SCENE: a once-bustling country town now fallen on dusty hard times. I take a long drag on an unfiltered Camel and stare into the middle distance, the late afternoon sunlight deepening the facial creases of hard-lived experience:
I didn’t choose the carny life, it chose me because I had run out of alcohol money.
But it happened and those skills are lifelong handy. Every terrible job you have is coding in skills that will last the rest of your life.
Skills you don’t even know you have because you just assume everyone has them. They don’t. It’s important to remind yourself of that every so often.
My funfair brethren and I weren’t full-time carnies. We never travelled from town to town, sleeping in caravans and stealing clothes from backyards. You could tell the Pro Tour carnies by the ever-present rollie cigarette behind the ear and the primitive self-inking like Tommy here.
(This and the other carny shots are from this great gallery from the 1978 Yellowstone Exhibition Fair. I love the caption “Tommy was fired after fighting a couple of local teens”. Of course he was.)
I was a veterinary student. I’d travel to Sydney each term and spend all my education money on alcohol in the first week, before that became known as ‘networking’. So I got a gig operating badly-maintained rides at a long-gone fun pier on Sydney Harbour.
My carny years taught me lessons that are invaluable in the whole set-up-your-own-businesses caper, and life in general.
1. No Sales, No Paycheck
No reliable time-based wage for amusement folk. We got paid per ticket sold. It’s a fine lesson in the brutality of the market. And the opportunities that await when you decouple your rewards from the fixed hourly rate.
You develop sharp instincts for how to distract people from other rides to yours.
How queues create an aura of popularity that bring in even more people, while other just-as-good rides get tumbleweeds.
How to engage strangers. How to endure constant rejection so it becomes a thing that doesn’t really bother you, it’s just a reflex part of doing business.
How it’s much easier to get extra revenue from an existing customer. One more ride? The happy kid that just got off the merry-go-round is a much easier sale than the disengaged ones walking past.
If you got the formula right, it paid off big, at least by carny wealth standards.
These are timeless lessons. In terms of success factors, there’s only about 25% difference between a Ferris Wheel and our national business today.
2. Fucking Turn Up On Time
Turn up on time because if you don’t you’re letting the whole team down and affecting their livelihood. And if they don’t earn much to start with, your entitled slackness is basically theft.
If you let the Bearded Lady or Lizard Man down, they might not actually cut you up and eat you, but you wouldn’t bet the house on it.
Look down on carnies all you like but we have each others’ backs and good businesses are the same.
3. Embrace The Haphazard Career Journey
I feel so sorry for people with respectable careers like dentistry because you’re committed to do that thing until you retire, or you’ll feel you’re letting your whole family down.
Not that dentistry is bad – some people live for the scientific journey and they are awesome. But I suspect there are lots of dentists who got pushed into it, and wish they could have a shot at bounty hunting or running a food truck just to fire up different parts of their brain for once.
I’ve had a range of jobs that seemed really unpleasant at the time, and I thought: I wish I had a prestigious professional career, that would be sweet. Now I think: thank God that didn’t happen.
The wondrous thing about owning businesses is that opportunities come up in all sorts of odd areas and if you’ve got the cash, you can give it a shot. It’s an endless thrill to know that some exciting commercial adventure is just one random conversation away.
The carny hustle kicks in, you pack up the vans and go after it.
4. Being A Dick Is Not Persuasive
Niggly, sugar-tripping kids and their stressed-out parents is a volatile customer service combination.
More so if those kids have just had the traditional fun-times lunch of Dagwood Dogs, potato tornadoes and candy floss. If that bomb goes off on your ride, you get a really unpleasant quarter hour with the bucket and scrubbing brush. During which you earn nothing.
You get all sorts of abuse from parents because they ignored the height restriction sign or bought the wrong ticket or whatever. They will shout. They will threaten to call the manager. They will call you names.
And we so did not give a rat’s ass, because we’d done nothing wrong.
Aggression. Achieves. Nothing.
To this day, being calm and reasonable has helped me get what I want in almost every situation. Sometimes it has to be firm, I’m-deeply-disappointed-in-you reasonableness, but belittling people achieves nothing and I’m surprised it’s still so popular in 2019.
5. The University of Customer Service
If you’re a teenager, or a parent encouraging a teenager to get a job, the really valuable ones are the ones where you have to deal with the general public. It’s the high-intensity gymnasium of irritation that will teach you so much.
My friend Heather and I worked together when our business had offices in five-star hotels. Her job was often terrible, her office an airless concrete box far below ground level, her days spent fending off executive tantrums and evil schemes.
But she also got to work on the function floor, serving all sorts of guests.
She approached it all like the dynamo she is, and moved on. Now she’s in enterprise software sales and making a fortune. Why? Because pretty much all the other sales people in her field are guys, who come in and talk about the enormous, throbbing power and functionality of their product.
Instead, Heather applies her hospitality instincts. She can sense when people need attention. She asks after the clients’ kids, whose names she remembers. She can make people laugh. She gets back to people. And she is absolutely killing it.
The best business people never forget their roots. Embrace your inner carny, my friends.
If you liked this, you might also like Stay Business-Fit In The Gymnasium Of Irritation.
And – carny hustle time – help me out here, I need more subscribers to make it worth publishing the book of all this. So if you don’t already, drop your email here and get the stories each Tuesday. For FREE. Is this some carny trap? No, I will never bug you with pleading emails for motivational webinars or whatever. It’s much safer than fun fair rides.
Great article. My first job was mucking our stables at a race track for all of a couple of bucks a day. Taught me no matter how crap you think your job is there is always someone, somewhere, that has it tougher. So there’s no point complaining, get on with it and the do it to the best of your abilities.
Great article Ian. Takes me back to refilling the dog food isle at Woolies. The variety of nosh available to our furry friends always amazed me (and still does). The highlight though was consuming an entire packet of Arnotts rasberry tartlets, without being busted, whilst refilling said pet food isle.