The Goal, and the Game

I recently had the pleasure and privilege of taking an introductory clown workshop with the amazing Shannan Calcutt (Clown and Comic Act Designer at Zumanity by Cirque du Soleil) alongside a dozen other Cirque du Soleil performers.

The aim was to get outside of our comfort zones and be introduced to new concepts of performing that we may not already be familiar or experienced with, all while having a lot of fun.

I went in hoping to better myself as an artist. What I didn’t expect was that this workshop would leave me feeling a better, fuller person off the stage as well.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that EVERYONE should take a clown workshop at some point in their life. It’s a safe and fun way to begin to break down your inhibitions, follow your impulses, and learn to connect with the people around you (areas we all could stand to improve).

There were several epiphany moments for me over the course of the workshop, but in this post I want to focus on the concept of “the goal, and the game”, what it means to a clown, and what it means for you.

I believe that understanding and applying this concept can help anyone to live with more direction, more connection, and more joy in their daily life.

What is “the Goal, and the Game”?

We stood in a circle. Our instructor asked for two volunteers to come into the center. I was one of the lucky idiots who immediately jumped in.

My partner and I were given two pieces of fabric and told to put them in the back of our pants so they hung out like a tail.

“Ready? Good. Now the first person to get the other’s tail wins. Go!”

We scrambled, each trying to protect our tail, but hoping to snag the other’s as quickly as possible. I went for a dive and roll. The tail was mine. I’d won. The whole thing lasted maybe 10 seconds.

“Good job.” our instructor said. “Was that fun?”

We both shrugged. “A little.”

“How about for you guys?”, she asked the rest of the group.

“Meh”

“That’s what I thought…”

She then introduced us to the idea of “the goal, and the game”, explaining how we could have made the whole thing so much more fun, both to play and to watch.

“You did exactly what I asked. You grabbed the tail. That was the goal. But what about the game? You could’ve made the chase way more fun. You both could have enjoyed it more, and let us all enjoy it more, before you achieved your goal. It was over too quickly. And you forgot to play with the rest of us. We’re still here, even though you two are playing. Remember to take care of your audience, too. Alright, who wants to go next?”

Aha! We’d completely missed the point. (That happened to me a lot in this class.)

Now that we understood the exercise, each successive group tried doing things a little differently, always conscious of creating a game for themselves and the audience. Some danced. Some chased each other like cartoon characters. Other’s tied each other up with their tails.

At one point, a group brought all of us into their game, and got so carried away in the dance number they’d created that they completely forgot about grabbing each other’s tails. This didn’t really matter at first, since we were all having fun. But, eventually it started to drag on. We weren’t sure what to do next. Our instructor intervened again.

“You guys have made a fine game here, but you forgot about the goal. It was fun for a while, but it started to get stale. We need a way to exit. Your audience is ready for a change, and they’re waiting for it, and you’ve missed a few great opportunities to resolve the game. It’s important to know how to listen, and to balance the goal with the game.”

Balance was the tricky part.

But, while finding this balance may be easier said than done, just knowing that we should be trying to find the balance was already a major breakthrough.
I believe that this idea applies as much to our pursuits off stage as it does to creating an effective clown act.

When my group had gone first, we didn’t really know what to expect. We were given a goal so we achieved it as quickly as we could. We’d focussed entirely on the goal, and forgot about the game.

The later group did the opposite. They were so focussed on creating a game that they completely forgot about the goal. Eventually we started to lose interest (including the clowns themselves). They’d focussed entirely on the game, and forgot about the goal.

So how do you find the right balance?

Let’s look at what balancing the goal and the game means for a good clown act, and then how the rest of us can apply this concept.

What does “the goal, and the game” mean to a clown?

A clown has an act to perform, and an audience to perform it to. They need a goal so that they can create a story, and they need a game to keep things interesting for themselves and everyone watching.

Their goal could be anything; maybe they are trying to pack for a trip, or put out a fire, or get a date (or get rid of their date) etc… the important thing is that their goal must be clear, both to themselves and to the audience. Once their goal is clear, they can begin looking for ways to achieve it.

If we know clearly what the clown’s goal is, then as an audience we can find much more enjoyment in watching them struggle to achieve it, especially if they try to do it in strange and unexpected ways. But if they achieve it too quickly and easily, the audience and the clown are both cheated. The audience has nothing interesting to watch, and the clown has nothing interesting to do. That’s why we need a game.

The game is always on. It’s establishing the goal, it’s achieving the goal, it’s everything that comes between. It’s not just the clown’s attempts to solve their problem, but also any side moments they have with their audience and/or other players on stage. The game doesn’t always have to be funny, but it definitely has to be interesting. Otherwise, the audience will tune out (and the clown just might, too).

But, even a great game will eventually start to get stale. Both the clown and audience will look for a way to bring the game to a close, which brings us back to the importance of the goal.

If a goal has been clearly established, then the clown can resolve the act at any time by achieving it. When the clown achieves their goal, the audience knows that the act has come to a conclusion (or at the very least, that a chapter of the act has come to a close), because they were given the expectation early on that this was the moment they were waiting for. Now everyone can move on to the next thing, together.

