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The Secret of Juggling


Part Nine

I mentioned last time that while I am still in development, I did finish a book entitled, “Why Normal Isn’t Healthy.”  Part of normal not being healthy is that we all share a secret that we don’t discuss.  That secret being that we all have feelings of inadequacy and insecurity we don’t want others to know about.  The part of us that carries those feelings I have named the “scared one.”

Last time, I discussed a personal example of the “scared one’s” effect on the book project.  I’d like to continue to explore how our secret affects our development.  Or, another way to say it, how our “scared one” hinders our growth toward emotional maturity, health and wholeness.

First, a question: how many of you have tried to juggle?  I’m not talking schedules or “the books” but objects.  How many of you have tried, at some point in your life, to juggle 3 balls or other like objects in the air?  When I ask this question to groups of people, about 80% to 90% of folks acknowledge such attempts.  But when I ask, “How many of you have learned how to juggle?” Only a small per cent mastered the skill. 


            When I ask why, respondents tell me things like:

            “Poor hand-eye coordination…”

            “I don’t know.  I tried it and I just can’t do it…”

            “I’ve never been good at sports…”

            “It wasn’t that important…”

            “No one taught me…”

            “It’s a kid thing…and I’m an adult…”

Let me tell you what I think.  The people that try to juggle and don’t learn the skill, approach the learning from a normal, but not healthy perspective.  They attempt the new behavior because something about it interests them.  They think, “Gee, I wonder if I can do that?  It looks like fun.”

They try for a brief time to see if they can do it.  And they fail.  How does it feel trying and failing at any task?  It doesn’t feel very good.  Why?  To begin with, we learned, “If you can’t do it right, don’t do it at all.”  And we're obviously not doing it right!

It doesn’t feel good for two related reasons.  First, we are not doing it right and second, the “scared one” risks being seen as inadequate when we fail.  So when we try something new and we’re not a “natural,” we don’t “get it” right away, it reinforces our feelings of inadequacy.

We try, fail, and feel bad failing.  So, how can we stop feeling bad?  Easy.  Stop trying the thing that causes the bad feelings.  We don’t persist because there is no pay-off in dropping the balls over and over and over.  We tried and learned, “I can’t juggle.”  Why continue when we already know, “I just can’t do it?”

It’s interesting how we use the word can’t.  The contraction of ‘can not’ almost implies no fault, no accountability, no responsibility.  I wonder if we often use that word in the place of “won’t.”  This contraction carries a different quality of energy, a quality of ownership, of responsibility.

To me, it says I’m not willing to (will not) suffer through the learning that is required to have the skill.  It isn’t that I “can’t” (can not), it’s actually that I “won’t” (will not) pay the price to earn the learning.

This brings me to juggling.  Juggling is a wonderful metaphor for learning and for a life of learning. 

What is the secret of juggling?  You don’t earn the right to have the skill unless you sustain your effort and fail enough to “get it!”

How long do you have to drop the balls before you learn to keep them in the air?  Just long enough.  When you’ve dropped them enough you don’t drop them any more!  You “get it.” 

Our problem is that we compare ourselves with others, and see how quickly they “get it.”  And in comparison to them, we feel uncoordinated and inadequate.  That feels bad.  The “scared one” risks exposure as an inadequate person, simply because it takes some people longer to “get it.”

Well, what if we change the game?  What if we decide that it isn’t important how fast we learn something?  What if we slow down?  What if we quit comparing and competing with others?  What would change? 

There would be a conservation of our energy making more energy available for learning.  Why?  Energy follows attention.  If you are attending to the other jugglers, and wanna-be jugglers, while you are attempting to learn, your energy is invested unwisely.  STOP for a moment.  Put down the balls.  Multitasking drains energy and slows down learning. 

Shine the flashlight of your attention on someone who has learned.  Watch to see what they are doing.  Then pick up the balls anew and try what you saw them do.  You get a much better return on your energy investment.  Energy expended on what they are doing while you are trying, splits your attention and your energy. So less is available for you to use to learn the new skill. 

