A phrase that comes up often in my coaching practice is "keeping a lot of balls in the air." Most of my clients are technology company CEOs, and most of the rest are senior leaders in similar organizations, and all of them are juggling a large number of professional and personal responsibilities. They tend to thrive in fast-paced, dynamic environments--that's why they took the job (or founded the company) in the first place, and they're not afraid to get out of their comfort zones and push themselves in order to grow.
But we all feel overwhelmed at one time or another, even people who generally love their work and work as hard as my clients do. And I know when I hear someone talking about "a lot of balls in the air," they're feeling stressed not only (or even primarily) about the difficulty of keeping all these projects aloft, but also about the possibility of dropping one and letting people down. In these situations it can be helpful to remember that not all the balls we're juggling are made out of the same material.
Some are glass. We can't drop these, because they will break. Maybe they can be put together again, but probably not, and certainly not without time, anguish, and painstaking effort. People will be hurt, our reputations will suffer, and there will be serious consequences, personal or professional.
Some are metal. We don't want to drop these, because they’ll make a lot of noise, and people will know we’ve dropped them, and we’ll be embarrassed. And they may get dented up a bit in the process, and we’ll feel guilty. People will be annoyed or disappointed, but nothing's broken.
Some are rubber. We don’t want to drop these either, but when we do we realize that they bounce. There's no damage, no noise. People may not even notice that anything's changed, and if they do, they care less than we thought they would. Our pride may be wounded, but that's the worst of it.
So whenever we feel that we're juggling too much, it's important to determine what things are really made of. This often uncovers the assumption that everything is glass, and nothing can ever fall, and if anything does it will be disastrous. This is rarely true, but it can be comforting to think this way, because it prevents us from having to deal with the cringe-inducing feelings that result from dropping metal and rubber balls--the embarrassment, the guilt, the annoyance, the disappointment, the wounded pride.
But cultivating comfort with discomfort is a critically important skill for many reasons, not least because it enables us to recognize when we need to stop trying to juggle everything, let some things drop, and deal with the emotional consequences, in order to insure that no glass gets broken.
I certainly didn't come up with this metaphor, nor do I know who did, but I believe I first heard it from Joel Peterson many years ago.
Photo by Orin Zebest. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.