Flashback Friday: Flea Circus

‘How do you train them not to jump?’

‘For two months I keep them in a low jar.’ He reached behind him and retrieved a little screw-top container, about an inch and a half tall. ‘At first they jump and jump in there. I can hear them bang their little heads on the lid, bing, bing, bing. But after awhile they adjust. They still hop, a little; they just don’t leap. That’s when I take the lid off and they are ready to train for the circus . . . they’re not going to leap away.’

This is one of my favorite posts.  It originally appeared in early 2010.  I have more to say about it, but don’t want to spoil it for you , so I’ll save it ’til the end . . . 

I live 22 miles from the Mexican border and, like many Southern Californians, spend a lot of time in Baja.  One of my favorite drives is the Routa Del Vina — the wine route — that runs from Tecate in the North to Ensenada in the South.  This sixty mile stretch of highway winds first through mountains and then through dozens of Mexican wineries.  Yes, Mexico makes wine.  It’s generally not very good, but they’re working on it.

In the heart of the region, a dirt road takes off to the west from the highway and leads to a dusty little town called Ejido El Porvenir — Town of the Future.   It may have been the Town of the Future in about 1924, but nothing much has changed since then.  It’s mostly just dust and mud, dogs and farmers and tumble down houses, a small, humble church . . . and Beto’s Circo de las Pulgas — Beto’s Flea Circus.

Beto is a weathered old dude who, like everything in Ejido El Porvenir, is dusty.  He’s missing a few teeth but still manages a nice smile when guests stop by. For $4 US, he will lead you through the little house he shares with his granddaughter and her children to the workshop in back where he keeps his Circus.

The show is presented on the bottom of  a 2′ x 3′ corrugated cardboard box with the sides cut down to about an inch that he pulls from a shelf and sets on a rickety table in the middle of the dirt floor room.  He’s painted the box white — well, it was white, once —  and it functions as the stage for his little flea actors.  He’s got one that walks the tight rope, a few that will kick a tiny ball around, one that rides on the back of a green beetle, and three he harnesses to little carts and then implores to race from one side of the box to the other.  It’s both as silly and fascinating as you might imagine.

After the show, I sat a while, chatting with Beto, he using very bad English, me struggling through equally bad Spanish.  I learned he’s 73, been working with fleas for about 10 years, and took it up to pass the time after he became too old to be useful in the grape arbors.  He gets three or four paying visitors a week but also does free shows for the neighborhood kids who regard him as a funny kook.

‘So, how do you train fleas?’ I asked.

‘Es Facil,’ he replied; it’s easy.  ‘The hardest part is teaching them not to jump.  A flea can jump two, three feet normally.’

I pictured the house I listed 30 years ago in Atlanta.  It had just been vacated by tenants who had dogs and when I walked into the living room, I was bombarded by a hail of hungry fleas flinging themselves at me from the floor. Yes, fleas have very strong legs and they certainly can leap.  Why didn’t these fleas just leap away?

‘How do you do it?’ I asked, ‘How do you train them not to jump?’

‘For two months I keep them in a low jar.’  He reached behind him and retrieved a little screw-top container, about an inch and a half tall.  ‘At first they jump and jump in there.  I can hear them bang their little heads on the lid, bing, bing, bing.  But after awhile they adjust.  They still hop, a little;  they just don’t leap.  That’s when I take the lid off and they are ready to train for the circus . . . they’re not going to leap away.’

‘Wait a minute,’ I asked, skeptically, ‘You train their natural tendency to leap out of them?’

‘Sure,’ he said through that almost toothless smile.  ‘After a few weeks of hitting their heads on the lid, they learn to stop jumping, and they’ll never do it again.’

How  sad, I thought.  These creatures were born to leap and they’d allowed him to take that away from them.  I gave him a puzzled look.

‘It’s just like people,’ he continued.  ‘You can train the dreams right out of the people.  If you place enough barriers, enough restrictions, they come to believe their dreams are impossible.  They give up, and then they live quietly in the world you’ve defined for them.  Every dictator knows that . . . I’m just a flea dictator.’

It started to rain as I left Beto’s house.  The  dusty road turned into a mud bog and soon the Jeep was covered in the stuff.  I’d be bringing a little bit of Mexico back across the border with me this night.  As I drove through the gloom, I thought about what Beto said, and about our current reality:  Help-U-Sell, Realtors in general, and the very tough real estate market of the last few years.  We all made adjustments to make it through. We cut expenses, moved to smaller space, consolidated.  They were necessary cuts.  But, like the fleas, we also cut expectations.  Where we once shot for 10% market share and considered 10 deals a month to be ‘just getting by,’  we came to believe that 2 or 3 or 4 a month was ok.  We could get by with 3 or 4 and not bang our heads on the lid of the market.

Look around.  Yes, things are better today.  The real estate business comes with a new set of challenges – low inventory, rising interest rates – but it’s not as constricted as it was a couple of years ago.

But what about that patch of real estate between your ears?  Did you get so used to the redecorating you did in there during the downturn that you hardly notice the change anymore?   Have you let last season’s reality put a permanent damper on your dreams?  Or can you still see yourself doing 100, 150, 500 deals a year?  You can, you know.  Step by step, stage by stage, phase by phase, you can.  And, truth is, until you believe it, until you expect it, it’s not going to happen.  You’ll just be hopping along, stopping a millimeter or two shy of the lid someone else put over you a long time ago.

