Two years ago I was invited to perform in the greatest show on Earth. It’s known to the outside world as the greatest public school on Earth: UC Berkeley.
When I got to this scholarly circus, the other performers were whispering about the secrets of a great act: side-stepping seals, rolling down hills and beating class averages. I came in wanting to be a business major but somehow became a trapeze artist too.
From my tightrope’s vantage point atop the Haas hill, I could see all the other performers, and they were even more freakish than the posters outside our circus advertise.
The clowns didn’t wear big, red noses and ridiculous feet. Instead, their costumes were tailored suits and heeled leather shoes that clip-clopped against the floor tiling. They didn’t plaster on a wide, silly smile but rather had on an appropriately professional one, photographed in front of the Campanile for their LinkedIn headshots.
I was never afraid of clowns as a child, but I could hear these ones talking about being an Internal VP of Operations in my nightmares.
The snake charmers were the consulting clubs and professional fraternities. They sat in a circle on Sproul during tabling and played a tantalizing tune: a symphony of single-digit acceptance rates, cracking case simulations, group and individual interviews. All the snakes danced to it. We sealed our undergraduate fate, slithering through years of resume-building workshops and networking events.
The jugglers were always adding up one more unit, activity or job. Their hands were already full but they couldn’t help themselves. Their overworking and outcompeting was their artistry.
The stunt artists spat the fire that was ignited in their intestines: a result of the combination of caffeine and Adderall they ingested before finals week. Their ladder of swords was the staircase climb to Doe, where they holed up for 24-72 hours at a time; their seat in Main Stacks was their bed of nails.
Collectively, we all put on a great show, the greatest show on Earth. There’s no trick we won’t turn. We somersault through every hoop in the career timeline like springboarders. We bend in any direction for that Google placement offer like double-jointed contortionists. We balance on the unicycle’s singular wheel of academic validation.
The main act in Berkeley’s circus culture is a lion. It’s always roaring “More.” It is an insatiable beast, with a ravenous appetite for more achievement. We keep feeding it with more accolades because if we’re convinced that if we stop, it’ll jump at us, swallow us whole. The only thing left of us will be the carcass of a non-survivor.
Since I first got on my slackline two years ago, I’ve just been looking down. I’ve been looking at my pointed toes to ensure I don’t fall off. I just barely don’t. I’ve been looking at my fellow performers, seeing them throw swords a little too close to each other’s ears.
But lately, I’ve also been looking around. I’ve started looking out at the audience, and I don’t think there is any.
So hear me out. I have a theory.
Maybe there is no external audience, and we’ve been putting on a spectacle for each other. As both the audience and the act, we’ve been normalizing the brink of danger as entertainment and the edge of a breakdown as accomplishment.
I’ve been gazing up at the tent’s big top ceiling and it doesn’t look as bright when the blinding spotlights of the circus aren’t on.
Maybe the stars we’ve been aspiring to are just stickers. There could be a whole constellation of greater purposes than six figure salaries, just beyond their paper cutouts.
So I say we run away. The ultimate escape act. That trailer van where we sleep at the end of the day, I’ll hotwire it. We could drive it to Europe, Asia or Africa, or just rest in it for a while.
We could all go. There’s a passenger seat for you, and then all that space in the back for our friends. Hopefully the rest of the circus will follow, trace our wagon trails to a utopia of leisure, collaboration and fulfillment.
There, away from the neverending carnival music, our imposter syndrome’s voice could quieten. The dancers and musicians could frolick for joy again. The trained horses could run wildly again.
We won’t be exhausted all the time. We could sleep wide awake again. I could try and touch the twinkling night sky. You could remember that you were going to change the world with your craft. We never joined the circus to just sell tickets or collect applause.
Plus, it’ll all still be here if and when we return.The lingering burnt popcorn smell of jealousy, with its sinfully sweet caramel whiff of inspiration. The golden handcuffs to tie us up and immerse us in shark-infested waters. That’s show business, it keeps on going.
So come with me, won’t you? Let’s step off the stage and see what happens.