What in the world does juggling have to do with your career? How can learning how to juggle (or at least learning the principles of juggling) help you get to the top of your organization?

Before I get there, let me share what I learned about juggling from Seth Godin:

We spend most of our time in catching mode. In dealing with the incoming. Putting out fires. Going to meetings that were called by other people. Reacting to whoever is shouting the loudest.

But if we learn a lesson from jugglers, we realize that the hard part isn’t catching, it’s throwing. Learn to throw, to initiate, to do with care and you’ll need to spend far less time worrying about catching in the first place.

– Seth Godin – July 5, 2018

When I first saw other people juggling, I thought it was the coolest thing ever. It looked so easy. It was something I wanted to try. So I picked up three balls and tried to juggle. I failed miserably, mostly because I was focused, unlike what Seth says, on catching the ball. I was throwing the ball every which way so all of my attention was focused on catching the ball.

Catching balls and starting your career

Let me sidetrack to say that when you are starting your career, you are catching balls. You are at the bottom of the organization, and people are telling you what to do. Do you know any better? Not really. So you work on things that other people have started, or you add a piece or a thought here and there as you learn how to do things. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, I’m just saying that’s how I started my career and likely how many others have as well.

The problem with catching balls, as you can see in juggling, is that is not the hard part. It is hard in juggling but not compared to throwing. When you focus on throwing though, you make the catching easier. The hard part of juggling is learning how to throw better. And just like when you’re part of an organization, ‘catching’ or picking things up that others have already started is the easy part. We are conditioned to ‘catch’. Not to let things fall. To get through the obstacles we encounter. ‘Throwing’ is hard.

Why throwing is hard

Seth says that anybody can learn how to juggle. And then he shares the exact steps to learn how to juggle. First, pick up a ball in your right hand. Throw it straight up in the air. Let it land on the ground. Do this for 10 minutes. Throw up. Land on the ground. Pick it up. Throw up. Land on the ground. Pick it up. Next, pick up a ball in your left hand. Repeat. Do this also for 10 minutes. Next, throw one ball from your left hand to your right hand. And then throw the ball from your right hand to your left hand. Do this for 10 minutes. Now, if you put all that together, you might not be able to juggle, but you are going to get a lot closer than if you tried to practice catching.

‘Throwing’ represents the act of starting things in an organization. Starting a new project. Executing a strategy that’s forward-thinking. Doing something that has never been done before on your team. Why is starting things hard?

  • It’s all on you – if it fails, there’s no one to blame but the person who started it
  • It’s risky – you won’t know if it will work until you do it
  • It requires courage and commitment – there’s no doing this with 50% of the effort
  • It requires leadership – someone has to stand up and say “hey, I think we’re better off if we go there, who is with me?”

In fact, all the above are things that leaders in your organizations are doing. That’s why they’re at the top of the organization – they are the ones who are starting and leading others. Organizations reward those that start/throw things. There’s a place for those that follow/catch things too, but those individuals are not as well-rewarded.

The transition from catching to throwing

My argument is that one of the ways to move up in an organization is to focus less on the execution and the tactics, and be better in starting things, i.e., shifting from catching to throwing. And the way to get better at starting things? Start more.

When you see a problem in your organization (and please don’t tell me your organization has no problems), think about a way to solve the problem. Then, depending on your company culture, and your relationship with your boss, either ask for permission to solve the problem or tell your boss what you are going to do (because if something backfires, you may need your boss’ support). As you start more things, you are going to learn and note down:

  • Why some things start, and why some things languish
  • The key ingredients for starting things successfully (building the right network for it, having champions, getting the right resources to execute, having sufficient resources, having executive sponsorship, etc.)
  • What you are good at starting
  • When the right time to start things are in your organization
  • Your role in starting things (and your role after you have started something)
  • How to build support before, during and after you start something (with your boss, with your CEO, with coworkers, with staff)

Is ‘catching’ bad? Not at all. All organizations need people who can pick up things from others and make them a reality. But the value lies in ‘throwing’, i.e., in starting things. Starting is tough. But if you start more things, you learn how to start better, and when you can start better, paradoxically, you will find it easier to ‘catch’ or execute the project.