Wednesday, July 9

Five Lessons Organizations Could Learn From Circus Camp

I recently volunteered at a summer camp for 100 kids ages 4-15 on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.  The Tilghman Area Youth Association, "TAYA", hired a “circus yoga” troupe that is based in Vermont to come down and work with the volunteers and kids.  I learned so much, had fun, and was exhausted—but wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything in the world.  Here are some of the practices of successful circuses I learned that your organization can use, even if you don’t think of your workplace as a veritable circus:

  1. Natural Selection
No, I don’t mean in the Darwinian sense.  I observed that the circus folks gave every kid the chance to try out all of the activities in the first two days of the week-long camp, including acrobatics, pyramids, tightrope walking, juggling, plate spinning, etc.  Then each child got the opportunity to select two “acts” to perfect during the last three days of the camp, which culminated with an evening performance for the community.  It was fascinating to watch the kids during the first two days, as they tried out activities that called to them.

Allowing your work team members to try out different roles and have a voice in determining which roles they will fill can have the same magical results that the kids experienced at circus camp.  Once the kids had selected and been assigned to their acts, they suddenly adopted and embraced these roles as their identity because, having selected these roles, they were more deeply committed to succeeding.  To a child, the acts they selected were some combination of their interests and natural talents.  What was surprising is that those kids who selected something they were interested in, but for which they didn’t have a natural talent, stretched themselves beyond what one would expect is possible in one short week. One young lady, who struggled in  the beginning, having her heart set on being a tumbler and acrobat, inspired adults and other kids as she continued to practice until she was amazingly good. Everyone could feel the pride she emanated.

  1. Everyone’s In
When was the last time the managers in your organization joined in on the work of those they manage?  One of the circus rules was that everyone had to participate; nobody, including adults, could sit on the sidelines.  This ground rule created the sense of all of us being one team.  In spite of obvious age, size, and talent differences, we all tried, failed, and tried again as we learned skills out of our daily comfort zones.  How would your work group be strengthened if it adopted the “everyone’s in” ground rule?  I’m betting that the sense of being connected to one another would grow exponentially.


  1. Practice Is Perfect
I’ve heard the slogan, “Practice makes perfect,” but the circus yoga mantra, “Practice IS Perfect,” was a new one for me.  It took me several days to really appreciate its subtle difference and power.  Their belief is that the mere act of practicing something is itself perfection.  Malcolm Gladwell has documented this very notion, and I’ve understood it intellectually for years.  Not until I experienced and observed the ongoing act of practice for our circus performance did I understand that, at a certain point, repetition is an even greater contributor to success than raw talent.  Someone who is driven to master something they are interested in by practicing it is more likely to excel than the person with raw talent who doesn’t use it.  Let’s hear it for the tortoise winning his own race, regardless of what the hare is doing!

  1. Stylin’
The circus folks taught the kids to end every act with a pose, facing the audience with a big smile for a silent count of three. They called this, “Stylin’,” and said it is one of the most important aspects of a successful act.  If you look as if you’re having fun, your audience will feel the same. This was perhaps the most difficult lesson for some of the kids whose life experiences have led them to look down with shoulders slumped.  Creating their own personal pose of confidence was possibly the greatest take-away some of these kids may have learned at circus camp.  It certainly made me think about how many workplaces beat the spirit out of their people instead of infusing them with joy-filled confidence, which is just as contagious in a positive way as deflating messages are in a negative one.

  1. The Show’s The Thing
My work with organizations has always been about purpose and harmony—which were the beautiful underpinnings of the circus camp experience.  Everyone involved understood that our common goal was to pull off the most amazing circus performance possible by Friday night.  The kids knew they’d have family members in the audience, and wanted their families to be proud of them.  Sets were painted, scenery sewn, programs printed, and acts pulled together around an Eastern Shore-themed story, and the energy surge as the week progressed was palpable.  Once the school gym was filled, the music began, and the curtain went up, everyone moved through his or her paces like a troupe that had performed together for years.  It was clear that, just like adults, kids get a deep of satisfaction from knowing their shared goal and then understanding their personal role in achieving it.  We all worked hard and had fun doing it.  Isn’t that what every workplace should feel like?
For more information about TAYA, please visit their website at  Amazon users may donate 5% of their purchases to TAYA by going to


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