The key is to feel the pulse of the audience to avoid ending the game too early or too late. Why end something quickly if everyone is enjoying it? Why drag something on needlessly if no one is into it?

Ideally, you would keep the game going as long as everyone is enjoying it, and move on just before it gets stale.

That is balancing the goal and the game, for a clown.

But, if you’re not a performer, you might rightly be wondering, “how does this affect me?”

What does “the goal, and the game” mean to you?

Well, like clowns, all of us have goals which we wish to accomplish, often many at a time. We also have a need for enjoyment and engagement.

But, how often in our regular lives do we work without joy, trying to get something done as quickly as possible so we can move on to the next thing (and rush through it, too)?

I know that I’m guilty of this.

That’s exactly what happened when I went first in the clown exercise I outlined earlier in this post. I took the literal instructions for our game and got it done as quickly as I could. In the end, I had nothing to savour (and neither did the rest of the class). I finished my goal, but I didn’t enjoy the pursuit.

What a boring way to live life, don’t you think?

I mean, sure, if you focus purely on executing tasks you are likely to be a relatively productive person… but a happy person?

In our everyday lives it is important to remember to find the game, and not just move mechanically from one goal to the next. And finding the game doesn’t necessarily mean finding time to play outside of your work. The game can be your work. Remember, the game is always on.

In a sense, finding the game really just means being present. It means looking for opportunities for joy, and then enjoying them as they arise. For a clown it also means recognizing opportunities for connection with others, and not shying away from them when they present themselves. We should all live this way.

Every single day, we are gifted with countless opportunities to connect, and to find joy in our current circumstances (whatever they may be). Even when things don’t go as planned, this often leads to happy accidents we may miss if we aren’t careful.

If we’re too busy looking forward to “that next thing we need to do”, we will miss these opportunities for enjoyment again and again. On the other hand, if we completely forget about “that next thing we need to do”, then we can also miss great opportunities to bring ourselves closer to achieving it.

Good clowns hate missed opportunities.

Keep your mind on the goal, and get things done.
Keep your mind on
 the game, and keep things fun.

For me, this concept is still sinking in, and I find I’m having to constantly bring my attention back to my goals, and also remind myself to focus on the game that’s always on (ie. life). But, as with many concepts, it’s one thing to hear it explained in class, but the real work starts when you begin to apply it outside the classroom. You have to live it.

I highly, highly recommend that you take at least a moment to reflect on the concept of the goal and the game, and how it applies to your own life. With a little bit of reflection, and a lot of practice, we can all live with clearer direction (remembering our goals), while also giving due attention to the present moment and the joy can be found in our simple interactions there (remembering to play the game).

To boil it down as much as possible, the concept can be summarized as follows:

Live with intention. (the goal)
Know what you want. Have a goal, and keep it in your mind. If you stray from it, don’t stray for too long.

Live in the moment. (the game)
Don’t rush through the game. Take the necessary time to enjoy life’s wonderful surprises. Connect.

Find the balance between these two things and you’re golden. Simple, right?

Well, simple doesn’t always mean easy…
But, hey… If a clown can do it, anyone can!


As always, I hope you found this article to be useful. If you make the effort to apply this concept of balancing the attention you direct toward your goals, with the attention you pay to your present moment interactions, I am sure you will agree that this is more than just a concept for clowns!

Please share this article with your friends on social media (or in person)!

Note: the quotes are loosely paraphrased from memory, and the explanations in general reflect my understanding of this concept, rather than Shannan’s exact words. I hope that I’ve done justice to this excellent concept which I believe to be so important.

To find out more about Shannan and her work, check out her website: http://www.shannancalcutt.com/
If you ever get a chance to take a clown workshop, especially with Shannan, DO IT! I can’t recommend it strongly enough!

2 Replies to “The Goal, and the Game”

  1. Fantastic post! Really enjoyed where this went and how you applied a simple clowning principle to a bigger picture. Loved it! As Jon Mayer once pointed out, at the end of the day it’s how you apply what you learn/ observe is what separates you from the field. So kudos on that. Had wanted to comment before to your impostor post but my struggle/practice of CrossFit movements kind of pales to that of a performer and the world’s 3rd fittest man. Lol. Looking forward to your next post!

    1. Hey Brent! Thanks for commenting, and sorry I was so slow getting back to you.
      You (and Jon Mayer) are absolutely right that to rise above the field it’s crucial to do more than just learn, but to apply, apply, apply.
      The cool thing is that often you can apply the things you learn in areas that may at first appear unrelated. It’s amazing how often we learn something valuable, but fail to see how it can be applied to another area of our life where it might be very useful, simply because we didn’t learn it with that end in mind. There’s a tendency to only use what we learn in the same contexts that we learn them in (eg. remembering a key lesson you learned from your guitar teacher only when you pick up your guitar, although it might be valuable to you in business as well, or some other facet of your life). However, if you break outside of that box, and look for ways to apply each lesson as broadly as possible, you can stretch the benefits of everything you learn much farther.
      Cheers, Brent. To your success!

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