Look up.  There is no lid.  There’s nothing but blue skies overhead.  Stretch out your legs and get into your leaping crouch.  It’s time to liberate the fleas!

. . . . . .

So many people have read this post and assumed it was a true story . . . and it IS, up to the point where Beto is introduced.  From that point forward it is fiction; or rather, legend.  

The flea story has been around for some time (Google it) and I remember hearing it told with great flair by the former President of Help-U-Sell, Rick O’Neil.  In his version, he was a boy in New York City and the flea circus was in a basement on 42nd Street.  

I’ve been asked more than a few times how to find Beto, once by a resident of Ejidio el Porvenier!  

It doesn’t matter that Beto doesn’t exist and that the circus may never have existed anywhere.  The image of self-limitation is powerful.  

When I feel myself covered up with can’ts and yeah-buts, flinging themselves at me like fleas from the floor, I pause, look up, notice that there is no lid, and go back to doing the impossible. 




Ours is an industry that loves experts.  We also love motivational speakers (even if they’re not experts).  We love to combine the expert and the motivational speaker and put them in front of a room full of brokers and agents to do their thing, strut their stuff, and present, present, present.  Having been in the biz since the eviction of Adam and Eve from the Garden, I’ve seen and met quite a few.  Here are some of my favorites:

Tom Hopkins.  Almost single handedly turned my new career around.  I failed miserably as a salesperson for six months.  Then I borrowed a set of his real estate tapes (it was 1976 and he hadn’t yet expanded to other industries) and listened to them until his words became mine.  As soon as the dialogs became automatic I started to fire on all cylinders, so to speak and the rest is history.  I had the honor of having breakfast with him one morning in the early ’80s as I prepared to introduce him to a big group.  It was like meeting a rock star.

Danielle Kennedy.  I saw her speak many times, but what I really remember is her book:  ‘How to List and Sell Real Estate’.  It’s been awhile since I scanned through it, but for years I swore it was the best book ever written about how to have a successful real estate career.  Like Tom, Danni was above all practical.  She gave you things to DO, today, that would make a difference.

Floyd Wickman.  Floyd was fantastic.  A great mix of solid strategy and humor.  I think his answer to any question a prospective seller might ask on the phone – ‘I don’t know, I gotta see the house first’ — should be carved into his headstone when he gets called to that great listing appointment in the sky.  My favorite Floyd moment came in the early ’90s when I was head of training at Century 21.  We had taken a philosophical right turn from the rest of the industry by jumping feet first into Consultative Selling.  We were abandoning the slick scripts and the heavy techniques that were popular at the time in favor of just knowing your stuff and doing a good job for people.  We had an unspoken moratorium for awhile on speakers as we tried to establish the new culture, and many were pretty hostile to our new direction (‘What?? You’re going to give out the address on the phone??? Are you crazy?!?).  Floyd was the first to step up and say he thought we were on the right track and he’d support what we were doing.  I met him at Caesars in Vegas and cemented the relationship over a few too many glasses of bourbon.  Mrs. Woodjakowski, indeed!

Charlie ‘Tremendous’ Jones.  Most real estate people don’t know Charlie because he was big mostly in Insurance circles.  I saw him several times though and once was manhandled by him on stage.  He was a big guy, probably 6’5″ tall and a little heavy.  He was on stage ranting on about people who didn’t make it because they lacked COMMITTMENT!! (he’d growl that word).  Next thing I knew, he was down in the audience, grabbed me by the arm and led me to the stage where he essentially put me in a headlock and dragged me around from one side to the other, addressing the top of my head with:  ‘Do you know what separates the greats from the not so greats?  COMMITTMENT!!  Do you know what makes the do-ers DO and the don’t-ers DON”T?  COMMITTMENT!!’  and on and on.  My friends in the audience told me afterward I looked like a rag doll being mauled by a pit bull.

Steven Covey.  I saw him once and loved how he related to the audience.  There were probably 2,000 people in the room and he took the stage with just an idea about what he wanted to communicate and what he’d like to accomplish. It was clear he was not speaking from a rehearsed script.  But he had an assistant backstage at a computer who had all of his slides and knew exactly where they were.  Covey would talk a bit and he seemed to make personal contact with everyone in the room (including me and I was at the back of the balcony) and then he’d say ‘Put up that pie chart slide’ and a moment later there it’d be. He bounced around like that for an hour and a half, letting the audience dictate the direction.  I swear:  it was the most beautifully organized, spontaneous, un-canned and involving talk I’ve ever seen.

Rick O’ Neil.  How could I not include our own former leader?  Rick was remarkable.  He didn’t do much visible prep work before he’d talk to a group — I think all the prep was going on in his head — but he always had the perfect message in the perfect order to move his audience.  I never saw anybody take a room full of people and literally change their collective minds and get a commitment from them  the way he could.  And he did it over and over.  I remember him showing up early the first day of one of our Help-U-Sell Universities.  I asked him if he’d like to say a few words.  ‘Oh, I don’t know,’ he replied, ‘I can, if you want.’  So I introduced him and what came out of his mouth was an elegant, eloquent and moving speech about honor, courage and commitment.  It got a standing O and should have been recorded for all posterity.

There are so many others and some I’m going to kick myself for not remembering (like Wayne Dyer) but that’s my short list for this Thursday.  Who are your gurus?

Accessibility Toolbar