On Juggling

I love to juggle and have been doing it for about the past 15 years now. It’s a very relaxing activity. Juggling is physically reinvigorating; it’s better than a double espresso when you’re feeling fatigued or experiencing a mid-afternoon dip in energy. And juggling is psychologically bracing; it calms the mind while also making you more alert. Plus, juggling is entertaining, both for the juggler and whatever audience happens to be around. Juggling still has a hint of magic about it, a defiance of gravity that elevates everyone who participates in it. And juggling is environmentally-friendly, contains absolutely no artificial ingredients and causes no harmful side-effects.

My ambition has long been to learn how to juggle five balls. At the moment, I can only juggle three. I’ve consulted various jugglers much more proficient than me who all confirm that juggling five balls is very, very difficult—one said it could take five to seven years to learn—and that you must first learn to juggle four balls. This was discouraging news. When I learned to juggle three balls some fifteen years ago, it took about 15 minutes to get the basics. I could keep the three balls going for just a minute or two, but got the hang of it very quickly and in no time was flipping balls behind my back and doing other kinds of simple tricks. But every time I tried to juggle four or five balls, I was always stumped. It’s just not as easy. To master it takes time.

There’s an obvious reason for this. When you’re juggling three balls, only one ball is in the air at any given time. The other two are in your hands. That means you only have to concentrate on one object in flight. When juggling four balls, two balls are in the air simultaneously; when you’re juggling five balls, three are in flight at the same time. Concentrating on more than one object in flight is very, very difficult. In fact, it’s impossible. If you were to actually follow each ball’s trajectory from the time you released it into the air until the time you caught it again, you would never get anywhere. The reason juggling more than three balls is so difficult is because you have to disperse your attention across a field of possibilities instead of focusing on a single variable.

In his great treatise on military strategy, The Art of War, Sun Tzu wrote:

Opportunities multiply as they are seized.

It’s true. The more assiduously you pursue a possibility, the more possibilities accrue. In juggling, though, as in life, that can be a disconcerting experience. I recently managed to juggle four balls for about 30 seconds. It was exhilarating to keep those four orbs in the air even for that short a period of time. But it was confusing, too. How do you keep track of two things travelling through the air in different directions? And how do you manage to catch them? The truth is, you can’t. Instead, you have to spread your attention out across the space in front of you and let your focus roam like the beam of a searchlight, holding one ball in your sights only long enough to guess where it’s going before moving on to the next. It’s a precarious business. You’re always scrambling to catch up, always adjusting and re-adjusting to new conditions, always afraid you’ll drop a ball. And so much depends on the throw. If you don’t place the ball correctly at the start, you can forget any hope of catching it. You can never rest, either. As soon as one ball is safely landed, you’re throwing another one in the air and trying to anticipate where it will fall. It sounds like the most frantic activity imaginable. But, when you’re inside it, it’s not. That’s one of the paradoxes and joys of juggling: your sense of security ceases as soon as it is seized, but your enjoyment multiplies as your uncertainties increase.