February 26, 2008 - 03:08, by Dostalek, Kevin
Almost 10 years ago I forced myself to learn to juggle. This skill was incredibly effective as a pattern interrupter during the week-long training classes I was delivering at the time. Later as a consultant, I had the opportunity to work for two clients who both had an office rule requiring all employees to learn how to juggle within their first month of employment. This seemed cool – yet eccentric – to me at the time, but over the years I've begun to realize the great lessons that can be learned from the activity both physically and metaphorically.
On the physical side, juggling is great because it is something difficult yet achievable by almost anybody. It teaches you that – through diligence of practice, perseverance, dedication, and resolve – you can achieve your goals through progressive milestones. The satisfaction and feeling of achievement upon mastery leaves a permanent impression on your psyche which can be recalled every time you pick up the balls again (and like riding a bicycle, it's a skill that can't be forgotten).
There are even more interesting lessons to be learned through analogy. Whenever you see someone trying to juggle for the first time, their approach is usually one of throwing the balls up and then rushing around like a madman to catch them and ending up splayed across the floor after a few seconds. How often do we expend needless energy by trying to keep too many balls in the air? Managers especially rarely have the luxury of focusing on one thing at a time, but to "do things right" you can't let any "balls" drop.
It turns out that in juggling the secret is not how to make good catches, but to make good throws! By purposefully placing the balls exactly where you want them and focusing your practice on good throws you start to find that the catching is effortless and just "flows." Another secret to juggling (at least with a 3 ball cascade pattern) is that you only ever have to focus your attention on one hand at a time doing one thing (throwing or catching). How much more efficient and effective could we be if we practiced our throwing (planning) to the point that our catching (delivery) was seemingly effortless? It seems to me that the best leaders out there are known for execution and vision; but how much of the execution part is predetermined by the quality of the vision?
So, if all juggling taught us was the importance of planning, then you could just read a book about it and plan out your attack. You'd quickly find that a juggler you are not! That's because there are always unknowns for which planning ahead is impossible without further data. Until you throw that ball the first time, you probably can't predict where your muscles will send that ball. The point is we learn by doing and so we must have the courage and initiative to take those first steps and see what happens. Do we sometimes find ourselves stalling projects and initiatives indefinitely because we don't feel fully prepared? Are we likely to become more prepared without actually starting to do something?
Situations where failure is not an option are the worst conditions for learning to take place. Avoid them unless you've "been there before." In juggling it's guaranteed that when you start you will encounter some degree of failure. You quickly learn to mitigate the effects of these small failures by finding ways to fail fast. My strategy for this was to start with a single ball (minimize the likelihood of failure) and practice over a bed so picking up drops doesn't kill your back (minimize the impact of failure). Wouldn't it be more efficient if we could focus our initial trials on failing fast rather than prolonging the agony because we fear failure? Remember that experience is built from both success and failures, but we must always remember to learn from them.
There are many other lessons that I think can be learned from juggling, but as you may have suspected, many other "skill" activities can be used in it's place with the same "thought logic" applied. I still keep my juggling props in my office as a constant reminder of these lessons, and every now and then they still make nice pattern interrupters in meetings. (I can be pretty intimidating carrying around a juggling club!)