Rachael West

The Engineer Who Ran Away to the Circus

Integrating life with art with work

When I was eight I talked of running away to join the circus. By 15 I was far too serious to consider anything so frivolous, and enrolled in an engineering degree as a close alternative.

A decade after graduating, and following roles in organisational development, strategy, change, sustainability and even social enterprise, I found myself living out my eight-year-old dream by training with Greentop Circus in Sheffield.

For three months I swung on the trapeze, learnt to clown, and found a practical use for my love of handstands. In an end-of-course performance I sang Cows With Guns from the top of a corde lisse (a long, vertically-hanging rope) wearing high heels and a pink boa, and lifted a woman above my head as part of a Victorian acro-balance photoshoot.

My inner eight-year-old had been liberated! “You dominated that room,” a fellow student said to me after the show. “You could have said anything and that audience would have laughed”.

Going with what life throws at you

Sometimes there’s stuff you just can’t say no to, like my Mum’s chocolate mousse, tanned biceps or a jaunt with the circus. From time-to-time the universe, God or the person next to you at the bus stop hands you an opportunity that is so perfectly timed you know you can’t think about it long enough to let your sensible-brain tell you it’s wrong. When I knew I had a place in the circus course, I didn’t tell a soul until I had booked a train to Sheffield. I didn’t think about it. I just knew I had to go.

Running away to the circus was an impulsive leap of faith, yet it was a life experience to be merged with all the others, a new set of skills to bring to the world that were equally as valid as what I learnt as an engineer, project manager or facilitator. When the circus course ended, I developed and then co-facilitated a workshop I’d had in mind for some years: Clowning for Facilitators. In the session, facilitators use the play of clown to develop skills in reading and negotiating the energy in a room and understanding their physical presence in front of a group.

I was excited that circus school had given me the confidence to do this project. I was excited that my seemingly random circus adventure could be merged with The Real World and what I had learnt in my professional life.

When you don’t go with the flow

We tend to compartmentalise our lives. We separate our work self from the part of us that plays. The person we are when we are in love is not always the same person who arrives each morning in the office.

When I worked as an engineer I wanted to change things, to make them better. My inner eight-year-old wanted to ask questions: “Why do we do things like that?” But that wasn’t the way that world worked and so the sensible teenager took over and tried to fit into their box. When the eight-year-old wanted her say she had to fight to be heard.

At 25 I was treated by a physician for what some people might call chronic fatigue or fibromyalgia. I was always tired, always sick and my body and brain wouldn’t do what I wanted them to. I couldn’t concentrate at work, and I didn’t have the energy to enjoy my life outside of work. My body was telling me that something wasn’t right.

That illness was the wake-up call to change my life. As well as learning to better care for my physical body, I embarked on a journey to find the balance between the me at work and the me that plays. I was looking for myself.

Life as art

The path from engineering to the circus has been a gradual one, which started with the kinds of tiny changes that my 15-year old self was happy with. I changed roles within the same company, and asked to do small creative projects that were a little outside my job description. As I became more comfortable, the changes became more daring. It has been a continuous journey of learning, exploring and integrating.

Clowning for Facilitators and the work that follows has been a partnership between my eight-year-old and her teenage comrade. With a touch of adult wisdom they both came of age.


Clowning for Facilitators is one part of my work in Strategic Creativity. In Strategic Creativity we find the magical space created when structure merges with play, to bring creativity and collaboration to traditional business practice. I’m also writing several books about developing the awareness and presence to take what life throws at you. If you’d like to read more, please start here.

One of my favourite references and inspirations for merging structure and play is Free Play – Improvisation in Life and Art by Stephen Nachmanovitch. You’ll be inspired.

Rachael West

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