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Post: Outside the Box: 5 financial lessons I learned from my time as a circus clown

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus operated Clown College from 1969 to 1997. I attended in fall 1978 in Venice, Fla., home of Ringling’s winter quarters. Clown College was a one-semester, tuition-free, rigorous training program in clowning.

After completing General Electric’s

two-year financial management program, I wanted to do something different. I applied to both the Wharton M.B.A. program and Clown College. To my surprise, I was accepted by both. The decision was easy. I turned down Wharton to go to Clown College.

During the day, we had classes in pantomime, juggling, stilt walking, unicycling, slaps and falls, makeup, costuming, building props, developing routines and even elephant riding. We spent evenings watching comedy films, sewing our costumes, making props and practicing skits.

In the 1970s, Ringling employed 60 clowns in its two traveling shows. Since the average career of a Ringling clown was two years, they needed 30 new clowns each year. Clown College had 60 students. Upon graduation, half were offered contracts to join the show. If offered a contract, we were obligated to accept.

Life in the circus was rigorous. The show was three hours long and usually moved to a new city each week. There were two shows a day, Tuesday through Friday. Saturday and Sunday had three shows each day. On Sunday night, the show was torn down and packed on the train. Monday was a travel day and Tuesday a new cycle began.

I was not offered a contract, so in January 1979 I started at Wharton. Truth be told, I didn’t try hard to get a contract. I had been dating a young woman and was worried what it would mean for our relationship if I traveled across the U.S. for a year. By not joining the circus, I could continue the relationship. Happily, we were married within a year.

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Clown College teaches nothing that helps with asset allocation or retirement withdrawal rates. But it did illustrate five important financial lessons.

1. We can be happy without many possessions. Ringling shows traveled by train. One car was the clown car. It had a small communal kitchen and common toilets. A clown’s room was 3 feet wide and 6 feet long. Two seats faced each other with a small table between them. At night, the table dropped down and turned into a bed. Above the window was a shelf that was 18 inches wide and 6 feet long. All your worldly possessions had to be stored on that shelf. It worked well and people were happy.

Today, I have a large home filled with a lifetime’s accumulation of stuff. I would like to downsize but I struggle to get rid of things. I have to remind myself that my possessions are not the source of my happiness. I would not be happy today living in a three-by-six-foot room, but I could be happy with far fewer possessions.

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2. Supply and demand matter. In the late 1970s, clowns were paid pitifully little, about $150 a week. Show girls were paid twice that. Even show girls admitted that clowns’ work was more demanding. Why the discrepancy in pay?

For clowns, Ringling is the pinnacle. Clowns aspire to work with Ringling. We were told that Clown College had 3,000 applicants each year. There were 60 of us vying for just 30 spots. But no show girl aspires to work for Ringling. A show girl wants to work on Broadway or in Las Vegas. Show girls have to be paid better to get them to join.

We need to remember supply and demand. It explains a lot of what we see around us.

3. Be prepared. One of my favorite quotes is, “I am a great believer in luck, and I find that the harder I work, the more I have of it.”

Why was I one of the lucky few to be accepted into Clown College? I have no idea. But I believe at least some of it was because I had already taught myself juggling and stilt walking. I was prepared. Others who showed up at the audition seemed to be there because they had seen the ad and had nothing better to do that day.

We can’t expect our investments to do well if we know nothing about investing. We don’t need a doctorate in finance, but we can’t expect the best results unless we know something about investments and financial markets.

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4. Unions are not always effective. Clowns and other circus performers used to be represented by AGVA, the American Guild of Variety Artists. When I was in high school, I attended the circus when it was in town. I talked to some of the clowns after the show and they invited me backstage. That day, many of the clowns were complaining about the union. They hated to pay union dues and believed they received absolutely no benefit from the union. By the time I attended Clown College, clowns were no longer unionized. If unions want to represent employees, employees have to be convinced of the value of unions.

5. Sometimes, it makes sense to quit while you’re ahead. Karl Wallenda was the patriarch of the Flying Wallendas. The Wallendas walked the tightrope and never used a safety net. Karl died at age 73, while walking a wire stretched between two buildings. The wire slipped because of improper rigging and he fell to his death.

I attended a talk by Tino Wallenda, Karl’s grandson and an accomplished wire walker in his own right. During the question-and-answer session, someone asked Tino what lessons he had learned from his grandfather’s accident. Tino thought for a moment, then smiled and said, “Quit wire walking before you reach 73.”

This lesson applies to both our financial portfolio and our career. Sometimes, things don’t turn out well when we continue to invest aggressively after having enough. Sometimes, we continue to work when our faculties have diminished.

I always encouraged my college students to lead lives of reflection. If I can find financial lessons or life lessons in something as outlandish as Clown College, we can all find lessons in our own experiences.

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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