‘It’s never an experience wasted…’

By Azra Farzana Shuib

He left his exciting, risky and thrilling job as a circus acrobat to venture into the field of business and economics. He has a degree in biology, physics and astrophysics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and has served The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as a space researcher. Looking smart and confident on stage delivering his talk at the National Leadership Symposium at IIUM Main Audi on 24 October, there’s no doubt this person has left a very positive impression. The audience broke into rapturous applause.

McKinsey and Co. consultant and former art director of Cirque de Soleil, James Tanabe has inspired the audience on his talk under the theme ‘Leadership’. He made the hard decision to leave the life of an acrobat and artist in 2011. Since then, many people have asked a lot of questions why he had decided to do so.

“But what people never asked me is what are some of the lessons that I have learned from the ten years in the arts that has helped me in the world of economics and business?” he said.

James Tanabe grew up in Hawaii in a family that values education. His grandfather worked hard in Hawaii and supported his father until he became the first in family to graduate from high school at that time. Although Tanabe’s family was aware of his passion in acrobatics, they decided that going to university for him was an essential part of education. Thus, Tanabe went to MIT.

According to Tanabe, at that time he blamed his father for everything that made him felt unhappy in his life as his passion was still in music, acrobatics, dance, martial arts and the like. At MIT, he joined the gymnastics team.

Despite having an injury in early 2000s and was told that his acrobatic activity would be finished, he trained for six months to get to the level of being able to join the National Circus School of Canada. Some 1,000 people were auditioned and he was accepted in spite of being the oldest of his comrades.

Tanabe stressed the lessons that he has learned from the arts are applicable to the fields of business. “What you are going to experience a lot is hunger and pain,” he said.

“In case of circus school, literal hunger and pain – going to bed hungry, because you can’t eat all you want to or your body will not function the way it should be. And waking up in pain – there is a saying in circus, that if an acrobat wakes up in the morning, and not feeling pain, it is because they’re dead.”

According to him, the same thing applied in business, economics and sustainability. He said there will be a different type of hunger, and different type of pain that one will feel.

“If you don’t have the passion to get through that, you would have to think about how long you will be able to sustain your career in this field.”

He then talked about the Control vs. Chaos principle, in which he made reference to his acrobatics tricks; if one would process the physics behind all the tricks, then he wouldn’t be able to react in the moment, and end up landing on the head several times.

To him, in order to succeed, one thing one needs to do is to take the leap of faith, instead of trying to have everything in control. He said, “To be able to jump off a platform, turn yourself multiple times in the air, and twist yourself multiple times in the air, and trust yourself that you’re going to land on your feet. Do you have the confidence in yourself to take these leaps of faith?”

He drew attention to the idea of Dynamic Stasis, where he showed the audiences a video of his performance of the two-hand stand. “Everybody applauds when I do the fall and when I do the backflip, when in fact, the hardest part of that trick is getting up there in the first place. Once I am there, everything else happens on its own.”

He added: “This is so much like building a business. So much like trying to build a sustainable enterprise; the hard part is building the reputation, building the authority, building the network around you, and getting the people to be passionate about your goal. And once you have that there, everything else happens on its own.”

When he wanted to start a business, he went to Tokyo to work on his project. To a certain extent he was homeless and even ran out of money to buy a plane ticket back home. One of the reasons was that his project was constantly being delayed. He slept in a 24-hour gym, waking up in the morning for meetings, then to gym again to shower and train, and he would sleep in the corner of the gym. However, the situation did not extinguish his passion.

“You’ll be surprised that once you get to that point where you lost everything, and how much you are capable of achieving it. And you’ll never be afraid again to lose everything because you know you are able to build things up from that place you’re so afraid of to get to.”

His company eventually got off the ground, and it was called New Circus Asia.

Tanabe ended his talk with a story on the last conversation he had with his grandfather in 2008. He told the audience that at that time, he was afraid that his grandfather would be disappointed of his decision to venture into arts. To his surprise, his grandfather was supportive of him, and even told him that one of his dreams when he was young was to become a circus performer, and travel around the world. His grandfather never told that dream to anyone.

“At several points, we assume what people around us expect and want from us. And at some points, that may be more of a reflection of our own fears than what the expectations really are,” Tanabe concluded.***



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