FAST COMPANY, October/November 1997
Life is a Juggling Act
by Anna Muoio

Walk the halls of any company and you’ll hear the same lament:  I’ve got too many balls in the air!” Life in our time-strapped, chaotic world has become a juggling act, both at work and at home.  We’re all jugglers now, and we’ll all have to learn how to do it better.

“Anyone can learn to juggle,” says Michael Moschen, 42, perhaps the world’s greatest juggler.  “The odd thing about juggling is that it’s so damn frustrating when you can’t do it and then, when you finally can, you can’t understand why you couldn’t always do it.”

Moschen, a 1990 MacArthur “genius” grant recipient, ahs performed with the Bi Aple Circus, staged a piece for Cirque du Soleil’s theatrical circus in Las Vegas, and created “In Motion with Michael Moschen” on “Great Performances” on PBS.

But saying that Michael Moschen juggles is like saying that Pablo Picasso drew.  For more than two decades, Moschen has redefined the art of juggling.  Moschen’s first juggling partner and childhood neighbor, Penn Jillette — the tall, talking half of the magic duo Penn & Teller — insists that in 100 years Michael Moschen will be the only juggler anyone remembers. 

The key to juggling— from rubber balls to sales calls— is to do it with grace, says Moschen.  People always put obstacles in the way of their learning,” he says.  “My job is to help them confront their fear— of hurting themselves, of failure, or of just looking stupid.”

Looking to hone your juggling technique?  Want to keep all those balls in the air?  Fast Company visited Moschen at his home in Cornwall Bridge, Connecticut to take a lesson from the master.


Master the Basics

Anyone can learn to juggle.  It’s about breaking down complex patterns and maneuvers into simple tasks.  Juggling is a system of tosses and throws, of different patterns that, once broken down, understood, and mastered, can be put together to create something magical.  What juggling illustrates— what we forget— is that life is magical all the time.  As we grow older, we push the magic into dark places and accumulate more and more ways of shutting it off.  

In the perfect juggling sequence, the balls move without any apparent human effort.  It’s all about refining your process, because that’s all you have:  your commitment to the process of your work.  The more you use it, and the more honestly you use it, the better it gets.


Get Comfortable with Failure

One of the first things I do when I’m teaching someone to juggle is deal with their expectations— in particular, with that awful two-headed monster called success and failure.  So many people will walk around thinking that they can’t do anything and that, even if they could, they wouldn’t be good at it.  Part of that is the knee-jerk reaction we all have to something we’re not comfortable with.

But if you decide to learn to do something, eventually you’ll have to confront the fear that you might not be able to— that you’ll lose control and fail.  The only way to learn is to recognize, in the little failures, how to avoid the big ones.  To learn how to be successful, to learn how to learn, you have to be willing to accept failing 99 times out of 100.  And through this familiarity with failure, you’ll gain the humility required for any task.


Break the Task Down

I spend my life looking at patterns of chaos and order.  Chaos— whether it’s a feeling or a situation— means we can’t perceive a pattern and therefore can’t attach a handle to it.  To get a handle on something, break it down into a series of steps.  In juggling there are three basic ones:

First, make a good throw.  Are you rolling the balls off your fingers— as you should— or are you using your palm?  Do you throw the ball so it always falls away from you— as it should— or does it fly over your shoulder because you don’t want to let go of it?

Second, trust your throw.  Look straight forward.  Don’t focus on the ball.  Realize that once you let go, you have no more control.  You’re at the mercy of the throw— and your expectation of the catch you can make. 

Third, put your hands under the ball.  Let the ball fall into them.  If you reach up for it, you cut the amount of time you have to adjust to catching it.  So your juggling becomes higher and shorter until, after a few throws, you’re all scrunched up.  Inevitably, the balls will tumble down.

