’t just offer financial lessons—it also offered valuable life lessons.

It was a topic I used to discuss with my students. For the last 16 years of my career, I taught college accounting courses. I encouraged the students to lead lives of reflection and learn from their experiences. I would share a short PowerPoint presentation, “Top 10 Life Lessons from Clown College.” I illustrated each lesson with pictures of clowns, acrobats or elephants. I hoped students would find it amusing. When I started teaching, I discovered—much to my surprise—that some students thought accounting was boring.

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1. We stand on the shoulders of giants. During its more than 130-year existence, Ringling Bros. named only four master clowns: Otto Griebling (born 1896), Lou Jacobs (1903), Bobby Kaye (1908) and Glen “Frosty” Little (1925). All four were early inductees into the International Clown Hall of Fame. The three younger ones were among the many instructors we had at Clown College when I attended in 1978. Clowns know that their work is much better when they’re taught by the best.

2. Appearances are important. A good, sturdy pair of all-leather, custom-made clown shoes costs at least $300. Professional clown wigs are handmade from yak hair. Clowns put a lot of time and effort into their costumes. Applying makeup often takes an hour. Good clowns spend the time and money to get everything right because they know that appearances are important.

3. The show must go on. The Flying Wallendas had a seven-person, three-high human pyramid walking a tightrope in Detroit in 1962 when the lead walker lost his balance and the pyramid collapsed. Two people fell to their death and a third was permanently paralyzed. All were family members. Karl Wallenda, the patriarch of the troupe, suffered several broken ribs. But the next day, he was back on the wire.

The nation’s greatest circus disaster was a fire in Hartford, Conn., on July 6, 1944. Flameproof canvas was reserved for America’s World War II effort. To ensure it was waterproof, the Ringling tent had been coated with paraffin. When fire engulfed the big top, 167 people were killed. Five circus officials were criminally charged, and all profits for the next several years went to restitution. Yet, within days of the fire, the circus was again performing.

When we face adversity, we often need to follow the advice of the now-famous maxim, “Keep calm and carry on.”

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4. It’s important to have contingency plans. Ringling used Jeep-like vehicles to move animal cages and prop wagons. During intermission at one show, these vehicles were moved into a circle around the big-cat cage that started 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 performance director the reason for this unusual arrangement. The director replied, “Earlier today, this building lost power because of thunderstorms. Storms are still in the area. If we lose power again, I don’t want a performer in that cage in total darkness with all those animals.”

5. Almost anyone can master the basics. Decades ago, as an undergraduate, I taught juggling as a physical education class. As an accounting professor during the final years of my career, I also occasionally taught a phys ed juggling class. (My wife is quick to point out that I’d made absolutely no progress in 40 years.) I tell students that anyone can learn to juggle if they receive good instruction and they practice. I would provide the good instruction; they must provide the practice. The students did indeed learn to juggle.

6. To get good at something requires hard work. The first thing taught in juggling is the basic three-ball cascade. From there, a new juggler might learn to throw from different positions—under the opposing wrist, behind the back, under a leg. I enjoy juggling with a partner, exchanging balls at set times. A juggler can move on from balls to rings and clubs—even flaming clubs, something I can still do. All these skills require significant training and practice. Difficulty increases exponentially.

7. Pursue your dreams. Have long-term plans. I learned about Clown College while in high school when Ringling Bros. came to my hometown. Because I expressed interest, one of the clowns talked to me about Clown College and gave me an application. Seven years later, I was walking down the streets of New York City with a bag of juggling equipment in one hand and homemade stilts in the other, heading to an audition at Madison Square Garden.

8. Give credit where credit is due. In 1967, Irvin Feld bought Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Circus from descendants of the original Ringling family. The circus had only 14 clowns, most of them older than 50. Feld said he knew that Ringling clowns could fall down, but he didn’t know if they’d be able to get back up. Within a year, he opened Clown College. During its 30-year existence, Clown College trained 1,400 clowns. Thanks to Feld, American clowning was reinvigorated.

9. We have different strengths and abilities. At Clown College, some people seemed to be natural musicians, and they formed a clown band. Some had a knack for unicycling or stilt walking, while others struggled with both. Some excelled at juggling or pie-throwing, others did not. That’s OK. The circus needs all of these skills, just as the world needs people who have all sorts of strengths and abilities.

10. What unites us is greater than what divides us. The circus routinely had acts from at least a dozen countries. Since its beginning, people who identify as LGBTQ have been part of the circus. Little people were always welcome. Many years ago, most clowns were white males. But over the past 50 years, the circus has had many talented female and Black clowns. The question always asked of a performer has not been about race, ethnicity or sexual orientation, but rather, “What can you bring to the show?”

This column first appeared on Humble Dollar. It was republished with permission.

Larry Sayler is the only person with a Wharton M.B.A. who also graduated from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Clown College. Earlier in his career, he served as CFO for three manufacturing and service organizations. For 17 years before his retirement, Larry taught accounting at a small Christian college in the Midwest. His previous articles include Gifts With Interest and Making a Difference.

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