The 2 Most Powerful Lessons that P.T. Barnum Taught Us

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We know P.T. Barnum as one of the most celebrated and controversial showmen of all time. But he wasn’t a success right away. What can his rise to power teach us about how to be successful in our own careers?

We’ll cover the 2 most important lessons from the life of P.T. Barnum and how you can apply them in your own career.

Lesson #1: Protect Your Reputation

The young  P.T. Barnum didn’t have much of a reputation in 1841. To establish credentials as a showman, he decided to buy the American Museum in Manhattan and turn it into a collection of oddities that would make him famous. The museum’s board agreed to sell it to P.T. Barnum, but then reneged on the deal, selling it instead to Peale’s Museum, which had a strong reputation compared to P.T. Barnum’s.

Barnum decided that since he lacked a reputation his only recourse was to ruin Peale’s reputation. He launched a derogatory letter-writing campaign calling Peale’s finances into question, which caused the American Museum to again renege on a deal and to sell to P.T. Barnum.

Peale and Barnum then began attacking each other. Since Peale stressed its scientific exhibits in contrast to P.T. Barnum’s low-brow entertainment, Barnum in turn, attacked Peale’s popular hypnotism program by debunking hypnotism. He put a little girl into a bogus trance, which was so ludicrous that audiences didn’t believe claims of hypnotism anymore and Peale’s exhibit suffered. He bolstered his reputation for showmanship in the process, and Peale never recovered.

P.T. Barnum used two different tactics to ruin Peale’s reputation:

  • He spread doubts about the museum’s stability. Creating doubt by spreading rumors puts your opponents in a bind: They can deny them, but suspicions will linger, or they can ignore the rumors, which will gain momentum because they haven’t been refuted.
  • Once Barnum had developed a reputation for himself, he ridiculed Peale’s reputation through the fake hypnotism demonstration. Ridiculing an opponent hurts him and also creates attention for you, which boosts your reputation.

When P.T. Barnum wanted to change his reputation for promoting low-brow entertainment, he arranged an American tour for a high-class European singer, Jenny Lind.

What We Can Learn from P.T. Barnum

If you have an unflattering or negative reputation you can improve it by associating with someone of the opposite reputation. For instance, if you’re dishonest, insinuate yourself with an honest or respected person, if possible.

Apply the Lesson

Like P.T. Barnum, protect your reputation fiercely, anticipating and deflecting any attacks. However, don’t be defensive when under attack because you’ll look insecure and desperate. 

Attacking someone else’s reputation can be beneficial, especially if you attack someone more powerful than you are. The more powerful person has more to lose in an exchange, and if your reputation is negligible you present only a small target. 

You have to be clever in how you go about it, however — you don’t want to look petty or harm your own reputation in the process. But when you have a solid reputation you can subtly undermine your opponent’s with ridicule or satire, the way a lion toys with a mouse.

Lesson #2: Attract Attention

It doesn’t matter whether your image or appearance is controversial — any kind of attention is good. P.T. Barnum welcomed attacks and didn’t bother defending himself. He cultivated an image as a huckster.

P.T. Barnum learned a lesson about the value of notoriety when his first boss, who operated a circus, had him wear a black suit and stroll through town before the performance. People mistook P.T. Barnum for an infamous reverend recently acquitted of murder and soon formed a mob around Barnum and started attacking him. To prove who he was Barnum finally convinced the mob to follow him to the circus. P.T. Barnum’s boss revealed that he’d set Barnum up, and the circus was packed that night, with everyone talking about the joke.

Over the years, P.T. Barnum used similar schemes, starting rumors about his performers being fraudulent to draw audiences to his events. He also understood how doing something unusual or interesting drew people’s attention. To get people to visit his museum, he paid a man to walk up and down the streets and through the museum, randomly setting down and picking up bricks. People followed the man into the museum to see what he was doing.

When trying to generate attention for the first time, welcome negative attention. P.T. Barnum wrote letters to newspapers attacking his own work to keep his name in the public eye. Attention, good or bad, was the secret of his success.

What We Can Learn from P.T. Barnum

We judge everyone and everything by appearances; what we can’t see doesn’t count. Make sure you stand out from the crowd. Portray yourself as larger, more mysterious, and more exciting than anyone around you.

Apply the Lesson

Like P.T. Barnum, attract attention by being controversial and outrageous. Welcome scandal. Don’t differentiate between positive and negative attention — it all enhances your power.

Attracting attention doesn’t come naturally to many people. You have to learn how to do it.  Start by associating your name and reputation with something that makes you stand out from others. It could be a clothing style, hairstyle, mannerism, or quirk that gets you noticed and talked about.

Society relishes those who are larger than life like P.T. Barnum, people who stand out from the crowd. So don’t hesitate to adopt qualities that draw attention. It’s better to be controversial and be attacked than ignored. No matter what your profession is, you’ll benefit from being a showman.

If you’re stuck in a position with little visibility, you can get attention by attacking someone more famous or powerful than you. Once you’ve grabbed the spotlight, you have to keep changing your methods or people will take you for granted and stop paying attention to you, or be distracted by someone new.

The 2 Most Powerful Lessons that P.T. Barnum Taught Us

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Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn is a writer and reading specialist. She’s published dozens of articles and book reviews spanning a wide range of topics, including health, relationships, psychology, science, and much more. Amanda was a Fulbright Scholar and has taught in schools in the US and South Africa. Amanda received her Master's Degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.

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