Unfortunately, it is my circus - help me make the least bad work choice
December 3, 2021 3:26 PM   Subscribe

I have tried, for the past several years, to find work at, let us say, a circus. It is the type of job that doesn't pay well, but lots of people want to do it. Over these years, I have volunteered at the circus and worked temp positions. I am currently being offered and sort-of-offered two very short temp positions under circumstances that mean that no matter what I do, I am going to let people down, people will be angry, and basically no good is going to come to me. More stupid details inside.

So, straining the metaphor here, this circus belongs to the city. It is a city that is particularly bad in terms of bureaucracy and things generally being set up to impede anyone trying to actually get something done effectively. Competence-based hiring is...optional. The circus in question is the only game in town - there are pretty much no amusement parks, fairs, or other circus-type jobs.

In my time with the circus, I have been completely and repeatedly unable to get hired for a permanent position, for a variety of reasons. However, in my temp jobs and volunteering I have established friendly relations and goodwill with many circus workers.

Currently, I am volunteering with, let us say, the lion taming act. They are very short-staffed, because half of the lion tamers are out for medical reasons. The city declined to extend my temp employment because of budget and Covid, but did let me come back to work for free, and the lion act is getting by that way. They have been, for some time, requesting a temp position so they could pay me again. These are the people I know best at the circus; I see some of them socially outside work. It is extremely unlikely that they could ever hire me permanently, because I don't have a...lion taming certificate.

There is another act, the trained horse act. I have never worked for them for pay, but volunteered for them for quite a while. I like most of the horse act people. A couple months ago, the horse act supervisor asked me if I was interested in a three month half-time temp position, ending at the end of the year, as they are also very short-staffed. I felt bad leaving the lion tamers in the lurch, but even they agreed that it was unfair to expect me to work for free if I could work for pay. The horse act temp job might be renewed for some period in the new year, and eventually they will hire a permanent horse trainer. (One would think that if I did well as a temp that could be me, but they had several previous chances to hire me while I was volunteering and chose otherwise, so I suspect it would not be me.)

The way temp jobs work in this city, the period of the job starts at the moment it is approved by the city. This means that even if you have a candidate in mind and do your best to fast-track the whole process, you are going to lose some of the job period.

It is now December. The process is finally starting to install me in the horse act temp job. It's not totally impossible that I could start next week, but it could be the week after. This job ends at the end of December.

The director of the circus now tells the lion tamers that their request for a temp position is probably going to come through. However, there's no way to know for certain, or when. This job would end in February.

Apparently (according to lion tamer who talked to Circus Director) the overall animal act supervisor is going to call me and tell me that it's up to me to choose whether to take the horse act job or turn it down and wait in hopes of a lion taming job. The horse act people were rumored to have a second candidate (did they? who knows?) who they would be extremely unlikely to be able to install before the end of the year if I bail on them. The lion tamers don't have anyone else suitable, as far as I can tell. If I turn down the horse act people, that would presumably take the odds that they'd hire me permanently down from 3% to 0%, and the horse act workers will be mad at me for not coming to help lighten the horse poop shoveling workload.

The only possible solutions I have thought of so far are:

1) Move far away so I never have to see anyone I know from the circus again.
Downside: rude to my husband.

2) Burn all of my bridges at once by sending a polite email to the circus director, the animal act supervisor, the horse act supervisor, and the lion tamer supervisor pointing out that this is not a reasonable situation to put me in and asking if they would like to get together and choose the best allocation of resources for the good of the circus.
Downside: this is what I would do in a sensible, professional situation, but this is not a sensible, professional situation. At least some of these people would probably be annoyed, and none of them are likely to have a suggestion other than "it's on you to decide".

3) Take the horse act job and hope the lion tamer job isn't approved until after the end of the year, at which point I could go take it for a few weeks.
Downside: city will probably somehow manage to approve the lion tamer job promptly. Horse act people will still be mad if I bail on a possible extension.

Please help me think of a choice 4 that is not going to ruin everything between me and the circus. I have worked very hard to try to join the circus, and this is all making me miserable.
posted by LadyOscar to Work & Money (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I am reminded of the guy who cleans up after the elephants at the circus who cheers himself up by saying "At least I'm in show business!" This sounds like a terrible situation all around. It also sounds like if there's a way the circus could screw you over (more than it already has), it will.