Having less energy to utilize, you quickly get tired and frustrated.  Saying, “I quit!  I just can’t do it!” 

Whoa, slow down.  We’ve all been there.  It’s OK.  And, don’t quit.  Just take a break.  Change your mindset by adding “yet” at the end of the sentence.    I just can’t do it yet!

The best way to conserve energy is to focus on your own process.  Make the competition ‘you with you.’  Eliminate the external reference by attending to the task at hand.  And when the “scared one” starts to say self defeating phrases, stop the chatter.

Because we have feelings of inadequacy, doesn’t mean we’re inadequate.

By attending to my own negative internal dialogue, I have the energy to stop the noise that creates interference in the learning process.  Then I can change the conversation.  For example:

“I know you.  You’re scared because that’s your nature.  You bought the standard line.  ‘If you can’t do it right, don’t do it at all.’  It’s normal, but not healthy to feel that way.  It’s not healthy because you’ll never try anything new if you have to do it right the first time.

“Let me assure you that failing doesn’t mean you are a failure.  I know you have trouble with this concept.  That’s your nature.  Although I honor your need to see the world as you do, I cannot, and I will not let it hinder my learning.”

By dealing directly with the “scared one,” we keep him/her in check so that we can drop the balls as much as we need to learn to juggle.   Remember it isn’t so important how quickly we learn.  What is important is what we do with what we learn and to know that we can learn anything.

I learned to juggle in medical school.  It was one of the things I did to de-stress, to relax.  As you might guess, medical school puts a huge emphasis on ‘doing it right.’  The pressure is continuous.  Competition fierce.  There are multiple opportunities daily to have your feelings of inadequacy reinforced.  It’s not exactly a healthy environment for learning.

I learned to juggle three balls.  Then I learned to pass.  That’s what it’s called when jugglers play catch or juggle back and forth to each other.  Anyway, I had a lot of fun alone as well as juggling with others.

Then my wife got me juggling clubs.  Imagine the scene.  It’s Christmas.  All four daughters watch as I open the special present.

“Oh, boy.  New toy!”  And I immediately begin to throw the juggling clubs.  Guess what?  I couldn’t juggle them.  It’s always fun failing in front of the little ones, isn’t it?   Guess how I felt?  Could it be . . . inadequate?  Yep, I was pretty embarrassed and went off to practice. 

Was I going to practice in public or private?  Right, in private.  Why in private?  Because no one would see me failing over and over.

So, I went limping off to practice in private when I had an ‘ah ha’ experience.   I remembered my own BLEF system.  BLEF (I never was much of a speller.)

[B]  I believe that anything I do, I can do Better.  Myself, all of us are underachievers relative to what we are capable of doing.

[L]  If I am willing to Learn, there isn’t anything I can’t do better.  And there isn’t anything I can’t learn.

[E]  But I Earn my learning the old fashioned way by . . .

[FFailing enough to “get it.”  The final common pathway of learning is mistake making.  We earn our learning one mistake at a time.

No, I didn’t want to practice in private.  I wanted to practice in public.  I wanted my kids to see me fail over and over and not quit.  I wanted them to see me get frustrated, but persist until I finally learned how to juggle the clubs.  And that’s what I did.

Remember my line, “I’m slow, but trainable.” Others may be quicker on the uptake.  But, there’s nothing I can’t learn if I’m willing to fail enough to eventually “get it.”

How about you?  What is it you’ve decided you can’t do?  What is it you tried and failed at, that caused you to lose belief in yourself?  Perhaps you might revisit that experience and see if it looks different from a juggler’s perspective.






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TGIM: Turning Work into Play

When was the last time you heard TGIM?  Better put, have your ever heard anyone upon arriving at work Monday morning say, TGIM?  Perhaps not.  But I’d wager that you’ve heard TGIF on many Fridays at work.  There’s even a restaurant chain that exploits the sentiment. Why is that? 