Juggling comes down to an act of faith.  Not faith in any religious sense, but faith in your own physical instincts to know what makes a good or bad throw.  Once you’ve broken the system down into steps, you can make a judgment of the best way to proceed in that moment.  Finish each task and then let go completely— because the next task is about to fall into your hands.


Learn What to Watch

The death knell in juggling is to watch any individual object.  Our instinct is to look at each ball or task separately, because we want to have control.  It’s a very insecure feeling: you influence something, and then you can’t influence it, and then you’re expected to catch it.  But if you’re tied to each little specific, you’ll lose sight of the big picture.  Concentrate on seeing all the patterns.

If you look at things in only one way, you’ll be greatly restricted in how many objects you can juggle.  You can be a very task-successful juggler and get the job done from toss to toss— but still be a lousy juggler.  If you look at things in many different ways, you’ll develop a depth perception that allows you to unscramble several patterns and see them all at once.


Balance ¹ Success

Balance is an essential skill in juggling— as essential as it is in life.  But balance is not perfect stillness.  It’s the ability to make exquisitely refined responses to any unexpected change.  It’s the sense of little movements creating perfect yet temporary equilibrium.

I’m always changing.  I probably adjust five times a second throughout a two-hour show.  This means that I’m constantly figuring out how to succeed.  I know I can never have absolute control over the situation.  But I’ve struck a dynamic precision in my juggling process, so that I can find balance. 

The downside of balance is that you don’t want things to change.  The moment you’ve achieved balance, you’d better be ready and willing to get rid of it.  Because if you stay with what you think is perfect balance, you’ll be far from in control.  Remember, there is no perfect balance; there’s only the approach to it.


Accept the Unexpected

Juggling is about being flexible to the unexpected— flexible to mistakes of any kind, like the wrong music coming up.  Ever try to slow-dance to fast music?  In front of 1,000 people? When the unexpected flares up, you have to have a sense of humor— to know that your position has been compromised.  It’s not the end of the world.  It may not even be the end of this little moment.  It may just mean that the moment will become a lot more interesting.

You’ve got to be aware of and flexible to all those little moments, because you can never tell what might come from them.


Bad Habits Have Big Consequences

Don’t undertake a difficult task and then accept a watered-down version of accomplishment.  It may feel like success— but it’s really just a bad habit.  In juggling, a bad habit can be jerking your head back because you’re afraid of hitting yourself.  Or throwing the ball in front of you, so you have to step forward to catch it.

When you’re working alone, your bad habits cheat you of real accomplishment.  But when you’re working with someone else, when you’re juggling with a partner, your bad habits become a real burden.  Whenever I agree to juggle with someone, I ask them to be honest about their own shortcomings.  This is the most valuable thing  you can do— whether you’re working on a team or with another person.  In club-passing, you have to keep track of a process.  If you’re given a good throw, the process should continue undisturbed.  It’s a repetitive process that depends greatly on balance.  And if you’ve developed your skills as a juggler, you can make good throws.  If you shirk your responsibilities, your bad habits will reverberate in your partnership.  And this will contribute greatly to the failure of your team.

Juggle a Bit of Everything

We all have to juggle different types of things.  The key is to get over your false expectations.  If I throw you three different objects all at once, you have a limited time to gauge the weight, texture, and size of what’s about to fall into your hand.  So you have to develop different ways of grasping the objects.  If you try to grasp one as you would another, you’re going to miss— you may even get hurt.

Try to understand the characteristics of the objects coming at you.  Worse than dropping objects is letting them collide in the air and fall in random patterns.  To prevent this, you need to create a separate flight path for each object.  This comes from training and from knowing how objects move.  A ring is a thin planar object that can slide through the air.  A club creates a much bigger planar area as it revolves on its axis, and it takes up a lot more space.  But the funny thing is that it’s usually the ball that screws everything up.  In comparison with everything else, it’s so easy to throw that you end up throwing it off the roof.

Beware of taking the simplest things for granted.  Because it’s the simplest thing that will be your anchor. 

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