How To Be Excellent: Lessons From The Circus

Ms A. loves circuses. She spotted a suburban circus calling themselves Circus Latino has set up nearby to our house, and wanted to go. Though I can’t say I’m as endlessly fascinated by circuses as she is, I certainly do get a certain enjoyment from them, and who am I to deny her?

For the 3 people who don’t know, there’s a big difference between the suburban circus and the big budget, professional touring circuses like Cirque du Soleil, or Circus Oz. It’s a lot more like the traveling circus of yore; slightly disheveled, not as well attended, but much cheaper and great fun for kids, particularly the clowns.

So what does this have to do with excellence? Glad you asked.


Watching the show, I couldn’t help but think that they weren’t doing themselves justice. Sure, the jugglers would occasionally drop a ball, but these were people with definite skills who were not being shown in their best light. Literally. One of the things you won’t notice at a Cirque du Soleil show is the lighting. It’s done subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) to enhance the performance. At a suburban show, the strobe light may be on, but the houselights weren’t dimmed, so the effect is lost. That doesn’t happen at a bigger show.

Another thing is music. Again, at a bigger show it’s done to enhance the performance. At a suburban show, the music will be there, but it won’t be as polished. It won’t crossfade neatly. It’ll start too early, or finish too early, or finish late.

To be excellent, other people need to believe you’re excellent, so set the scene. Dress well. Look your best. Show off a bit. If you look the part, people will start off thinking you’re more capable than perhaps you really are. This is a known technique of salesmen and con-men everywhere. If you look like a doctor, people will assume you are one.

The fire-breather was the best at this. The music was supportive, and I can’t remember it, which means it didn’t overwhelm what was going on. The lights were down, which made the fire stand out. He was dressed in black, and so was his equipment, all the better for getting you to focus on the fire. He was helped by the fact that moving fire looks really cool!


Another important aspect of the fire-breather’s performance was that he clearly believed in himself. He knew that he could do the tricks, and he put real energy into doing it. He looked like he was having a great time. He conveyed that enthusiasm to the audience. He had a natural flow from one trick to another; nothing felt rushed, nor did it drag. He exuded confidence.

Contrast this with the balancing act. There was almost no eye contact. He looked at his feet the whole time, and while this may have been necessary for parts of the trick, it also made him seem hesitant, fearful. You could sense that he was worried about falling, and fall he did. You could almost hear him thinking “don’t mess it up”. It doesn’t work. Try to not think about a orange elephant.
To be excellent, you have to believe that you are, or can be. And you have to communicate that belief to your audience through your actions.


This part is somewhat obvious, but it’s really important nonetheless. All the setup and self belief in the world can’t help you if you suck. The only way to suck less is to practice. If you want to be excellent, you have to work at it. All those overnight success stories you hear about have about 10 years of back-story involved, where the protagonist practiced their butt off; there’s no such thing as an overnight success.

If you want to be excellent, you need to practice these skills, as well as the task you’re trying to be excellent at.

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