You won't earn enough money to justify being unhappy.
At the end of 2019 I was invited to speak at the graduation ceremony for the National Institute of Circus Arts in Melbourne, the circus school from which I graduated in 2009. In light of everything that has happened since December, this graduating class is one that I believe will particularly struggle to "make it" in the arts. The arts is not an easy place to make a career for anyone, least of all when your entry into the industry is followed almost immediately by the total collapse of live performance. I've been thinking about whether or not I would have changed the advice I gave if I had known what was coming. The truth is I don't think I would. I talked about the importance of prioritising happiness and I stand by that. Here's a transcript of what I said at the event if you're interested:
When I was asked to make this speech there was one piece of advice that sprang to my mind immediately. It’s something that I tell myself, and my circus fam so regularly, and I wish I’d been able to pin point it when I was leaving NICA 10 years ago. Some of your parents aren’t going to want to hear it, but here it comes, you ready?
YOU WON'T EARN ENOUGH MONEY TO JUSTIFY BEING UNHAPPY. You have to remember to enjoy it. Don’t get me wrong you can earn enough money to be able to do the things you want to do. You can buy a house, I own a house. You can have kids, I have a kid. You can travel, and eat smashed avocado, and drink soy lattes. I’m doing all of those things today. But you won't earn enough to justify being unhappy. You must constantly reassess and if you find yourself feeling consistently unhappy in your work, you need to change it. If you can’t find the happiness in circus, then you might as well go and be an investment banker and be filthy stinking rich.
I graduated from NICA in 2009 with my 2 specialties - Duo Swinging Trapeze and German Wheel. My plan was simple. Get my footage together, do lots of auditions, get a contract with a company. That is not what happened at all.
Almost immediately after I graduated I realised that Duo Swinging Trapeze and German Wheel are the two most giant acts, in the entire universe. There are few companies outside of Cirque Du Soleil that can fit them, and almost nowhere in Australia outside of this building to even train them. I had to reassess.
I did a short contract on a cruise ship performing hula hoops and single point duo trapeze with my flyer from NICA. I wasn’t very good at hoops, I could only just do a three split, but I got away with it because we managed to make a pretty good doubles routine. We had both been doing auditions (as planned) and before the end of our 8 week cruise contract, my flyer got offered a job with CIRCA. I did not. I wasn’t making enough money to justify being unhappy, I had to reassess.
So there I was, three months out of NICA with neither of my specialities, working mostly in a video shop (yep I’m that old, let’s brush over it quickly). That’s when I realised that if I wanted to perform German Wheel I was going to have to make that happen for myself. I wasn’t happy working in a shop, and I wanted to be a performer so I quit my casual job and committed to making 100% of my income from circus. I took away my own plan B, so that there was only plan A. I did some teaching, a bit of rigging and stage managing, but mostly I made a show that I loved, and got good at convincing other people to pay me to perform it.
A year or more after that I was really starting to feel jaded about not getting into any companies, and I wasn’t earning enough to justify being unhappy. My flyer had finished up her contract with CIRCA. It was time to reassess. I made a list of the things I actually wanted from a company. I wanted:
To tour overseas.
To be a base.
To be allowed to be funny.
To show the world what I am capable of in an ensemble.
So that’s what I did. I formed an ensemble with the people I loved working with the most (all of us 2009 NICA graduates). I used what I’d learned from the first show I’d made and the others all brought knowledge from what they’d learned in the time since the end of NICA. We toured the world, for several years, and I was still coming and going from teaching circus in Melbourne. One day I was teaching a circus class, mindlessly spinning the skipping rope, noticing how annoyed I was that the kids wouldn’t just stand in the line where I’d asked them to. I didn’t want to teach late AGAIN, I didn’t want to fill in for so and so who has a gig, I want to have a gig, I’m so over it and I’m not earning enough money to justify being unhappy. It was time to reassess.
I resolved to make 100% of my income from performing, and that meant no more teaching. There is no plan B, there is only plan A. Given that the only way to get good at anything is practice. I set myself a goal. I would get on stage, in front of an audience at least once a week for a whole year. So that’s what I did.
I’ve made 100% of my income from performing and producing my own shows for the last 5 years. And in that time I’ve reassessed countless times and made some interesting realisations.
When I was at NICA I used to think of this group of professional circus performers that exist as “The Industry” but then when I graduated I realised it’s not an industry; it’s a community. The people who work in this community do so by choice. They do it because they love it and if they didn’t love it, they wouldn’t do it. It’s too hard and they don’t earn enough money to justify being unhappy.
2019 was the biggest year of my life. I had a baby. And since becoming pregnant I have reassessed again and now I realise, it’s not just a community. It’s a family. The circus family is protective, loyal, supportive, generous, honest and loving. They have high standards, but they give back in spades. Treat them well and they will make you immeasurably happy, which is good because you won’t earn enough money to justify being unhappy.
After today your lives are going to change dramatically. Now is the perfect time to reassess. Figure out what it is that’s going to make you happy go for it with everything you’ve got. If you decide to commit to plan A, let me be the first to say, welcome to the family.