I suggest imagining a future in which you don't care that you have ruined everything between you and the circus. What would you do then? How could you apply your circus-related experiences to a non-circus workplace?
posted by adamrice at 3:34 PM on December 3, 2021 [12 favorites]

Best answer: I am going to let people down, people will be angry, and basically no good is going to come to me.

Seems to me like folks understand you are in a tough spot, especially since you've been lion taming for free. Go do the horse act. It's a sure thing that's paid, even if it's only for a few weeks. Given the high levels of incompetence or at least muddled bureaucracy, it seems unlikely that the lion tamers can fast track this all when they're so understaffed and it's the holiday season in many parts of the world.

I don't know if your circus is a library, but I can say, as someone with a lot of time working in libraries, that I have seen incredibly talented folks not be able to find full-time, regular positions because of the complications of library budgets, hiring practices, credentials, etc. So, I want to say, which I think you know: this isn't about you or your abilities. It does sound sucky. Good luck.
posted by bluedaisy at 3:52 PM on December 3, 2021 [14 favorites]

Is it sad that I also read this as a library job? I’d take the one that may possibly hire me without an MLS or just quit the library scene altogether and go work retail somewhere I like.
posted by advicepig at 4:04 PM on December 3, 2021 [6 favorites]

Could we please stop trying to ID the job?

For the OP- is there a recruiting process for the Lion Tamer job? Because that would add weeks to timeline.
Are you sure the Horse Act job ends on December 31? What happens then— do they have to start a new recruitment process with new funding?
These are some questions to ask the Supervisor when they call you.
Remember this is a two-way discussion- you are allowed to ask questions so that you can make an informed decision.
You should not be judged for prioritizing paid work over non paid work. Decent managers and co-workers will understand.

I know a few folks who moved to new departments for extended parts of their career before being able to circle back to their profession and some who decided to stay in the new department.
posted by calgirl at 4:39 PM on December 3, 2021

Best answer: I think however you decide, you need to keep reminding yourself that you did not create this situation and are not responsible for it. If both of these jobs are only a few weeks or months, it doesn't really matter which one you do. Do the one that you either like better or can learn something useful.

And dump all your guilt. Just set it down. It is not yours to carry. Refuse to pick it back up. Do the best you can in what you choose, and let the rest go.
posted by emjaybee at 4:53 PM on December 3, 2021 [16 favorites]

Best answer: I love this circus analogy, btw.

Take the bird in hand. Do not want on hopes or promises about another job. Period.
posted by jenfullmoon at 4:59 PM on December 3, 2021 [17 favorites]

Best answer: If the horse act supervisor and the lion act supervisor are at all decent human beings, they will understand that you have to do what makes sense for you economically, and not treat it as burning a bridge.

I am in a situation where hiring is slow and bureaucratic and I can't pay people what I wish I could pay them. I understand that people need to take opportunities that are better for them, and the person to blame isn't the person who backs out from the job at the last minute, or who resigns without sufficient notice, it's the institution. The horse act supervisor and the lion act supervisor may not be decent human beings. Nevertheless: the fault is not with you, it's with the institution.

I would take the horse act job.
posted by Jeanne at 5:22 PM on December 3, 2021 [6 favorites]

I would take the horse job, and when I did I would make it clear I was really hoping for a permanent position. When taking the job I would ask them to tell me what qualities and attributes they would be looking for in a permanent hire and how could I best develop and demonstrate those as I carried out my temp duties. Then whatever they say, do that to the maximum.
posted by hazyjane at 6:20 PM on December 3, 2021 [4 favorites]

Building on what hazyjane says: if you take the horse job, and then the lion job opens up, you haven't actually stomped off in a huff: you're still under the Big Top, and are an internal candidate.

Take the horse job, choice #2.
posted by wenestvedt at 7:24 PM on December 3, 2021 [4 favorites]

I read this as a library job as well... The bottom line is how do you not let yourself down through all of this? What do you ultimately want to get out of these circus jobs? It sounds like you're just doing them for fun(?!?) with the volunteering and temp nature of the whole thing. If you enjoy what you're doing, then, by all means, keep doing it. If, on the other hand, you want to make steady money and have a permanent job, leave the circus. It's not worth staying with an employer that's dicking you around this much. They want to hire you for 2 weeks!? And you're worried about hurting people's feelings!!?? If you absolutely need the money and there is nothing else out there, take the horse training gig. If you don't need the money, don't feel bad about turning it down. The last two weeks of December are the worst time to work of the whole year. Seriously, what you're going through sounds like a circus, and if I were you, I would get out. Lion taming skills are transferable.

