Be willing to look like an idiot. If you only ever want to look cool and confident, that can be easily achieved…as long as you don’t want to do anything great. If you’re worried about looking cool, you’re not making good work as an athlete and you’re not going anywhere as an entrepreneur. No one owes you their attention, in both performance and business it’s your job to engage the audience. Be willing to make mistakes.
As a part of our series about the work ethic lessons we can learn from professional athletes, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rachel Strickland.
Rachel is an aerial acrobat turned business coach to artists and creative entrepreneurs. Classically trained in ballet since the age of three, she began her study of circus arts in 2007, developing a unique style and innovative approach to aerial hoop. Her work brought her international recognition, and she has coached, performed, and choreographed on four continents.
Over the course of this time she recognized a major disconnect in the career projections of working artists; passion and drive were in abundance, but the support in self-development, promotional systems, and sustainable business practices, was lacking. She created The Audacity Project, an 8-week guided process to equip artists and creatives with the tools necessary to be working professionals. Over her 11 year career as a coach, she has guided hundreds of artists through the creative process and into their own entrepreneurial journeys towards creating sustainable, lucrative businesses out of their passions, whether full time or as a side hustle.
Given to excess and quixotic tendencies, Rachel specializes in aerial hoop choreography and the practice of telling stories. She lives in Charleston, SC with her husband, Shaun. They have no children so don’t ask, but they would like to meet your dog.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! It is a great honor. Our readers would love to learn more about your personal background. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
Of course! I grew up in a small town in the piedmont of North Carolina. My hometown is the kind of town you drive through on the way to somewhere else. We lived out in the county on a repurposed turkey farm; a rural neighborhood where us kids ran feral in the woods. We had to drive an hour to get to a movie theater. It was a great way to grow up.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career as a high level professional athlete?
My parents were always active- my dad was an All-American linebacker who still has some unbroken records in the Hall of Fame in Arkansas. My mom had gone to college on a majorette scholarship. They enrolled me in ballet class when I was three years old. I credit them entirely for giving me a perspective of possibility. The classical training I got over the next 15 years established a baseline of discipline and respect for a high standard of excellence. I saw a clip of Cirque du Soleil in the previews before a movie at age 18, and was ensorcelled by the power and strength of the artists. I wanted to join the ranks of those elite athletic artists. Unfortunately I believed at 18 I was much too old to begin in circus arts. At age 25, I changed my mind, and moved to San Francisco to train at the Circus Center.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
A mentor of mine is Chantal McCormick- the executive creative director and CEO of Fidget Feet Aerial Dance, which is the premier circus company in Ireland. Chantal is a human tornado of nonstop energy and vision. She is the kind of mentor everyone needs and so few meet- a friend, mother, and sister. She’ll point out in three words how you’re holding yourself back, lay out a brilliant plan to move forward, and then take you dancing til the wee hours. She is a force of nature.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your sports career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
While I was on tour with the Queensryche cabaret, I was performing a slack drop on aerial fabric. This drop is a free fall for around 10 feet of air, then you’re caught by the fabric around the hips and groin. I was rehearsing before the show to get the height right, and when I landed it I ruptured some tissue in my hips. It wasn’t a serious injury, but it was excruciating to the lightest touch. That night I had three extremely demanding acts to perform, each of which required a different costume, including very rough fishnet stockings. I don’t know what was worse that night…actually performing the drop that had caused the problem in the first place, or putting on the fishnets. What I learned was that a showgirl smile can hide any amount of discomfort, and that physiologically, it’s better than aspirin. I can’t say it was very funny at the moment.
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. Can you tell us the story of your transition from a professional athlete to a successful business person?
Over the course of my acrobatic career I noticed a glaring gap in the career projections of artist athletes- there was plenty of training available, but next to nothing in terms of support for succeeding as an artist, self promotion, and competent business systems. I was getting weary of the constant travelling that performing required, so I started staying home more, and mentoring other aerialists using what I’d learned from my own trial-and-error. This grew organically into a fully-formed coaching business where I got to participate in the journeys of athletes all over the world.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects new you are working on now?
I am hammering away at a novel about my experiences in circus- names will be changed to protect the guilty! Maybe. Writing was my first love, but circus stole me away for a very long time. It’s cathartic to finally be able to combine the two.
Do you think your experience as a professional athlete gave you skills that make you a better entrepreneur? Can you give a story or example about what you mean?
Absolutely it did. Questionable conditions, grueling tour schedules, and frequently subpar conditions coexist with the extreme physical demands of circus arts. The lessons learned from my life in the air were the best possible training for my life on the ground as an entrepreneur.
The first law of circus is discomfort. The old trope of “push through the pain” is a good way to get permanently injured. A circus artist has to develop the emotional and physical intelligence to differentiate pain from productive discomfort. That is an easy sentence to write, and a very difficult discipline to practice. This translates to entrepreneurship because we are constantly obliged to tow the line between productive discomfort and outright burnout- which, like an injury, can take months to recover from while it can be avoided with appropriate boundaries.
Circus makes you tough. It also teaches you, usually the hard way, that without boundaries in place your career is going to be cut short.
