Nfld. & Labrador·Point of View

Keeping all the balls in the air, most of the the time: Practical life advice from a juggler

While many of us joke about juggling the various aspects of our lives, very few of us are literally keeping things aloft. 

Approach to juggling involves useful practices we can apply to our own lives, writes Christine Hennebury

James Burke was just out of high school when he first encountered professional jugglers, almost 20 years ago. (Submitted by James Burke)

While many of us joke about juggling the various aspects of our lives, very few of us are literally keeping things aloft. 

Newfoundland and Labrador performer James Burke, who lives in Montreal, spends a fair bit of his professional life keeping balls, scarves, clubs and other implements in midair. And when he's not doing that, he is balancing them on his hat or forehead. 

While we might never find ourselves on the stage with a series of objects suspended above us, Burke's approach to his craft involves a lot of useful practices that we can apply to challenges in our own lives.

Break it down and build it up

Burke was just out of high school when he first encountered professional jugglers at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival almost 20 years ago, and he still makes regular use of the method that one of those jugglers shared with him.

"The first juggler I met who was really serious about juggling gave me a system of how everything can get broken down into smaller bits," Burke says. "You tackle those bits first and then it's like, it's like Lego. You make your foundation, and then you just start building up."

If he encounters a snag when he is building his routine, he takes it back to the basics.

"Sometimes you'll find that you're not as ready to do something as you thought you were. The wise choice isn't 'fake it until you make it,'" Burke says. "The wise choice is go back to your foundation. In my experience, if I kind of force that last bit when the foundation isn't there, not only is the yield smaller but it's just really rough on you." 

How can you use this?

It's common for people to get overwhelmed by trying to take on too large a piece of a project at once. If Burke had started by trying to juggle multiple clubs, he would have quickly gotten frustrated. Instead, he started with fewer, smaller items and practised manipulating them in specific ways to build the skills to eventually handle larger objects.

Perhaps you could take a look at your tasks and see if there are places where you can take smaller steps that will lead to eventual gains. Your timeline may be tight but you won't finish any faster by skipping steps. If you do the small foundational steps, the larger aspects of your work will become easier because of the skills you have developed along the way. 

If you get stalled later in the project, taking things back a few steps may help you identify the thing that went awry or it may reveal a different plan of action for moving forward.

It's OK to move forward in small steps, a lot of the time it is the only way to progress.

Things will go wrong and you can plan for that

When he's juggling, Burke strives to create a high-quality show but he is also well prepared for when things go wrong … like dropping an object during a performance.

"I love drops. I like being able to share those moments with people," Burke says. "Drops do happen and how you react to them is the mark of a true performer." 

A drop doesn't mean a performance is ruined.

"You can retain your composure and retain your connection to the audience and share that, 'It's OK. Things happen,'" Burke says.

It took Burke a while to develop this attitude toward making mistakes. He was helped along by an instructor who had excellent ways of recovering from drops, and advised Burke to prepare three responses to any drop. 

A drop doesn't mean a performance is ruined, writes Christine Hennebury. (Photo by J Reid/Submitted by James Burke)

"That was a very kind of forward-thinking idea to me, that you not only can not only anticipate the fact that things will go wrong at some point, because they inevitably will, but the fact that you can prepare for that as well," Burke says. "You can make them really good. You can go in any direction with it; there's no rules or limitations to what you do during that time."

How can you use this?

Most of us invest a lot of time in trying to avoid mistakes — even ones that won't be as public as a drop during a juggling act.

Perhaps, instead of trying to avoid mistakes, we could find some ease in learning to accept that mistakes will happen, and we can learn to plan for how we will recover from them. 

If we were to take Burke's instructor's advice and prepare our drop recovery plan, we could feel more confident about a given situation because we know we can handle whatever arises. 

I'm not suggesting we can sail along through important events without preparing or practising — those things are important, too. However, I think we could reduce our stress levels by having a drop recovery plan in our metaphorical back pockets.

Always be ready to practise

While in Germany for some professional training a number of years ago, Burke was fortunate enough to work intensely with a Russian coach whose methods had a great impact on his juggling practice. 

Part of that coach's advice was that a juggler needs to practise like brushing their teeth. It was odd advice but it has been helpful to Burke.

"If you want to have teeth, you brush your teeth. If you want to be a juggler, you must practise. OK, there's little hidden nuances in that. If you want to brush your teeth, you must have the toothpaste, you must have your toothbrush. If you want to get the things you want, you need to install the ability to make them happen."

That doesn't just mean creating time to practice; it means having your materials close at hand for when you need them.

"My friends make fun of me because of this but I completely overpack all the time. I always want to have my 'toothbrush and toothpaste' with me," Burke says. "So, like yesterday, I left the house with 10 clubs, books, a notepad, three pens, and that's just in my bag."

'Brushing your teeth' means having your materials close at hand for when you need them, writes Hennebury. (Paranamir/Shutterstock )

Burke has not only accepted that he needs to practise often, he also makes it easier on himself by keeping his practice materials close at hand.

How can you use this?

You probably aren't literally juggling regularly, but most of us are managing a lot of personal and professional projects most of the time. 

If you are trying to write more or develop an exercise practice, or if you are upgrading your skills at work, or trying to finish a project before a deadline, you will find it a lot easier to be effective if you have the necessary materials close at hand.

For example, if you're trying to write more often, you can keep a notebook and pen in your bag so you can write when the opportunity arises.  If you are trying to finish a project at work, you can keep all the materials in the same folder or basket so they are ready for you at any time.

When you are juggling a lot of projects, committing some time to practise each one is important. Having easy access to the materials you need for each one will make the difference between an intent to practise and actually being able to work on each project.

Knack tricks vs. gradual tricks

For Burke, all of the juggling tricks he learns fall into one of two categories, and knowing the difference helps him to minimize his frustration with learning new things.

"You set your goals and plan your approach but first you have to acknowledge if this is a knack trick, or a gradual trick." 

"Is it going to become one of those things where you're just hitting the wall until you get the knack, and then you can do it?" Burke says. "Or is it one of those ones where you gotta push the big heavy rock up the ginormous hill, accepting incremental advancement?"

I love drops. I like being able to share those moments with people.- James Burke

Burke's categories help him manage his expectations of himself and of the process as he works on something new. Knowing that he has to develop the knack for something will give him a higher tolerance for his initial failures. Acknowledging that progress will be slow for a gradual skill helps him to recognize the importance of even the smallest increase in his abilities.

How can you use this?

Being patient with yourself and managing your frustration with the learning process is a huge part of developing any new skill.

The things you want to learn might not fall neatly into Burke's two categories but perhaps you can invent some categories of your own. Using categories like his will help you to manage your expectations, tolerate frustration and celebrate even the smallest victories. All of those things will help you to persevere as you move toward your goals.

Keeping the balls in the air. Most of the time

Even if you never find yourself on a stage, James Burke's advice will be useful in a lot of other circumstances. If you break things down and then build from there, if you are always ready to practise, and if you can manage your frustration with the learning process, you will have a lot of skills to apply to anything you want to work on.

And, of course, if you have a plan for how to deal when things go wrong, you won't waste a lot of energy worrying about making mistakes. 

Removing some of that worry will actually help you keep more of those metaphorical balls in the air. 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Christine Hennebury is a writer and creative coach in St. John's.