Business education is currently causing students to lose their passion. Reversing this tendency must be of uttermost importance to business schools, and experiences from an experimental course in Stockholm suggest that circus artists might hold part of the solution.

(The article presents reflections on a course created as a joint initiative of Stockholm School of Economics, the University College of Dance and Circus in Stockholm, and Cirkus Cirkör. The circus artists participating were all professional artists; most of them running their own companies. The business students were all students at the master level; all of them with a bachelor in business administration, from different schools.)

Contemporary circus balances between the cultural and the commercial in an interesting way. There are companies like Cirque du Soleil, who has a successful business model and even has become a role-model for other businesses, in other industries, with its “blue ocean strategy”, but there are also small, independent, more artistic-oriented contemporary circuses across the globe. Circus is a truly global and nomadic business, and it has many characteristics that are interesting from a management perspective.

One is that “management” actually originates from the circus, from the “manège”; where horses once were managed. It is also interesting to look at the many circus metaphors used in management lingo, for example:  “juggling priorities” “too many balls in the air” “walking the tightrope” “jumping through hoops” and “being in the spotlight”. The business students recognized many expressions, but most important of all, they explored the meaning put behind the words:

“Problems will arise, but as the acrobats emphasized, it is more important that you are confident that you can solve them, because going out of balance will happen anyway and it is important to know that one can get back into balance.”

Enhancing entrepreneurial thinking

As one of the students described, the courage of the artists basicly enhanced entrepreneurial thinking. A both unexpected and positive comment about the course. While we thought the circus artists would learn about business – and entrepreneurship – from the business students, the learning went the other way, as well. The business students learnt entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial thinking from the circus artists.

This should perhaps not come as a surprise. Saras Sarasvathy, for example, describes an entrepreneurial mindset as much closer to an artist’s than to a manager’s. In fact she contrasts the entrepreneurial and the managerial mindset, by saying that the first is characterized by “effectuation”, the use of existing resources and skills no matter the outcome. While managerial thinking on the other hand, follows a more analytical and causal logic, setting the goal beforehand. It is no wonder that the artists have more of an entrepreneurial mindset, while the business students are trained to have a more of a managerial mindset.

Passion might be one of the most important aspects of entrepreneurship, without passion, there will be no entrepreneurship. Or as one of the business students, beautifully, expresses it:

“The most inspiring thing where to behold the people who truly follow their passion, no matter the cost. Choosing the course of arts as a profession is more risky, in the sense the financial rewards are substantially less, and as ones career path is less clear, some might be forced to retire due to injure or age. To see people really burning for their cause is inspiring to say the least, from my perspective of having just that – a passion and then lose it, gives me a sense of hope, a basis for humanity.”

“To hope and have the imagination to do that what we truly wish for and follow our dreams, can only be described as – a life worth living for. Dreams are the reason for our being, to pursue them is exactly why we are here, to be happy. Finding ones dream and then simply go for it, is a lesson one can definitely learn from the circus. However, the biggest risk of all must be to be stuck in a life with no joy.”

The passion of the circus artists – and the lack of passion among the business students – is a theme that comes back many times; it is actually the most dominating theme of all. For some, as the student above, it becomes a reminder that they need to find that passion in their life again; a passion they had before starting business school; a passion they rarely meet in business school. One writes: “I got to revisit a lot of the things that I left behind a very long time ago”.

Many students connect passion to motivation. While the circus artists are intrinsically motivated; the business students are driven by external measures of success:

“I observed that both groups use oppositional strategies when it comes to career planning. The business students use pretty much an outside-in strategy creation technique: They look at the job market and identify jobs or industries that are most attractive to them for reasons like high salaries, demanding tasks, challenging activities and good development opportunities. These are often industries like management consulting and investment banking. Then they look for the job requirements in those fields. Based on this analysis they develop a strategy that enables them to fulfill these requirements. It includes choosing a good university, studying a lot, going on exchange, learning new languages, engagements in lots of extra-curricular activities, internships, etc. In other words: They become what the high-potential job market wants them to be.”

The artists on the other hand follow an inside-out strategy development procedure. They look at their skills, talents and passions – at what they are good at and what they like doing. Then they start developing those skills and start working on different performances. In the end they hope that somebody likes what they do and that they will be able to earn money with their art. In other words: They become what they want to be and hope that the market likes it.

Addressing existential questions

While it is not always addressed explicitly by those criticizing business education, I would say that not addressing these kinds of questions seems to be one of the most serious problems. If the students do not know or trust their own passion, their drive, they will continue to look outside for rewards; which creates a lot of the problems we have in society today. Apart from themselves, and those around them, being unhappier than necessary. Further, as a society, we might miss a lot of entrepreneurs and innovators. Business students are often talented and ambitious, and it is a shame and a waste if we do not use that talent and ambition in productive ways. Giving attention to the passion of the students and making sure they find their motivation therefore seems to be of uttermost importance in business education. And I would go so far as to say that the main outcome of this course was the addressing of these existential questions about who you are and who you want to be.

Multiple framing became an obvious theme throughout the course, since the business students and the circus artists came from so different backgrounds and since we deliberately worked with presenting perspectives from both the academic and practical business world. And a reflective exploration of meaning became the main outcome, as has been shown above, since there were so many questions about passion and drive; what you want to do in your life, which path you choose and why, and what you can contribute with and how you become happy, etc.

Perhaps their concern about the future also has to do with where they are heading. If business schools used to educate managers, today most students are heading for careers as consultants or bankers, and their contribution to society might be less clear. One can ask whether the search for meaning also has to do with business education becoming less meaningful, in the eyes of the students themselves and others. Running a simple course such as this one does not accomplish it all, but it is at least a small step in the right direction.

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