Three reasons people fail at juggling

Or, “How some people seem to learn crazy skills overnight”.

Juggling is a very frustrating activity. First, you learn to throw a ball. Then, you learn to throw two. Then comes keeping three in the air semi-fluidly. This may take months.

Then, if you like, you move onto clubs. Clubs are like balls, but harder, because when you throw them, they spin. Spin them too little or too much and instead of catching them, you get a stinging smack on the finger.

I know a young man called Roger. Roger can juggle five clubs. He’s 12.

When I started working in a Bolivian youth circus in mid-November, I was stunned to see how many children, some as young as seven, were confidently flipping three clubs while standing on another child’s shoulders.

Recently, I met an Argentinian gentleman who was competently balancing clubs on his chin mid-routine, banging out five-turn flashes and catching clubs thrown behind his back.

I asked him how long he’d been juggling. “Clubs? About two months. Balls, another three and a half months before that,” he answered. I was stunned.

Are these people magic?

My friend has been an instructor in our circus for eight years. When I broached the subject with him, he seemed almost offended.

“When you’re travelling, juggling is your life,” he said, indignantly. “You do it all day, every day. It pays for your food.” What he seemed to mean was: how can anyone who practices so little have the temerity to wonder about this?

Latin America is full of street jugglers. In Cochabamba’s central Plaza Colon, every traffic light has a few young travellers dashing out in front of the stopped cars, flashing some club juggling tricks or fire poi and then darting between the cars with a hat before the lights change.

My Argentinian instructor was one of them. He’s living in a tent in the mountains with two friends, coming down into the city to juggle for money to pay his way.

Head out of town and they aren’t travelling Argentinians, but children of 10 or so, juggling for change to put some bread on the table.

So, how is it that these people can go from zero to pro in just a few months?

To me, there are two major differences.

  1. Motivation

If you’re anything like me, learning to juggle was somewhere between a fun trick and a frustrating puzzle. If you could juggle three balls, you could occasionally juggle fruit in the office when people were bored. You could learn a couple of tricks for low-level showing-off in the pub. In my boyfriend’s case, you may juggle for juggling’s sake in the fish and chip shop, and unwittingly make enough money to buy yourself dinner.

It was never a question of making ends meet.

When I juggle, my mind wanders. I think about music or imagine crazy routines or daydream. To make progress, it needs your full attention. You need to feel the exact angle you release the club at, see where the club lands, replicate the throws that work. Otherwise, you make the same mistakes repeatedly. You become frustrated and bored. You can’t concentrate, and it’s a terrible downward spiral from there. Passive practice doesn’t work.

When your livelihood depends on your flair with clubs, you have an unwavering incentive to concentrate.

For more about the ideas of active practice in music, check out this post on The Bulletproof Musician and The Musician’s Way by Gerald Klickstein.

2. Hours of practice

Here is a confession: it took me nine months before I could juggle a reliable three-ball cascade. I was making two mistakes. I wasn’t focusing. And I wasn’t practicing every single day.

Whenever anyone learns to juggle, they are told they have to practice every day. Every day means every day.

The list of things I’ve been told I need to do every day to succeed is long. Speak a language. Play an instrument. Exercise. But juggling is the only one I have ever found where every day literally means every day. When I was learning, I took liberties. I would do it four or five days out of seven. “But I did it for half an hour on the last session!” I’d say. Nope. Unlike fluffing bit of music and carrying on, stumbling over your words in a foreign tongue, gravity won’t wait. Every day means seven out of seven.

If you live in a mountainside tent, you don’t have a comfy seat and an internet connection where you can lose yourself in Facebook. You have some clubs or balls, and lots and lots of time. You might spend four hours practicing each afternoon. Think how the hours stack up when compared with training at a club once a week and doing some in the garden at the weekend. Don’t measure it in weeks or months or years. Measure it in hours.

What’s more, the more frequently you train, the fresher your learning is. There’s less catching up to do, less warming up. You can pick up where you left off. You can feel the ability growing in your mind and see it growing in your successes. And when you’re happy to be learning, you learn more.

Most amazing jugglers don’t rely on it for a living. My theory is that these people just enjoy it more, so they practice more and focus more.

3. Perseverance

This one is not unique to people who juggle for a living. You aren’t guaranteed to become proficient overnight if you keep plugging away at it. But you are guaranteed not to become proficient overnight if you give up.

I am not a natural circus person. Trapeze tricks that seven-year-old children throw themselves into with gleeful abandon scare the living daylights out of me. Accidentally dangling from a rope by one ankle (this has actually happened) is not my idea of a good time. I still love circus and care deeply about being good at it. Some people have been learning for as long as me and are professionals. I’m not there yet. But I know of nobody who fell at the first hurdle and can do what I can.

So if you want to succeed at circus, put yourself in a situation where circus is your life. Surround yourself by it, immerse yourself in it, throw yourself at it. You may not turn into Roger overnight – I still suspect he contains magic. But the talent will come.

 

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Slavery in Thai fish sheds is not new

So why do we keep treating it as a revelation?