Could it be that on Monday morning one sees five more days of work ahead.  OMG !  Five more days until the next weekend.  Shit !  ( That’s a medical term ) And on Friday, for those of us that are M-F workers it’s, Whoopee we’re almost there.

I think that’s a good example of normal-not being-healthy.  If that is so, how can we move toward a healthier approach to work?  How can we capture some of that TGIF lifting of the spirits and infuse it into M-Th?  Perhaps we’ll have to break the rules. If we simply do what we were taught to do on the road to becoming grownups, we’ll do what the grownups did that came before us. We’ll replicate the status quo. And I don’t think we are here to replicate the status quo.

I think that we are here to take the best of what we got and make it better. After all, we are the people we used to complain about. We are them; the leaders, the parents and yes, the grownups ! We carry the culture on our shoulders.  It’s our turn. What are we going to do with our turn? Ah, there’s the rub.

 Let me give you an example. Right now you hear about the importance of having balance in your life, i.e., work life, personal life balance.  Which I think is funny because aren’t you a person at work? And when you go home is all the work over? No way. So we have work to do at work and we have work to do at home. Well what did we hear from the grownups that was the secret to success? Hard…..…………………………….. work!

That’s right, hard work’s the secret to success. So guess what we know how to do? Work hard. That’s right. Work hard at work. Work hard at home.  When does the fun start? After work?! You see the problem.  We’re just doing the best job we can with the information we got about how to do grownup. I mean how many people do you know that had parents who said, ” forget your homework, get out there and play” or “forget your chores, if you want to get ahead in this world get out here and play”… 

So we know how to work hard but have a problem being playful.  As a culture we don’t honor play. We don’t value play and it’s a shame. Why?  Because much of what we do as grownups is problem solving.  Serious problems require serious solutions.  Right?  Wrong! Serious problems require creative and innovative solutions.  And being playful, playing with a problem, frees up our creative juices so that what we cook up surprises and delights.  

And don’t you think work places that create an atmosphere of playfulness are more fun places to both work and do business?  And families where the parents are playful with their kids are healthier so that children feel more relaxed to be themselves and share their concerns?  So, I agree, we do need balance in our lives.  Work life, personal life balance?  

No! Work/Play balance.  Part of normal not being healthy is we get way out of balance on the work side of the fulcrum.  And when we do play it’s competitive play in zero sum games with winners and losers.  So we turn play into work ! What I’m interested in is doing the reverse.  That is, turning work into play.  That way we don’t have to wait until after work to have fun.  TGIM !


A wonderful book from my good friend, Stuart Brown, MD
just released today!

The Science of Play

Howdy folks.  Last weekend the National Institute For Play(NIFP) put on a conference at Stanford University.  The science of play was the focus and It was organized by Stuart Brown MD and Stuart Thompson PhD.  The former is the founder of NIFP and the latter is a biology professor at Stanford and the head of the NIFP scientific advisory board.  Stuart Brown was responsible for bringing Joseph Campbell to the public with productions of The Hero's Journey and Transformations of Myth Through Time.  He has been studying play and the consequences of play deprivation for decades. He also produced the PBS Series The Promise of Play, a wonderful 3 hour series demonstrating what an enormously important topic it us for Homo Sapiens. Both gentlemen helped Brendan Boyle, Co-Chief Creative Officer at IDEO and teacher within Stanford's Design School, put together a course on Innovation Through Play. It was a big hit. ( They were silly enough to inflict me upon their students. )

 It was the first annual such meeting and I hope it was the first of many.  It's interesting that we need scientific proof that play has value when we don't need proof that work has value. That's a given. It's also a good example of normal not being healthy that we separate the two.  I just wanted to share with you one very interesting finding that speaks to this.  When we are problem solving we need the cerebral cortex to be fully engaged in creating the best solutions.  Guess what lights up the cortex.  You guessed it, PLAY.  It's a scientific fact. Dr Jaak Panksepp presented this finding and much more in his presentation.  More on this later.

