When I was serving at NATO headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan, I found a stash of rubber balls in a back room of the gym. Naturally, I immediately started a juggling club with my new friend Heino, a fellow juggler who happened to be a lieutenant colonel in the German army. Neither of my grandfathers could have anticipated any aspect of this scenario when they were in uniform during World War II.
The International Juggling Club of Kabul met on Thursday nights in a small room at the gym, and it was a great way to unwind. The more experienced jugglers like myself and Heino taught each other new tricks and showed off, while the newcomers learned the basic moves. We eventually ordered a couple of sets of juggling clubs. Heino and I got pretty good at passing them back and forth before our tours ended.
My favorite part of Juggling Club was teaching people to juggle for the first time. Believe it or not, this seldom took more than 20 minutes. Now, learning to juggle and being able to do it well are two different things. Nobody became a good juggler in 20 minutes. But pretty much everyone was able to demonstrate a respectable jug (that is, three throws and three catches in a row) in less time than it takes to watch an episode of The Simpsons. Once someone learns to do a jug, they are officially a juggler — and then they’re usually hooked.
Creating this club may have been my most significant contribution to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force mission.
The physical benefits of juggling are obvious. It improves eye-hand coordination, and beginners get a decent cardio workout as they chase dropped balls around the gym. More experienced jugglers can do some physically demanding routines or may choose to take a more calming, soothing, even meditative route. And of course everyone gets the cardio benefit of dodging mis-throws from the newbies.
The social benefits were significant as well. Juggling together is a playful opportunity to get to know people and build new friendships. It is the best type of cooperative competition, where we cheer each other on, help each other out, and simultaneously try to go farther and do better than the other guy. The bonds we built in that stuffy little room made our multi-national team more effective. I lost track of the number of times a Juggle Club connection was the key to getting something done. I got to know the Italian captain who coordinated billeting for visitors and the Romanian sergeant who worked in the IT shop, so when I needed to reserve a room or had a computer problem, I had an immediate connection.
But the main benefit of juggling was psychological. In the unrelenting environment of a combat zone, it’s easy to get burned out. The days are long, the pace is fast, and the demands are high. The whole scene is tremendously draining and does not offer many opportunities to replenish one’s mental resources. Most of the available forms of recreation — video games, television, working out, foosball — were fine as far as they go but none could compare with juggling in terms of granting a mental respite.
Why is this the case? For starters, juggling requires near-total concentration. Beginners in particular find it virtually impossible to think about anything else when they’re trying to make consistent throws and catches. This freedom from the mental demands of deployment, even for just an hour, can make a huge difference to the rest of your day.
This reminds me of Winston Churchill’s comment in his brilliant essay “Painting as a Pastime”: “Painting is complete as a distraction. I know of nothing which, without exhausting the body, more entirely absorbs the mind.” He goes on to explain that such mental absorption is essential to avoiding burnout. Juggling may be slightly more fatiguing than throwing paint on a canvas, particularly if you’re doing it in a small, unventilated room with a dozen other jugglers, but the basic cascade pattern is not all that physically demanding once you get the hang of it.
Juggling also rewards effort with frequent achievement milestones — the first jug, the first time you make 10 catches in a row, the first time you learn a new pattern or a new trick. Jugglers are constantly performing at the edge of their skill, and as Jane McGonigal explains in her book Reality Is Broken, “there is virtually nothing as engaging as this state of working at the very limits of your ability.” Plus, it’s a whole lot of fun.
After 20 years on active duty I’ve hung up my combat boots for good and began a new career as a writer and consultant. I still keep a set of juggling balls within easy reach of my desk, and when my latest project gets stuck, a design I’m working on stalls out, or I’ve just been in my chair too long, I take a short juggle break, then return to my work with a fresh perspective. And although I left Kabul in 2012, I’m still in touch with Heino.
Dan Ward learned to juggle in 1986. He is the author of The Simplicity Cycle: A Field Guide To Making Things Better Without Making Them Worse and F.I.R.E.: How Fast, Inexpensive, Restrained, and Elegant Methods Ignite Innovation. He holds three engineering degrees and served in the U.S. Air Force for over two decades researching, developing, testing, and fielding military equipment.
Photo credit: Shabai Liu