Moving Beyond Fear: a Conversation with Chris Gatti, the Academic Acrobat

“One lesson I learned from years of gymnastics and research: if you put in enough time, things are going to happen.”

Chris Gatti is an acrobat with a Ph.D. in Machine Learning and a career philosophy we could all embrace.

We are lucky to have Chris as a friend and our community mentor. We recently sat down with him for a conversation on purpose and redefining careers. Here is an excerpt from our conversation:

Chris, you have a fascinating (and some may say unusual) background. Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I was a gymnast from age 5 all the way through college, where I competed for one of the top ranked teams while getting my degree as a mechanical engineer. After graduating from the University of Michigan, I worked in biomechanical engineering research for about 3 years before starting my Ph.D. I had stopped competitive gymnastics after graduating college, but never stopped training, growing and playing in the gym, and my gymnastics exploration continued through my graduate studies.

In fact, the pull of the acrobatics was so strong that I began imagining a career as an acrobat several years in to my Ph.D. studies. In a twist of fateful timing, I was offered a Cirque du Soleil contract on a Monday, defended my thesis dissertation on Tuesday, signed my circus contract that Friday and was in Montreal training with Cirque du Soleil two weeks later.

A lot of people feel frustrated when they are pulled by their passions in two very different directions, yet you’ve been able to build a career that fits both. Did you always think this would be possible?

Early on in college, I was set on engineering, because that’s the only path I saw around me: go to college, get a degree, get a job.

Later, I saw my friend perform in a Cirque du Soleil show in Montreal and that set a ‘performing’ bug in my head, but I still thought I have to choose one path over the other: choosing to perform and setting engineering aside.

About two years ago I realized that I could entertain multiple paths. When I was in academia, people were putting me in an ‘academic’ box. The same was happening in the circus: “You’re an artist and that’s all you’re good for.” When I started pursuing independent projects, I no longer had to accept the dogma of being put in a box. Even though it can cause anxiety and uncertainty, independence — the absence of labels — is a good way forward for someone like me with seemingly disconnected interests.

“A slow revolution is happening all around us: there’s a shift from earning money to actually being happy with what you’re doing. People don’t want to just settle anymore.”

Chris performing a handstand at one of our sessions.
Chris performing a handstand at one of our sessions.

How do you find the courage and the support to build a career so unique to you? (Doubters would say a career should be about financial gain and not about feeding your authentic self.)

I was unhappy doing what was considered ‘normal’ in engineering and in the circus. I no longer wanted to compromise my interests to fit a certain label, so I set on this path. Yet, even now I wonder if this combination of academics + artistry and being independent will work.

Doing things this way is terrifying because there is no community around it (read: no one is really doing academic research as an acrobat), there is no support in grants etc. But, there are a few things that have helped me along the way.

First, I have a skill that I’m extremely well versed in that other people want to learn. For example, I can go teach handstands anytime, making money doing what I like and spending the rest of the time pursuing other interests.

Second, what I do now is very rewarding. When I lead a handstand workshop and see how excited people are about what I’ve just taught them, it satisfies my need to help others. I’ll have something come up in one of my research directions that’s interesting and new — that makes me excited. I can head to the gym and continue to train and grow as an artist.

Finally, having a simple lifestyle where I don’t need much helps too. I can afford to devote time to things that might not be money-generating at the moment, but that I believe in, that are interesting, and that might lead to something in the future. A slow revolution is happening all around us: there’s a shift from earning money to actually being happy with what you’re doing. People don’t want to just settle anymore.

Of course, there’s uncertainty in the outcome of my projects. The progress can be slow and frustrating. But what I’m working on is interesting and engaging and those feelings overcome the anxiety (which, by the way, doesn’t go away when you start doing purposeful work. It just shifts from being about the things you don’t love to being about the things you do.)

Related: Why I Moved Across the Country for the Purpose Accelerator

People can get stuck in their fear of rejection or failure. Given your experience, how would you advise someone to move beyond those fears?

My athletic background helps me approach failing differently: I view it as learning instead. I fall a lot in the gym, and that means I’m getting information about how my body performs, about its limits. Things don’t always work out, but I’m still learning something in the process. Even if someone tells me “no” when I approach them for a project, I find new directions, cross things off a list, discover something new — it all counts as learning. Getting unstuck is really about the mindset: you can view an outcome as a failure or as learning.

“Getting unstuck is really about the mindset: you can view an outcome as a failure or as learning.”

The other aspect of it is patience. We all want to succeed quickly. One lesson I learned from years of gymnastics and research: if you put in enough time, things are going to happen. I know that there are hurdles with what I’m working on now as it’s not an established field. Being persistent and knowing that I’m working on what I want instead of compromising and going the ‘normal’ way makes a difference. Persistence. Time. Effort. Commitment. All those are key to sticking through the difficulties and making it work.


Final thought:

Doing anything different from a normal career is scary (even if there are a few other people who support you). The whole point of our programs is that we have a community of like-hearted people who are on a similar journey and are all going through the same fears and doubts. It’s a cliche, but it’s really ‘better together’ when it comes to pursuing your own unique path in this world.

Want to see Chris (the acrobat) and Jeff (our founder) in the live conversation? Check out the video below:

One thought on “Moving Beyond Fear: a Conversation with Chris Gatti, the Academic Acrobat

Leave a Reply