Oh, one parting thought.  The NIFP is a 501c3 non-profit and it cost $50,000 to put on this conference.
We need some moola to help defray expenses, fund more research and develop programs for parents,
educators, caregivers and business folks.  I know times are tough and our problems large.  Therefore creativity and innovation are all the more important.  Collaborative free play helps create the psychological space necessary for our brains to light up and light bulbs to go on.  If you know of funding sources that would be interested and/or individuals who share a vision for a more playful positive future that might want to donate call Stuart Brown 831-659-1740 or use the National Institute for Play
web site's donation process.  Play on….b

What does play have to do with wellness?

Wellness has traditionally been focused on individuals taking responsibility for their lifestyle and then implementing positive health habits.  The areas of focus have been physical fitness, nutrition, weight reduction, smoking cessation and stress management.  You’ll notice that the fun factor, play, is not included.  Neither is a values piece to include spirituality or a relational piece.  The former is problematic as we are separated into different club affiliations.  And you know how clubby some folks can get. The latter, nonetheless, should be included.  Why? Much of our stress is about relationships. 

The transformational approach to suspiciously healthy living includes taking responsibility for one’s thoughts, feelings, behavior and body.  You can think of the last two as the tip of a metaphorical iceberg.  After all, behavior by definition is observable as is one’s body.  But those two aspects of our isness are a small part of who we are.  They are only the tip.  What is going on below the surface, hidden from view is the larger portion of what makes us human.  Both body and behavior are driven by the brain.  So what we do in the cortex, the thinking part, and what we do in the limbic system, the emotional brain, influence our observable selves. 

Talking about the brain is important for many reasons.  Our narrow focus here will be to recognize that our thoughts don’t arise at random out of the ether.  They reflect our values and beliefs.  What do we most value in our culture?  Success.  And how do we attain what we most value?  The secret to success is hard work.

One can put that cultural bias into action as their approach to wellness.  They can work hard to become physically fit and survive to 100 years.  But, survival is not enough.  You can survive your whole life and never live it fully. 

What is a full life, a life well lived?  Different people would answer differently.  One thing that’s shared in common is that many don’t begin to figure that out until their own mortality, or that of a loved one becomes a pressing issue.  At that point the tip of the iceberg wellness factors fall away in importance.  Our beliefs about what we most value arise as our most important drivers.  It’s the people, the relationships that matter most.  And the time spent with those people special to us becomes precious.  Not just time but quality time is most precious.  And the seriousness of the circumstances can weight heavy on everyone.  It can take away from the living that is still possible. 

What then can transform the quality of energy present in the room?  Playfulness.  Light, buoyant, playful energy creates a more relaxed atmosphere for authenticity.  Lightness balances heaviness and emotional

equilibrium results.  What follows can be a level of connection amongst those present that is a present, a gift for everyone.  The present moment is opened.  Now is all there is and it’s enough.  The feeling tone in the room is that of sacred space.  It’s a holy moment enriching the living, comforting the dying. 

A life well lived would squeeze as many of those moments into it’s living.  And play, with love, may just be central to living fully, living well.  Play creates the psychological space for connecting in suspiciously healthy ways with others.  Defenses drop and deep sharing can result.  We risk more and in risking more are more fully alive. 

Play also frees up potential energy in the psyche and puts it into creative motion in our problem solving.  The stressful dilemma breaks the status quo.  What was fixed is now fluid.  As the problem solver moves into the play state. that fluidity opens up many possibilities.  Playing with those is fun, engaging.  The player flows, testing ideas to see what floats.  The result may be a  new variation better adapted to present circumstances. 


Wellness may be seen as a transformational movement of energy arising from our core, our center, out into the field of action.  The trajectory is toward wholeness and vitality as one fully participates in the possibilities of the moment.  Play evokes that energy and facilitates that movement as our creative impulse is given expression in the play state.  One is not diminished through this expression as a well is not diminished through the gift of its waters.  As the water table replaces what is removed, the psyche replaces what is expressed and we stay green, juicy and growing.  Stop that movement and we dry up.