It sounds to me like it's time to cut your losses with the circus and step away for a while. I think option 4 would be to politely email your "supervisors" that you will be stepping away from the circus to [insert excuse here]. You could say you are taking care of an ongoing health issue (stress) or say you are pursuing full-time, long-term opportunities elsewhere. You hope to look for opportunities with the circus in the future when all the covid uncertainty has settled down. This is one of those situations where you can say "something has come up and that just won't be possible." And if that burns bridges, I don't think there's anything you can do to stop it. Put your own oxygen mask on first.
posted by DEiBnL13 at 8:55 PM on December 3, 2021 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Commenting on a few things....

adamrice, you are completely correct that bailing on the whole circus would be a more sensible thing to do, but that's a different question that I haven't quite gotten to facing yet, especially because my circus skills are not very transferrable due to the lack of other amusements in town.

Wow, I spent half my childhood in the library, and the more I hear about the library job situation, the more glad I am that I didn't try that line of work. (Though, the circus is where I spent the other half of my childhood, so that's obviously not much of an improvement.)

The animal act supervisor is someone who has implied-promised things to me (and other people) before, then not followed through. The horse act...ringmaster...is someone I like and respect, and they were cagey when I talked to them about the possibility of them eventually hiring me permanently, I assume because they didn't want to lie to me.

hazyjane would be right about trying to find out what they're looking for and emphasizing that with my temp job work, but in the specific case of the horse act people, I'm fairly sure what they're looking for is someone younger. Unfortunately, there is not much I can do about that. I could show I can do the work, and argue that the young people mostly leave, but I can't promise them 20 years. I think they're willing to hire me to shovel some horse poop temporarily only because they don't have time for a search process and they know I'll take a *cough* shitty job.

Normally I'd be fine (well, sort of fine) with them just using me for that, but the fact that I'd be missing out on paid lion taming and disappointing the lion tamers, who have done significantly less jerking me around, makes me sad. However, if I don't take the horse act job, then I can't really even apply for any future horse act positions, since they could just say, "if you really wanted to work with horses, you'd have taken our temp job, even though you did not have reason to trust our good faith!" (I love horses, and while the whole circus thinks I'd rather lion tame because it's more intellectual and less physical due to...lion poop being lighter, I really would be very happy working with the horses in a real capacity.)
posted by LadyOscar at 8:59 PM on December 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

Honestly? At this point, I think you're so boxed in that this is an unproductive line of questioning.

You've repeatedly described the reasons that this situation won't get better, up to and including saying that you feel like you're being used. I think it would behoove you to try to brainstorm some avenues that don't hinge on an ongoing pursuit of a circus career, because it's clearly hurting you while not actually moving you toward a circus job.

Also, have you read Issendai's Sick Systems article? Because you probably should.
posted by sagc at 10:26 PM on December 3, 2021 [7 favorites]

You say it is extremely unlikely you will get a permanent lion taming job because you don't have a lion taming certificate. Their job offer is only theoretical at this point and may come to nothing. The horse people, on the other hand, have a concrete temp job for you *now* and presumably there is a higher chance of a real job there in the future because you're not missing a horse certificate?

Take the horse job.
posted by stillnocturnal at 1:08 AM on December 4, 2021 [3 favorites]

Take the horse job. Make a promise to yourself to never work for the circus for free ever again. You should not be feeling any guilt whatsoever for taking a paid employment offer when you are currently unemployed.
posted by emd3737 at 5:36 AM on December 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

Your goal is to get a permanent job.

You expect the lion act people won't hire you due to lack of certificate.

You expect that the horse act people won't hire you due to suspected ageism. (Option 1a: get the horse act people to put that shit in writing and sue them.)

Option 5: figure out who WILL hire you (the trapeze artists??) and find a way to cozy up to them. Perhaps *that* could be your conversation with the Animal Act Supervisor.

Option 6: parlay your knowledge of the ins and outs of the circus into a consulting business or outside job... who supplies the circus? who wants to disrupt the circus business? is there a state agency that regulates it? which random circus attendees need to pay someone to navigate the circus's lost and found process? who writes reports about circus best practices? is there a circus industry association that would hire you remotely? could you start a blog or YouTube channel about behind the scenes at the circus?

