Man Standing Beside Cannon by Paul Bence

Seeing Rolf pull pieces of a broken bottle out of his cheek sealed the deal for me. From that point on, it was as clear as the glass coming out of his face that I was NOT going to become a fakir. A fire-swallowing juggler, maybe; a fakir, no way.

If you’ve been in one of my seminars you know this, but some of you will not: my first career choice was to be an itinerant juggler and clown. In other words, not only did I run away and join a circus, I sort of created my own. Some of you may well be thinking ‘no changes there then’, and I’ll take that on board as constructive feedback.

It all started on a beach in the Canary Islands when doing my gap year (okay, it was two…), cycling around the Middle East and Europe. I met Rolf after his show, in which he had juggled, swallowed fire, laid on a bed of nails and laid face down in a pile of broken bottles with a volunteer standing on the back of his head. I liked the look of some of that, but not the full package.

One thing led to another, and the next day – before I had time to think ‘I can’t do this’ — I was juggling. Badly, but I didn’t care. This was fun. Time disappeared. I was in the state we now call ‘flow’ — or the productive experience — a lot of the time. So it was that I caught the juggling bug. Couldn’t stop.

A couple of years and many thousands of hours later I was still at it, and eventually good enough that people were willing to pay to watch. So I went pro, and made my living throwing things in the air and catching them again, for a good chunk of my twenties. Had it not been for an injury on stage in Japan, I might well still be at it.

That door was closed by the injury, however, and the big city bills needed paying, so I entered the world of ‘real’ work.

When I made the move away from being a full-time artiste to working in business, I worked very hard to keep my previous employment under wraps. Why? I felt that anyone looking at my CV at that point would have noticed some truck-sized gaps in my employment history. Without a lot of detail from me, most potential employers would have assumed I’d been banged up in prison since my last ‘real’ job as a lifeguard in my teens.

Still, I learned a lot in that first career, and much of it has relevance for what I now do and — hopefully — for what you do too.

A lesson from juggling:

If you are expert at juggling 5 balls, adding a ball and trying to juggle 6 doesn’t mean you simply drop one ball. That would be logical, but it ain’t so. What usually happens is that you drop a few. Often all of them. So you don’t do that.

You work up to the change by breaking the new level of difficulty down, practicing the (still challenging, but smaller and easier) component parts of the new trick until you can do the parts easily, then you re-assemble them into the larger whole.

Part of the problem we have in work is that — unlike the balls — the challenges and tasks that we take on are much more difficult to visualize than the extra ball, so we say yes to too much, too quickly. In doing so we quickly get past the point of overwhelm — often before we notice we’ve done so.

Similarly, dropping metaphorical balls at work and in our personal lives is harder to see than the real ones. We can delude ourselves for longer that we are still on top of things when really we are completely out of control.

Life lesson: make the number of things you have going on in your life as visible as possible. If you have complete lists, you can make better calls about how many new things you can add to what you are already doing, or which of the things you already have you might need to set aside or delegate.

A lesson from unicycling:

Assuming that many of you have no experience of unicycling, it might be worth saying it is nothing much like riding a bicycle. There is a wheel and some pedals, but the similarity pretty much ends there. On a unicycle, there is no coasting. No taking your feet of the pedals and gliding easily.

When riding a unicycle, you use pressure on the pedals to keep the wheel in motion so it keeps the seat under you, supporting you in moving in the direction you want to go. Ideally, you want to be slightly out of balance, falling forwards, and pedalling like stick to keep the wheel under yourself. You can go backwards, you can go forwards, you can rock in place, but you can’t stand still.

The life lesson is similar. There is no option to not move. You can be going forwards, backwards, or sideways, but you have to move. Best practice? Pick a direction, lean into it, and allow your instincts to keep yourself from falling. As humans we work best when we create positive gaps to grow into.

A lesson from ropewalking:

The temptation when walking a rope is to look at what your feet are doing on the rope. This is fatal, or at least painful (depending on how high the rope is from the ground). Your feet are moving underneath you, side-to-side, rapidly. That can be interesting to look at, but it is not conducive to what you are trying to do, which is move ahead.

What you want to do is look at the far end of the rope, which is tied to a nice stable reference point. It is much easier to stay in balance if you look there than at all the detail of what your feet are doing.

Also, it is easier — and much less tiring — to make small adjustments while maintaining your balance. Big, dramatic, last-gasp, save-the-day efforts don’t help you. Sensitivity and small timely movements keep you on the rope.

Life lesson: focus on your outcomes and orient your actions around those. Use Weekly reviews when you notice you are falling off the rope to right yourself and get back on. And, just like on the rope, it is the small, consistent efforts that produce results over time, not the ‘start-of-the-year, transform everything’, unsustainable, changes.

A lesson about practice and learning:

One of the most important lessons I learned was the one about practice. I learned that it was possible to do the seemingly impossible, if I was willing to invest the time in failing until I succeeded. I learned that there are no shortcuts to real mastery. You need to put in a lot of deliberate practice. There is no app — and never will be — that gets you to juggle 7 balls. Nor for making a presentation, launching a product, or starting a company.

The only way I’ve found to accelerate my path to mastery in any domain has been to work with great coaches, paid or unpaid. Because they have made the mistakes and know which pathways are actually dead ends they have saved me hundreds of hours of painful and fruitless exploration. It’s lovely when they don’t cost anything, but when I’ve paid them the ROI has been off the charts.

Life lesson: to get learning and produce great results I have to be humble enough to put in the work — day-in, day-out — and sometimes to ask for help.

That is as true in business today as it was for my teenage wanna-be juggler self on the beach back in the eighties.

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