Today, I found this story on Guardian Global Development: an Associated Press investigation intohuman trafficking and labour abuses of the most acute kind in Thailand’s fishing industry.

It’s an excellent piece of journalism. It promotes the voices of the Burmese slaves at the heart of the story. It shows both bold groundwork and solid data chasing.

But I have a problem with it.

The story is awfully similar to this report in the Guardian. And this one, on the BBC. And this investigation by NGO, the Environmental Justice Foundation.

Andy Hall, a researcher and migration expert, is in the docks on defamation charges – a criminal offence in Thailand – for authoring a report for Finnish NGO Finnwatch that found serious labour rights abuses in the tuna and fruit processing industry.

Hall’s blog and Twitter, incidentally, are well worth reading if you care even slightly about the issue.

The case studies are different, the angles varied, but fundamentally, they raise the same issue: Thailand has a major problem with human trafficking. Most of the victims are from poorer neighbouring countries in South east Asia, especially Myanmar.

According to the EJF report:

Multiple reports over the past five years have documented abuses of trafficked boat workers in Thailand, including bonded labour, excessive working hours, little or no pay, threats of violence, physical abuse and murder. 12/13 A 2009 survey by the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP) found that 59 per cent of interviewed migrants trafficked aboard Thai fishing boats reported witnessing the murder of a fellow worker.14

These reports go back at least as far as 2009. So why are big media constantly running these stories as if they were scoops? These reports are billed as “revealing” the issue, but this is something we have known about for a long time.

It’s hard to build popular pressure for change if every story about Thailand’s slavery problem is billed as a revelation: something we didn’t know, something horrifying that we have just found out, something that shocks us.

In the meantime, hoards of tourists flock to Thailand: over 900,000 Brits every year, according to the Foreign Office. Trafficking is not limited to the food industry: as this report from the Pulitzer Center notes, many of the women doing dangerous work in Thailand’s sex industry have been trafficked or are in bonded labour, largely in service of western tourists.

According to the Pulitzer Center:

The sex industry has rapidly accelerated the spread of HIV after the virus first appeared in Thailand in the 1980s, but the Thai government is reticent to address the problem lest it scare away coveted tourist dollars.

Many people who visit Thailand are energetic, open-minded and politically aware. So, where is the boycott? Where is the protest movement? When I traveled to South Africa, it was as though liberals felt compelled to brandish their credentials by mentioning the inequality problem.

Unlike the spectre of South African apartheid, bullet holes in Balkan walls, or begging children on Indian streets, slavery is largely invisible to the country’s visitors. Locked away in sweltering sheds in industrial zones away from the pretty bits, Thailand’s trafficking victims are out of sight, out of mind.

Reporting on this issue is vital to keep it in the public eye, especially in a country which earns so much from exports and tourism. But we must stop treating every fresh report as a shocker, a revelation. To do so is to deny the masses of accusatory evidence in existence years beforehand.

Ask about the cause of these problems and you get a strange sense of deja vu: the authorities have not been trained to handle the issue, corruption prevails, it’s easiest to ignore it. The same problems keep rearing their heads every time we look.

When I was reporting on the food industry, the Thai fishing industry held a seminar during which we were reassured that the problems were being tackled and unannounced inspections were standard practice. That was well over a year ago. So why are these reports still appearing?

If you’re going to Thailand, presumably it’s for a refreshing tropical holiday with beaches, elephants and exquisite food, rather than a grim primer in modern-day slavery. But go with a critical eye. Because shrimp paste goes into those curries. Those guys in your hostel might not admit to it, but ping pong patrons come from somewhere. The least you can do is be aware.

Mangoes

Today, we found a fruit seller selling 25 mangoes for the equivalent of £1. We got 12. When we got home, our host mother was shocked at the price.

That was way too expensive, apparently.

They were weird mangoes. Andy said, in a worried tone, that they “feel like water bombs”. They are made of thick juice and hair. You have to suck them. Use your teeth at your peril: you will be picking mango fur out of your teeth for weeks. You often see the stones on the floor, with hair sticking out from the sides like spikes. They look like cuttlefish.

In more Cancha funtimes – La Cancha being the name for the vast market in south-central Cochabamba – when you buy avocadoes, you tell them when you want to eat them and they give you one of the appropriate ripeness. The words “ripen at home” are nowhere to be found. I hate “ripen at home”. They only put that because “we shipped these fruit from places where there be dragons when they still resembled starchy meteorites” doesn’t fit on the label.

Just about the only thing we can’t find here is mushrooms. Andy went to two markets and a supermarket in search of the fungusy goods on Sunday but none were forthcoming. Our host mother eventually found some, somewhere. It is a tiny pack of pre-sliced, cling filmed mushrooms that apparently cost the equivalent of £1.50.

Do you think enough culinary experimentation with mangoes will make them taste like mushrooms?

If not, we could try noni. Anything that looks like an alien, cures cancer* and comes from La Cancha is a good bet.

Noni fruits with leaf on white background

(Image from here).

 

 

*it’s true because the seller wrote it on some cardboard