Learning the Impossible

Learning the Impossible

Jeremy Fein

 

If you were to walk into a juggling festival in the 90s…okay, wait. There is such thing as a juggling festival. And if you stumbled into one in 1995, you’d likely spot a crowd of people gathering around a juggler defying gravity to keep 5 clubs in the air. Fast forward to 2010, and you could stumble through a “fest” blindfolded, and knock into 50 people practicing 5 clubs. 2018, and people are crowding around the jugglers doing fancy tricks with 7 clubs.

 

So what changed in that time? Maybe juggling got more popular, club technology improved, the same jugglers had more years of practice…but I want to talk about YouTube. Right now, any 11 year old kid can watch hours of their favorite jugglers online, mimic their movement, and ultimately start dreaming about developing that level of skill. Videos can help us learn for many reasons, and I contend that a big one is simply seeing what is possible–when you see it, you can believe it. And when you believe it, it starts to become real.

 

But Jeremy, I don’t want to become a professional juggler! It’s okay, friend, even non-jugglers are welcome here. You can still have the actionable 2-step process for learning to do the impossible:

 

1) Believe It’s Possible. Decide that you will be able to do it in the future. Even if you don’t quite believe yourself.

2) Break it Down. If it were possible, how would you go about training it? Do that.

 

Rinse and repeat! After doing some practice under the assumption that learning is possible, go back to step #1. This time, if you’ve seen even an ounce of progress, it will be slightly more believable. Given your new starting point, how would you train it? Do that.

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I considered presenting psychology research on human learning, beliefs, placebo effects…then in the middle of playing with some clients one day, I came across a skill, and literally heard myself say “well that’s impossible.” After laughing at the fact that I had just dropped several objects on myself, I decided to use my own training of this “impossible” skill as a case study, and set the goal of a 10 second balance. The goal:

 

How the first 100 attempts looked…

 

 

When I first tried, just holding the medicine for long enough to set it up was exhausting. I didn’t know how to hold my posture, I didn’t know where to look, or how to breathe–it’s only natural that it seemed impossible! I gradually started figuring these pieces out, and each time I thought I “unlocked” the skill, I would uncover a new layer of learning. The progression felt something like nope → maybe → did I do it? → nope → hm! → inevitable → or… → got it! Far from linear, but each step along the way I stayed in touch with the confidence that it could be done and found new ways to break it down.

 

This project was not useful to me because I learned to do a trick, but the lessons I learned along the way. Here are a few:

 

Decreasing Complexity. One of my first strategies was to practice less complex balances, which was really out of necessity. Holding the medicine ball was so tiring that I immediately looked for ways to practice that didn’t require it. Working with just the block, just the tennis ball, and then just those two proved quite useful, and became my warmup for the medicine ball.

 

Posture and Breathing. I experimented with different ways of holding myself as I set up for the balance. Sitting proved better than standing quickly, at least to save the energy of bending over to pick up the mess every time, but I continued to play with different positions. My first instinct was to hold my elbow into my side, but I found that I was actually more comfortable if I let it drift away. Creating tension to keep my spine, shoulder, and elbow in place seemed to take some of the strain off the wrist–necessary if I was going to practice with any consistency. The more I focused on setup, the less I focused on breathing. Each time I reminded myself to breathe, my balance improved. This became as cyclical as it sounds–get tall, breathe, shoulder down, breathe, elbow…

 

Stillness vs. Rebalancing. Going for the full balance, whenever I tried to tilt my wrist or move my hand in space, it would do nothing to save the balance. I realized that these big attempts at “rebalancing” were unrealistic, and my energy would be better spent closer to the bull’s eye–focusing on stillness. I spent more time investigating the setup to really learn the balance point, and then try to hold it there. Once the ball moved, it was game over, and that was okay.  When I changed my expectations, the drop was no longer frustrating.

I used the stillness strategy because rebalancing seemed impossible…but wasn’t that the whole point of this project?! I wanted to do what seemed impossible, so I slowly started finding ways to successfully rebalance. From stillness, I found the necessary movement–where to focus on internal tension, and where to focus on the external task. I don’t have the poetry to relay the beauty of that process, but I certainly hope you’ll find it for yourself.

 

 

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Think the 2-step approach is obvious? Go try it, and really engage in it consistently. Think it’s wrong? Give it a shot. Think it’s an oversimplification? Great! Go try it, and see whether that makes it useless.

One thing you don’t need to do is learn a ball-block-ball balance. Trying a handstand, playing clarinet, or learning a new language? Try the approach, and let me know how it goes! Bonus points if you track your progress to share with the world. Maybe your self-belief will be exactly what someone else needed in order to find their own.

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