Not my circus, not my monkeys

It can be easy in life to try and take on things that are not yours to control - so how do you stop yourself doing it? Our Head of Marketing Vanessa Taylor shares her thoughts.

One of my favourite sayings is “this is not my circus, and these are not my monkeys.”

I believe there is a lot of meaning behind these two simple statements. I find they are a concise way to tackle one of the big issues we have today – trying to control something that is not ours to control. 

Not my circus 

Think of the person in charge, the ringmaster. They direct performers, equipment, animals with practiced ease. They signal where people should be and what they should be doing. The team have all have agreed that they will pay attention to these messages. But, if someone else walks in and tries to conduct this same organised chaos, it would be a mess.

We have all done it – worried about our partner’s health if they don’t visit the doctor, suggest they do so only to be greeted with resistance. Tried to make our children wear a jersey when we are cold. Worried about other teams in our organisations underperformance, which constantly puts you in a bad mood – in turn affecting your colleagues who are now irritated by you and not the underperforming team.

So how do you stop it? Figure out if this is your circus.

Ask yourself:

  1. Am I the only one responsible for this situation?
  2. If I am the ringmaster, what’s going wrong here? 
  3. What are the possible ways to correct what’s wrong?
  4. What’s going right?

Sometimes everything is fine as far as the performers in the circus are concerned and everyone else is happy, it’s only you who is dissatisfied. Realising that you don’t like what is happening is not the same as identifying the problem. Giving up the role of ringmaster in someone else's circus might make your own circus much more manageable. 

Not my monkeys 

What if we don't try to take charge of the whole show but just a part of it? The ringmaster directs, but each animal trainer has a specific job. The lion tamer does not train the elephants and whoever trains the elephants is probably not training the monkeys. You are part of the circus and you want it to go well, but you cannot do every job. 

‘Not my monkeys’ lets you know you are not responsible for other people. It’s best if you know what part of the circus to perform in and which to not. Remember which monkeys yours are. 

Sometimes things don’t always make sense to us and we try to fix problems, train people or manage others in a way we think is best or when we shouldn’t really be at all. 

If it is your job to layout a document but you decide to manage a contributor's ‘monkeys’ by helpfully rewriting the content of their article, you will not only make more work for yourself, but you will annoy the person who wrote the article you are rewriting. 

If you ‘help’ your child by doing their homework because they are too slow or won’t make it neat enough, you won't be helping them learn or do better. Their performance is up to them – you are there for support. 

Let the people in your life do their own work - it’s ok if it’s not the way you might do it. Whether they succeed or fail is their responsibility, not yours. 

So how will you find out if they are your monkeys? Ask yourself:

  1. Is this my responsibility? 
  2. What exactly am I responsible for? (Which monkeys are mine?)
  3. Who is the ringmaster? (To whom am I accountable?)
  4. Am I doing my own work or taking over work that others are responsible for?

Learning to let others do their part and let them succeed or fail is the best outcome for all. Most of us learn more from our mistakes than from our successes. Being empowered to do our own part of a task helps us learn it, as we see what part we have mastered and what monkeys we still need to train. 

The next time you find yourself in a conflicting situation, ask yourself: 

Is this my circus? Are these my monkeys?

Vanessa Taylor is’s Head of Marketing. Vanessa believes there is no such thing as 'because that's the way we do it'. "Let's break the process, keep it simple, automate if possible and do it all for our customers". This article first appeared in M2Woman magazine.

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