Ok. Here is the main question of our interview. Entrepreneurs and professional athletes share a common “hustle culture”. Can you share your “5 Work Ethic Lessons That Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Athletes”? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Quality of life is a better goal than money or physical goals. This goes back to what I was saying about boundaries. Because athletes and entrepreneurs will do whatever it takes to get the job done, they run the risk of burnout and injury. By nature we are willing to make any sacrifice on the altar of ambition, and aren’t as adept at listening to the signs of the body/mind that might be begging us to alter our ways for the health of the whole animal. Early in my career I was enjoying a prolific period of time. I was performing every weekend and most weeks; working with exciting new companies in beautiful venues, and travelling a lot. I remember walking into an exquisite ballroom in San Francisco to set up for the evening, and the stage had red velvet curtains, which has always been a lucky charm for me. I stood there in that gorgeous, historic hall, about to do the thing I loved more than anything, and I couldn’t bring myself to care at all. I had pushed so hard for so long, I didn’t have any juice left to enjoy the work anymore. I thought that was a dreadful waste, so I decided to put my quality of life as the first objective, rather than varied opportunities or financials. To my surprise, this did not limit my growth, but it made me grow in a more strategic direction
- Office hours will save your life. The hustle culture of any athlete is real, but in circus arts it’s diabolical. You feel a constant pressure to be training, every day, every spare hour. Got a 20 minute break after lunch? Better train handstands. Are you waiting for the train? Better do some pushups. I’m not joking. Any physical therapist will tell you this is not conducive to a healthy body, and yet this internal script persists. Entrepreneurs are the exact same kind of animal in my estimation…any moment that is free, we feel we should be working, and we do. I decided to make a rule for myself that I could only train between 12pm-8pm, and never for more than 3 hours at a time. All the mental energy I was wasting feeling guilty was suddenly free, because I wasn’t ALLOWED to train all the time. I use this daily in my business- I won’t engage in business outside of the hours I’ve set for myself, I don’t even look at my inbox, because why tempt the workaholic gremlin with a juicy problem to solve?
- When Imposter Syndrome strikes, get angry. Both athleticism and entrepreneurship are fires that temper a rare steel. Even when you’re part of a team, you’re still alone because only you can do the work. This is the perfect environment for the gangs of Imposter Syndrome gremlins to come pouring out and feast upon your confidence. Anger is a great tool for cutting through them, much more effective in my opinion than platitudes of “I can do it.” Just imagine someone telling you you can’t have what you’re going after. Proving the naysayers wrong is a great motivation. When Imposter Syndrome strikes at my confidence, I just imagine someone from my hometown telling me to get a “real job” because I’ll never succeed at such a wild endeavor. It worked like a charm in physical training and it works like a charm in my own business. Anger is a good compass. It points to what you love.
- Reframe rejection as a success. Collect rejections- when you get to 10, buy yourself a massage or take yourself out to dinner. If you’re not getting rejected, you’re not trying hard enough. I’ve been rejected more times than you can shake a stick at, by companies that I thought I was a great fit for. Rejection can be the death of motivation, or you can use it to add fuel to the fire.
- Be willing to look like an idiot. If you only ever want to look cool and confident, that can be easily achieved…as long as you don’t want to do anything great. If you’re worried about looking cool, you’re not making good work as an athlete and you’re not going anywhere as an entrepreneur. No one owes you their attention, in both performance and business it’s your job to engage the audience. Be willing to make mistakes. Once I was playing a character who had to die onstage by drowning in a bathtub while pretending to enjoy a magazine of dubious quality. I was also playing a teenage boy at the time with false teeth. It was a very memorable role, and terrifying to execute when I was accustomed to playing the beautiful ballerina. After that, I wasn’t too afraid to play the fool in order to learn something new. Sometimes you release a product that falls flat, or a service that means a lot to you that no one wants. Collect these experiences. Honor them.
What would you advise to a young person who aspires to follow your footsteps and emulate your career? What advice would you give?
Ask for help! Don’t try to reinvent the wheel when you can benefit from the lives and expertise of those who came before you. It’s tempting to want to do it all on your own, but it’s also stupid. You don’t have time to waste. Employ coaches, mentors, ask for advice from people you respect.
You are by all accounts a very successful person. How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
The world of circus arts has been greatly impacted by COVID-19; while there is plenty of heartbreak around that, it is also an opportunity to correct some long standing failures. In particular, representation of BIPOC artists as well as LGBTQ+, trans, and nonbinary artists on stage has been deplorable. I wish to do my part to offer these athletes more opportunity by contributing to their funding, attending these productions, and offering scholarships to BIPOC artists who can benefit from the professional development of the Audacity Project.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
If I could take every aerialist by the hands and implore them to trust their instincts, I would. The world of performing arts is too often shaped by what an artist believes people want to see. This feeds into the underrepresentation I talked about earlier (which is more to the fault of the systemic structures of oppression) as well as wastes years that could be spent making new and innovative work by doing what we believe people want us to do. It doesn’t matter what people want you to do. It matters what you want to make.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
“Don’t go back to sleep.” It’s a repeated line in a poem by Rumi. I feel it encapsulates an elegant reminder not to get too comfortable or rest on our laurels.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them :-)
Ramit Sethi. I’ve been following him for years, and his advice shaped my business unmistakably. I’d like to thank him for that and then annoy him with questions about sports nutrition.