Basically you need an end game, and it sounds like it's neither horses nor lions. I'm really sorry about that as it sounds like they'd be lucky to have you. But when you're honest with yourself, what's a realistic path to a job? I'm personally guessing that diversifying your circus experience might benefit a few paths above, but I don't know. (Alternatively, are there job credentials like Lion Certificate requirement can be waived with X years of Taming experience?)

Barring that, I think the worse bridge burning would be having let the horse people plan around hiring you and then not take it. You've already gotten the Okay From the lion people. I'd take it but tell Horses that you're really looking for a full time job. Then when the lion job gets posted, meet with the horse people and say "I'm considering applying. I know it's a temp job. I'm really looking for a permanent job with the circus. I'll be asking whether they see it going permanent. Do you see my employment here with YOU becoming permanent?" And apply for the lion job but say "I'm working with the horse department now. I'm really looking for a permanent job. Do you see a possibility of this becoming permanent?"

tl;dr Probably take the horse job but focus more on the long game of what will get you a permanent position
posted by slidell at 5:57 AM on December 4, 2021 [4 favorites]

Heh, it’s funny that people went to library, because of course I jumped to my own guess based on the idiosyncratic non profit space I inhabit. So many dysfunctional ones out there. Anyway, I think I agree with the advice to take the horse job, but also that both ageism and not being properly credentialed (especially the latter) will mean that the circus as a whole will feel free to keep using you to plug holes but won’t or can’t hire you permanently no matter how good you are. I know how hard it is but if you want steady work I think you have to leave the circus.
posted by PussKillian at 11:30 AM on December 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

Perhaps a nice zoo, then?

(I can't resist making the joke after all of this.)
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:21 PM on December 4, 2021

Best answer: If forced to come down on one particular course of immediate action, I'd concur with the "horse job" proponents.

But, and I'm trying to come up with a more-delicate way of asking this and failing... have you considered maybe not working for the circus?

I get it: you've always wanted to work in the circus. This is the only circus around, you've invested a huge amount of time and energy into learning how this circus functions, getting to know the various clowns and caged beasts and chicken-head-biting geeks and whatever. You have a passion for the circus and think that it serves an essential social function, even. Understood.

I would at least... entertain the possibility that maybe circus work, actually being a carney as it were, is just not for you. Or even if it is, you do not need to be for it.

Is non-circus employment available? I'm not saying, go immediately to the factory where they skin the naugas for Naugahyde, or something similarly ethically troublesome. But maybe there's just some sort of lower-stress, pays-the-bills sort of job. Something that might let you consider what about the circus really attracted you in the first place, and maybe give you the space to pursue something that scratches the same itch, like... facepainting. Balloon animal rehabilitation. Lion de-taming. Maybe something that serves a similar social function to the circus in your community.

I think a lot of us have had to decide, at one time or another, that it was time to leave the circus. And some of us have found that decoupling our economic well-being from our passion for the circus was not a bad move.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:28 PM on December 4, 2021 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you, everyone, for giving me such thoughtful answers for a situation that is very important to me, but is also obviously a first-world sort of problem. I'm going forward with the horse act job (assuming they can manage to process me before the end of the year); I had a good conversation with the horse ringmaster (the person I like). Your answers helped me see things clearly and get me to a better mental place.

Everyone is right that I would be better off seeking employment outside the circus. I had mostly reconciled myself to doing that with the idea of just lion taming as a volunteer occasionally on the weekends, but with Covid I had been procrastinating on addressing the difficult problem of "what on earth can I get hired to do that I might at least vaguely want to do and also be good at". The horse act/potential lion tamer offers upset that reconciliation.

Kadin2048, I suspect you have guessed the nature of the circus. Unfortunately, most of the circus-adjacent jobs I've been able to think of tend to also be low paying/reliant on volunteers/hard to get/easy to be abused at, and also in many cases they involve things I know I'm not good at. I'm very open to suggestions, though!

I used to have a different job, that paid decently and allowed me to donate money to a less-dysfunctional circus where I used to live in exchange for access; that was nice, and more sensible, but when my job left me, I wanted to take advantage of having a bit of a financial buffer in my middle age to try really being a part of things.

What's hardest to face is that I thought the problem in trying to join the circus would be that I couldn't do the work or wouldn't enjoy it, or that the other performers would hate me. Now I know that I can do the work and I do enjoy it and people seem to like working with me, so it just feels like such a waste to have to give up.

I guess I could always try to get a job at the library......
posted by LadyOscar at 8:49 PM on December 5, 2021 [1 favorite]

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