Started learning to juggle. Dunno why really. It’s just cool, isn’t it? When you discover that someone you know can juggle, you always find them a bit more interesting – a little bit more mysterious. Because who in their right mind learns to juggle? What’s the benefit? Surely it takes a very long time to get good at it – and who has a very long time to do anything these days, let alone whap a trio of soft balls endlessly from palm to palm? And then there’s the practical stuff: how did they learn? You never walk through the park and see a would-be juggler at the outset, teetering around with their neck craned skywards and arms windmilling, balls flying everywhere as they grimace and whisper ‘oh fucking hell’. If you see someone juggling in a park, they can already juggle well. Who trains them? There’s something a tiny bit magical about it.
I suppose I decided to learn to juggle because it’s one of those things in life that you always watch other people do and think ‘enviable!’, while at the same time accepting placidly that you will never know how to do it. But then – there was this quote I came across. I wish I could say I’d found it in The Art of War or Meditations or whatever, but alas: it was Denzel Washington on Instagram. It was just a throwaway sentence in an interview, and I don’t exactly make a beeline for the life advice of actors, but regardless, it stuck with me. Denzel said this:
Practise anything and you’ll get good at it.
It’s very obvious advice, of course. ‘Heat up a burger and it will get hot’. But that’s the nature of advice, no? It’s all useless until you’re ready to hear it. I mean, yeah, fine, small-scale advice is still good – stuff like ‘Aim away from face 🙂’ written on fireworks. But the big stuff, the Uncle Ben/Peter Parker stuff, all of that shit rolls off a young man like rain off a duck – until he’s ready to hear it. Until he’s cocked everything up enough that he needs a guiding light. And then, in a panic, he flops around and grasps for all that useless bollocks advice his elders always used to proffer in his direction, which he used to duck under and swerve like dodgeballs: No – I – won’t – take – your – shite – advice – thank you – very – much.
Practise anything and you’ll get good at it. Of course, he (Denzel Washington) isn’t talking about juggling here. He’s talking about, I can’t remember, probably acting or waking up early – but you can apply it to anything at all, and that’s what inspired me and excited me. Revelations, when I have them, are usually me thinking like, 5% harder about something than I previously have, and everything clicking into place.
2023 was all about putting this into use. I looked at myself from a few steps back, and I went ‘eesh’ and decided there were a fair few things I’d like to change. Abysmal self-discipline is one. I used to be weirdly proud of my threadbare willpower: it even says it on the homepage of this site. I thought it was funny, an endearing flaw. And it probably is those things – but it’s also a big factor in my being constantly disappointed in myself and frustrated that none of my brilliant schemes ever come off.
So – I began practising self-denial. Not in any weird, kinky, whipping-myself-into-a-frenzy-in-a-darkened-room-like-Silas kind of way. It was more about taking the fight to my impulses: challenging myself whenever my inner guy went ‘I want a fucking gateau and wine’. Back in the day, there was only him. He used to yell things he wanted and then my body, this awkward vessel full of right angles, would nod and give him them. So I invented a new guy: a guy that said ‘hey buddy, are you sure you absolutely need all this ketamine?’
For a while, this new guy was pretty ineffective. The old guy’d had the run of the place for so long that he was comfortable ignoring his new, irritating, clean-shaven roommate. Sometimes this made the new guy sad – I’d have to give him pep talks; reassure him that this was never going to be a quick or easy task. That was sort of the point.
And practice we did, over many long months. Sometimes I would listen to the new guy, and I’d eat an apple or run my vape under a tap so the electricity went mental and broke it. And other times I’d flip him the bird and sprint off for a three-day bender. Slowly, slowly however, I noticed that it was getting easier to ignore the old guy, and to listen to the calm logic of the new chap.
So: Am I an unwavering bastion of self-discipline today?
No. I still have stupid mental impulses. But they’re way less bad impulses than previously. God, back in the day my inner demon would be like ‘Hey Dan, it’s Friday night and you’ve had three beers, why not liven things up with 30 grams of Amber Leaf and some drugs and then eight more pints, and then round things off by sending barrages of worryingly incoherent voice messages to all your group chats on Whatsapp?’ Today that same guy – the naughty one – has listened to so many lectures from the intruding angel that he’s just sort of given in. His suggestions now are limp, half-hearted: ‘Hey man. Long time no speak. How about we… pff… I dunno. Shall we go get a bag of Tangfastics?’
And I say ‘yeah okay!’ and am genuinely giddy about it.
Learning learning learning. You can learn to be more honest, too, it turns out. I’ve been working on that one for a good while now. In the past I’ve told white lies, untruths and ambiguities, all intended – at least as far as I admitted to myself – to protect people. I don’t do that anymore. I just tell everyone the perfect truth, even if it’s a little janky and uncomfortable. It gives me a wonderful feeling of freedom and goodness. I’ve practised honesty so much by now that I don’t think I could tell a lie even if I wanted to. The idea repels me, like the north faces of two magnets.
People like the truth: they forgive you if you tell the truth. It’s not exactly a weighty example, but when I’m late for my lessons (which is often), I don’t fib or make up some corporate bollocks excuse. I just say ‘I’m sorry I’m 3 minutes late, I was boiling the kettle and I overfilled it so it took ages and then I had to let my tea brew’, or ‘I somehow turned off my alarm in my sleep and as a consequence I woke up literally four minutes ago’. And it makes me like myself more, because I’ve told the truth and I know that I’m being as sincere as can be – and isn’t that lovely? And people smile to hear it! They actually really like it when you’re trying but flawed and honest about it! That’s why everyone likes Bridget Jones! She cocks it all up but she’s doing her best! We love a trier!
So I guess juggling is a microcosm for everything else: all the big stuff. Learning something new, however cool-adjacent it may be, reminds me that I can improve any aspect of my life if I’m prepared to put the work in. Nothing is set in stone. And, whether it’s learning new songs on the guitar, drawing landscapes, bouldering, dancing salsa, being sane, being honest or just being Good At Life, I’m learning that the same lesson applies to all of it: the best things take practice and patience.
That’s the sound of a new leaf being turned over.
I’m learning to juggle!