The Security of Failure

Last weekend was the 47th Annual MadFest, a juggling festival here in Madison, WI. I used to be quite active in this community, but for five years in a row I had another commitment that kept me from the Festival, but for the past two years I’ve been able to attend.

Let me tell you, there is very little so humbling as being an older juggler at a large convention. It’s not that I’m a bad juggler. It’s that so many other people are so good. And it’s often people who are a third of my age — which makes me wonder How good will you be when you’re my age?.

And yet, there’s also still room for me. I learned a few new juggling club tricks. Here’s one with my friend Dan that I call “Nailed it!”:

That’s a pretty good example of most of what happens at juggling festivals. Sure, there’s lots of clubs in the air — but there’s far more of them on the ground. And there’s only one way to get better: keep picking them up.

When Failure is the Only Option

One of the maxims of juggling is No matter how many times you throw something up, it’s going to come down. A corollary to that is No pattern lasts forever. It’s kind of an interesting philosophical idea: whatever juggling pattern you try, there’s going to be an ending to it. You start out with empty hands; you pick up the clubs and balls and rings (often off the floor, where they ended up) and then you try a thing, and you end up eventually with the clubs and balls and rings back where they started.

That means that juggling (from the hobbyist perspective) is not about the finished product — that’s the same thing, beginning and end. No, it’s all about the experience. It’s the doing of the thing.

And it’s a doing that will, inevitably, be done. With very little materially to show for it, except perhaps the occasional YouTube video:

Notice how I didn’t drop at all in that clip? Wanna know why?

Because I edited it that way. In reality, eventually I dropped it. Or Dan did, or we both got tired, and went on to something else.

When It’s OK to Drop

My partner Natasha had some pretty juggling rings catch her eye, and she was eventually out on the floor tossing a couple back and forth, learning to juggle. I was delighted, but sometimes that’s more pressure, and so I just hung around in case she had questions.

Instead, what she had was a profound statement that inspired this post: “I’m slowly getting over my fear of people seeing me drop things because everybody is dropping things.

I thought about that a lot as the festival went on. I’ve been juggling from the age of fourteen, and hanging out with people who juggled for a good portion of that time. That means I’ve been in an environment where failure was the norm, not the exception. Every juggler knows that before you nail any trick, you drop a lot, and even when you do master n objects in x pattern, there’s always n+1 in xy pattern to try next — which means more dropping.

Natasha wasn’t used to that. In various places and from various people, she grew to expect that If you ‘re not good at this right away, you might as well not bother. Not only that, when she internalized that — “I’m no good at this, why bother?— she was questioned: Why are you giving up so soon?

It was very confusing.

I was very fortunate.

I hope that, like Natasha, you can find places where it’s ok if you fail. Where it’s ok to drop, because you can always pick it up again later. Where the act of trying, or not trying, is not a reflection of your value as a person — it’s just a reflection of what you’re choosing to do.

“Do, or do not. There is no try.” With all due respect, Master Yoda, you’re full of shit. There is nothing but try.

Want to see what this looks like? Here’s twenty four jugglers trying the “big pattern” at MadFest, in all its beautiful dropping glory:

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