How the circus prepared me for a life in technology
In college and for the ten years after I was an artist, a performer, an actor, a clown and an acrobat. Like every career in the arts, it had its ups and downs, thankfully I had more ups than downs and was amazingly able to put together a comfortable life in Chicago and the Bay Area doing what I love. My thirties began with me working with some of my heroes, true clowning greats, in excellent venues in an awesome city. It was also coupled with the nagging feeling that these people who I truly respected, did not have the kind of life that I wanted.
I began looking for another way to make a living, and I came back to one of my first loves: technology. My father had bought me my first computer when I was 8 years old (an Atari) and my uncle gave me a subscription to Home Computing Magazine which had basic programs written in the back. I would transcribe these messes of GOTOs into that silly keyboard plugged into a small television and make magic happen. I later started connecting a 286 to the local BBS and downloading shareware and helped my father set up the accounting system for his dry cleaning business. I had told my parents that I wanted to be an artist during the day and a programmer at night (it turns out that being an artist takes a lot of time).
After a few years working I realized that a lot of the lessons that I learned on stage and in the ring are as applicable with Engineers as they to clowns and acrobats.
Failure is the only option
No matter what you are building, from a new gag, to a new technology, you are going to get it wrong. It is best to make peace with this idea very early in your career. Every Performer has a story about the first time that they bombed on stage, the first time they got up and either no one cared, or no one laughed, or no one noticed. I once worked a reggae themed holiday party at an Indian restuaurant that involved a DJ whose only reggae music was a lone remix of Red Red Wine.
Most performers talk about their failures because in order to be truly great it will usually happen again and again. A great example of this is the documentary Comedian, which follows Jerry Seinfeld post Seinfeld. Seinfeld has decided to create all new material and starts over by going clubs around New York and telling jokes. It is incredible to watch this world renown comic fail for the first half of the movie. However he just keeps going. The best thing about his journey is that there is never an “aha” moment where he realized that he was doing something wrong. He just kept grinding away at his material until it was good, until people bought it. He improved with every failure.
Ego will get you nowhere
For me ego is how you view yourself in relation to others. When people talk someone having an ego (or being a diva, or rockstar, or asshole) the mean that the person’s view of themselves is out of line with the people around them. There are two major dangers associated with ego. The first is is assuming that you are better than everyone around you. Once that happens, you have stopped needing to learn. Once you have stopped learning you have stopped growing. Once you stop growing you are going to wonder where your job went.
The second is assuming that you are worse than everyone around you, which just causes despair. Despair is the enemy of growth. Feeling sorry for yourself is just more ego.
Grit will get you everywhere
I always told myself that I would keep trying to be a performer until someone told me to stop. People told me it wasn’t always a great idea, they warned me that it would be difficult, but no one ever tried to stop me. To be honest I am sure that people told me to stop, but to have grit is to have a certain deafness to people who try to stop you. When people did not support my dreams or refused to believe in them the same way that I did I just kept my head down. After awhile those people were no longer around. Having git is a mixture of ruthless adherence to your dream and the naive idea that it is all pre-ordained.
No matter how hard, make it look easy, but not too easy
People love to watch and be around mastery, but they don’t always know it when they see it. Walking on a tightwire is really hard, but great wire walkers will make it look super easy because they do it every day. Some will work in a ‘slip’ to remind the audience that “Hey!, this is hard and dangerous and you should be impressed.”
In software is great to be able to write twitter clone in twenty minutes, but what it communicates is that with all these frameworks around anyone can write software and it should be cheap. One also needs to remember that making things appear on a screen is usually pretty easy. Making a secure scalable fault tolerant system in collaboration with others, that is ready for production is really hard. Programmers are in the business of hiding complexity because it is complex and we are lazy. It helps to remind people every now and again how f*sking difficult software can be.
It only matters if they pay for it.
If people do not understand your brilliance, or no one is buying your idea, it means that it is probably not a very good idea and you have to start over. Sometimes you can pour hours and even years into ideas that are ultimately duds. That is fine and good and natural. The ultimate test of any idea is if people are willing to give you money for it. For most people money is something that they have traded their time for, so when someone gives you money it is actually a gift of that person’s time. If your idea is not worth someone’s time, you need to find another idea.
Also in no particular order:
- Working for non-profits are only a good idea if you are already rich.
- Taking care of your body is part of your job. - In tech we don’t wear tights so it is a little easier to let yourself go, but no one is going to take care of it for you.
- There are times that the work, no matter how much you love it, is no fun- Professional jugglers spend six hours a day practicing, sometimes working on tricks that they will never show. Programmers need to do things like maintenance, code cleanup, form validation. It is why this is called work.
- If you are not having fun, get out. - Life is too short and too long. Really. It is too short to wait around for happiness and it is too long to wallow in self-doubt and self-pity.
- If the equipment you need doesn’t exist, you have to make it. - Clowns spent a large amount of time building their props and gags because you cannot buy a table that collapses exactly when you need it to, or find the perfect child sized tiger print loincloth on the internet.