In high school, I was obsessed with unicycling. I filmed videos balancing on the roof of my parents’ house, won the school talent show, and even rode around in a unitard until a cop thrust a nightstick into my spokes. I had lots of fun on my unicycle, so it was only natural that I eventually learned to juggle.
Unicycling involves balance, perseverance, and guts; I had those in spades as a late teenager. But juggling was hard because it required dexterity, focus, and multitasking, and I was terrible at all three. When we’re kids, we can’t handle too much at once, and many decisions are out of our control—where we live, what we learn, and whom we interact with. With the bit of freedom we have, we choose our hobbies.
So, I began juggling with the basics: One cloth ball.
In my first apartment, I bought a box of Idahoan instant mashed potatoes. Like most idealist millennials, I wasn’t particularly fond of my job deprecating legacy enterprise software, so when I saw a caption on the back of the potato box, I had a mini existential crisis. “Pick one thing and do it well. We pick potatoes.”
How could they have such conviction? I certainly didn’t feel that way about software deprecation! The potato box made me frame my choice of work as a permanent decision. I had to find that one thing, but I couldn’t quit my job because I needed the money.
For most young adults, work becomes the main ball. If we’re lucky, we keep some hobbies and some dreams. Work is a rubber ball, more challenging to catch than cloth but durable enough to survive a few dings from missed catches.
I studied Latin for two years. The etymological aspects of the language were fascinating, and one word especially caught my interest: prior. The one, the only—a singular, non-collective noun. Perhaps a foreshadowing of my potato box crisis, prior stuck out because of how antiquated it felt.
Prior exemplifies concept creep. It (d)evolved into priority, becoming the first in a list of competing things, and then priorities—a list of “important” things. Corporate employees regularly label things as “first priority,” redundant to the original meaning, and “second priority,” a blatant misuse of the concept.
But adults have little choice but to juggle multiple priorities. We get partners, houses, and kids, so we shoulder responsibility for more than ourselves. We have glass balls.
Somewhere along the way, a ball will drop. Often, it’s cloth—our interests and pursuits. The ball falls to the floor, out of the cycle.
When juggling only glass and rubber and pressures rise, we must drop some of them. Missing a work event over a family outing should be an easy choice. Skipping a single workout is healthier than skipping a night of sleep.
Rubber balls bounce, so without missing a beat, we can pick them up and work them back into our rotation. But the more often we drop or fail to pick up a rubber ball, the shorter their bounce. When a break is too long—like not contacting a friend for several years—the ball might roll away and become irrecoverable.
We can afford to drop rubber balls, but glass balls aren’t forgiving. Failing to floss consistently will lead to dental decay. Neglecting one’s family during a crisis will sever ties we can’t reweave. Betraying a friend or colleague will immediately erode the trust that took years to establish.
Don’t drop glass balls. Picking up the shattered pieces and attempting to repair them is a fool’s errand. Even if glued back together, scars will remain.
Only juggling glass and rubber can make us miserable. If we’re only tossing balls we can’t afford to drop, we won’t try new patterns. We become timid and miss the upside of experimentation.
Cloth balls can be easy to leave behind—like a unicycle gathering dust in the closet. It may take some work to stoop over and pick these up, especially when juggling so many things, but hobbies and passion projects give us an avenue to take risks. And one of those risks could deeply enrich the rest of our lives.
Most of us can’t escape juggling multiple priorities, but the key is knowing which balls to keep in the air.