Hang Ten and Keep the Plates Spinning

November 10th, 2013

I remember the housing bubble in the late 1990’s – when subprime mortgage refinancing was the key to a debt-free tomorrow and home values were never going to drop. I also remember the financial crisis ten years later – when people found themselves gasping for tiny pockets of air as they drowned in their underwater homes. I suspect I will one day remember events still waiting for us in seven to ten years that will serve to shake us out of the comfort zones we will have established by then from today’s recovery. Believe what you choose about the economy, but the fact is that markets ebb and flow, and the market belonging to housing and its feeder industries is no different. This is fine for economic theorists, but, for those of us in the field, it feels a little like surfing – waiting desperately for that next wave and then hoping to paddle hard enough to get up and stay balanced long enough to get to shore.

Now, to this image of the surfer, add a stick in each hand and one on her nose upon each of which rests a spinning plate. Her job is to ride the wave while balancing the sticks and keeping the plates – family, career, children, education, health, financial management — spinning. Now you have a good metaphor for a woman in the housing market and, perhaps, a fear that as that woman, you are headed for a wipe out! How, then, does anyone make it work successfully? The truth is that there is no one right answer, but the seemingly –dissimilar acts of surfing and plate spinning have three principles in common that point us in the right direction, focus, balance and the ability to let go.

Focus. A successful surfer must block out everything except the feel of the board under her feet and the rhythm of the water. You can do anything but you cannot do everything, and you can do many things, but you cannot do them all at the same time. Last Thursday, when driving down a city street in Dallas, Texas, I happened to glance into the cars on either side at the stop light. On the left, was a man, with earbuds in his ears, doing – I am not making this up – a Sudoku puzzle book with a pen. On the right was a woman, earbuds in her ears, talking rapidly into the phone and putting on makeup. Oh, and both of these people were allegedly also driving! In a world where multitasking has risen to an art form, focus seems archaic – but it is the only way anything actually gets done.

  1. 1. Make a list of the top three things that you must do professionally tomorrow. Now make a list of the top three things you must do personally.

  2. 2. Schedule in those items for tomorrow tonight. Write or type them into your calendar with times for getting them done – and block off those times for other meetings or phone calls. Close out email and turn off text notifications. And consider doing the one you dislike the most first.

Balance. Plate spinning is an art. Ask any circus performer how she keeps all of the plates spinning simultaneously while perched precariously on tall slender sticks, and she’ll tell you, “It’s a delicate balance. Each plate must spin fast enough but not too fast, and you have to pay enough attention to all but not too much to any particular one.” What does this mean for you?

  1. 1. Start slow. Successful plate spinners don’t start out with five or six plates. First they practice with one, and then add another, and another. In our lives, the plates we spin are things like jobs, clients, children, partners, bosses, health challenges… the list goes on.

  2. 2. Shift intensity. While we cannot usually put one on hold to manage another, we can balance the intensity we have with each one. Work piling up? Schedule two long days in the next five and reward yourself by working reasonable hours the other three. Family dinner impossible? How about picking one meal a week and focus on creating a ritual (homemade pancakes, DIY sandwiches) for that one? Friends giving you guilt trips because you haven’t gotten together? Set up a quarterly lunch and try to send a quick text once a week.

Let Go. Try too hard at surfing and you’ll become rigid, overcorrect and fall. Gripping those sticks under the plates too firmly will upset the momentum and they’ll crash. Sometimes the best thing you can do is simply relax and let go.

  1. 1. Traffic jams, planes get delayed, people get sick and clients cancel. The next time something changes your schedule, rather than scrambling to fix things, consider whether an opportunity has just opened up. Does the traffic jam give you time to plan out a marketing approach you hadn’t considered? Is there someone in the airport you should meet?

  2. 2. You can only control two things – how you invest your time and how you choose to react. You cannot even control your own thoughts! (Don’t believe me? How many times today did a thought run through your mind without your permission?) Despite popular phrases, you cannot save, buy or make time. You can only spend it. How can you make the most of this minute at this time – regardless of where you are or what circumstances surround you?

Surfers love the waves, the water, the challenge and the feeling they get when it all comes together. Circus performers spin plates to entertain and fascinate and their reward is the amazement and applause the audience gives back when they do the “impossible.” What about you? Remember why you’re in “the game” in the first place then focus, balance, let go … and listen to the cheers from your fans!