I recently came across a Twitter thread from earlier this year about work/life balance and the metaphor of juggling glass balls and plastic balls. After a bit of research, I discovered that this metaphor originated from Brian Dyson (former CEO of Coca-Cola) during his 1991 Georgia Tech Institute commencement speech.
In his speech, he asks the graduates to “imagine life as a game in which you are juggling some 5 balls in the air. You name them—work, family, health, friends, and spirit—and you’re keeping all of these in the air.” According to Dyson, each of these balls is made of glass—except for work, which is the sole rubber ball. If you drop any of the glass balls, they may be severely damaged or even shattered. In contrast, the “work” rubber ball could bounce back after being dropped. When striving for work/life balance, Dyson saw family, health, friends, and spirit each as things that possibly could never be fixed if you dropped the ball.
However, Brian Dyson may not have been entirely comprehensive in his metaphor of only juggling 5 balls. Isn’t it more accurate to say that we’re all keeping 55 balls in the air at the same time?
At a Q&A session several years ago, bestselling author Nora Roberts was asked about balancing a career as an author of over 200 books while also raising children. Instead of only juggling 5 rubber and glass balls relating to broad categories, she discussed juggling 55 plastic and glass balls referring to individual topics within those 5 categories. As with rubber balls, plastic ones will drop and bounce back—though they may or may not get a little scratched—and you have to prioritize catching the glass balls.
With only 5 balls in the air at one time, as in Dyson’s example, you may be able to keep all of them up at the same time relatively consistently. But this isn’t realistic. With 55 balls, you are nearly guaranteed to drop them somewhere, maybe even more than once per day. However, the point of Roberts’s differentiation from Dyson’s was that work/life balance is not as simple as “prioritize kids over work.” It is “some kid things are glass, and some are plastic. Sometimes, to catch a glass work ball, you may have to drop a plastic kid one.” Conversely, you may have to sometimes drop something at work to catch a family glass ball. If you are juggling 55 balls, some will inevitably drop. The goal is to focus not on broad categories such as work, spirit, or social, but on the individual glass balls themselves.
No one wants to drop the ball on anything, but we’re human and can only juggle so many things at one time. Instead of only considering work/life balance in its broadest terms, consider the weight and importance of each thing you do, and whether your obligations may be unbreakable, resilient, or droppable. Just be sure that if you must drop the ball somewhere, it may only be scuffed instead of shattered.