TypewriterFrom The Urbach Letter April 2010

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The Plate SpinnerEric Brenn

Do you remember Eric Brenn, the plate spinner who often performed on the Ed Sullivan Show?

Before reading further, click this link to view an incredible YouTube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zhoos1oY404

Eric Brenn was an amazingly talented performer who came on stage with a stack of dinner plates and a bunch of long poles. He’d set one plate spinning on top of a pole, then another, then another, until a dozen were going at once. Out of the corner of his eye he’d spot a plate starting to slow and wobble, and he’d dash over to it, furiously spinning it up to speed again. Then he’d spot another and run over to spin it up. Now THAT's entertainment.

It’s also a perfect metaphor for my business life these days. I wake each morning, observe the dozen simultaneous projects and ventures that are spinning away, and try to spot the plate that’s about to crash to the floor. That wobbly plate needs to be spun up NOW. Another will likely need attention later this morning, and another this afternoon... I know you can relate!

How many plates do you have spinning? A dozen’s about my limit, but I know folks who can handle many more.

In this metaphorical context, what constitutes a “Plate?” Certain things are obvious: a major work project, a deal in motion, a sale in process, a document with a deadline, a legal action, and other similarly weighty business-type matters. But the analogy extends beyond the workplace: to charitable projects, social commitments, family matters, personal tasks and many, many more.

People talk about “work-life balance” and that’s certainly a thing we’d all like to achieve (even if we don’t know what it really means). I’m far from an expert on this subject, so the last thing you should do is take advice from me.

The best I can do is share what I’ve learned by carefully observing Eric Brenn:

1. First thing, you’ve got to get a lot of plates up there.
Ed Sullivan’s talent booker wouldn’t have been very impressed if Eric just stood by one pole, giving it an occasional shake. Likewise, your life will not be very interesting or your career rewarding unless you get a lot of major things going at once.

2. Too many is no good either.
Eric knew that he could handle about twelve objects in motion at once. Adding more wouldn’t have resulted in a positive outcome. In work/life you need to choose the six or eight (or fifteen or whatever) major activities you’ll concentrate on and be successful with.

3. Keep an eye on everything.
He was constantly scanning the stage, watching for signs of imminent trouble. You have to maintain good “visibility” of the things you are responsible for. This is an area where a lot of us get in trouble. No news isn't always good news, and sometimes the wheel doesn’t squeak before it comes off the axle.

4. Know when things are getting serious.
Eric knew that a bit of wobble was part of normal gyroscopic motion. However, he could spot the signs that rotation was slowing down to a critical level. You need to develop a similar skill. Granted, it’s often difficult to distinguish between normal behavior/conditions and distressed states, but it’s an ability well worth cultivating.

5. Move fast.
Eric was light on his feet; rapidly moving from one pole to pole. He didn’t hesitate or waste time in between. Recognize in your own life that “in between time” isn’t accomplishing much. Rest when the show is over.

6. Take the time to resolve each issue before moving on.
There was no point in moving over to a pole, giving it a feeble shake or two, and running to the next. If a plate needed attention, it needed a full spin-up. This is another area where you and I often have trouble. We dash over to address an issue, give it some minimal attention, and move to the next squeaker. Multitasking has its limits. Usually, it’s better to devote full attention and maximum effort to each task that’s in front of you before moving to the next.

7. Put on a good show.
People are watching. Some are hoping you’ll succeed, others are rooting for you to fail. Don’t worry about the fail rooters; there are plenty of NASCAR races/crashes for them to watch. Perform for the people who want you to win.

Broken Plate

Despite your good intentions and best efforts, sometimes a plate will fall. That’s OK. It’s also OK to decide that you aren’t going to keep a particular one spinning anymore...


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