"You might think people would not be intimidated by something as lighthearted as juggling," says Michael Gelb, while tossing colored tennis balls in the air.
"These are big, tough managers and you can see that it brings up the same fears -- nobody wants to look like an idiot. They all make excuses -- 'Oh, I have arthritis,' or 'I've never been good at this kind of thing."
Despite their protestations, Gelb, a juggler, psychologist, unicycle rider and the author of Body Learning (Delilah Books, $12.95), has taught people around the world to juggle three balls in as little as five minutes. (Gelb says most can master it in two weeks, practicing 10 minutes a day.)
But graduation from his hands-on, practice-what-you-learn seminar, called "High Performance Learning," doesn't focus on the manipulation of the yellow tennis balls.
"I call it the juggling metaphor method," says Gelb, 32. Participants explore -- in a lighthearted manner -- serious questions: Why do you tense your entire body when you are trying to learn something new? What kinds of messages does that send to the brain? What is the alternative to this "no pain, no gain," learning style?
Gelb, whose own initial juggling attempts were full of "sweating and tightening and stiffening," offers practical learning remedies footnoted with statistics on brain research and, he says, proven successful with "managers in Japan and Australia, kids in Soweto and Sweden, teachers in California."
While teaching managers to juggle, Gelb gets them to recognize their inhibitions. "Most people think, 'I cannot juggle three balls or draw a figure or speak in public or write reports . . . It's beyond me.' I like to give them the experience that they can do more than they thought they could and, in that context, to stop interfering with the way they learn."
Gelb, who has been teaching high-performance learning for 10 years, discovered his own learning interference during college.
"I generally avoided the new and unfamiliar, concentrating instead on things at which I was already good. Although I was interested in the so-called creative activities, such as art and music, I never seemed to have much natural talent and shied away from experimenting with them."
A political science major at Clark University, Worcester, Mass., Gelb, hoping to free himself from "the dominance of conditioning and habit," switched to psychology. But he became "disillusioned by the sterility of rat-chasing behaviorism and conceptual calisthenics."
Seeking a practical approach, he enrolled in the International Academy for Continuous Education in England, where he began experimenting with things he had been told he couldn't do -- writing, singing, juggling.
Gelb talks in terms of "brain-friendly" strategies -- learning how to talk to your brain. "You say, 'I'm going to throw these two balls in staggered timing. If the first one lands anywhere near my left hand, I will allow it to be caught.' " ("Allow," says Gelb, is a brain-friendly word.)
"The movement is relaxed, open . . . The reason I can do that," says Gelb, tossing balls casually to the right hand, "is that the balls are landing in the same place every time. If you learn how to talk to your brain, your system can operate without interference."
Despite attempts to digest his message of brain-friendliness, seminar participants, after comfortably dealing with two balls, almost always flinch at the announcement that they will juggle three balls.
"Now what happens to your body, the moment you heard me say that?" asks Gelb. "Did it go up or down? What happened to your breathing? What happened to your shoulders? Did your body get lighter or heavier? Do you think you're more predisposed to be able to do three in that heavy state?"
Gelb suggests a replay, this time with positive cues to the brain -- not caring about dropping the balls, for instance.
"Now I don't think it's that simple to just say yeah, and everything falls into place," he says, "but I do know if you say nay, it falls out of place. So it's learning to observe how it falls out of place and prevent it."
Most learners get stuck in unproductive patterns of thinking -- "brain grooves" that perpetuate a cycle of fear and misuse.
"This fear of failure stimulates a pattern of misuse -- contracted muscles and shortened breathing, which makes failure more likely. When the system is overloaded with stress -- to the point that it's contracted -- it's almost like people shut off their brains."
Juggling serves another purpose: "It gets the two sides of the body communicating with each other in a rhythmical balance." Though many are enamored with the right-brain, left-brain hypothesis, notes Gelb, few are putting it to use.
"There's a lot of flak thrown at the right- left concept. It's all debatable. I put it forth as a metaphor. Whether you like left -- logical, linear, detail -- or right -- integrative, rhythmic, color, daydreaming -- how do we get them to work together?" asks Gelb, noting that the "highest functioning of intelligence is achieved with a balance of the two hemispheres of the brain."
In most of our educational system, notes Gelb, "left-brained skills are rewarded and right-brain skills are tolerated. It's good that you should do art, but it's not really serious, it's not the so-called bottom line."
The domination of the left continues in management, where "the more logical, analytical types have gotten validation for the way they are. They tend to stay that way. They lack vision, ability to see the whole picture. They plan things and have all the details and they keep being surprised when things don't work out that way. Those who are more intuitive, more right brain, often feel guilty for the way in which they think," says Gelb, who has observed a "right brain-left brain snobbery -- the right-brains say the left-brains aren't creative, and the left-brains say the right brains are flaky."
The two distinguishing characteristics of highest-level managers in the United States, says Gelb, are the ability to make intuitive decisions and the ability to have a high tolerance for ambiguity, both right-brain skills, which should be backed up "with the left brain command of the facts."
In the seminar, while encouraging play, imagination and intuition (right brain), he demands that the presentation be logically constructed and that participants return from breaks on time (left brain.) During breaks, participants are encouraged to eat lunch with the opposite hand.
"We teach the strict, logical ones how to loosen up and the loose ones how to look after the details without losing the fun of the process."
Gelb emphasizes that all the techniques he teaches -- juggling, reading, memory, "mind-mapping" (see box) and the use of music -- are not disconnected items on a list, but a set of skills that allows more affective access to the brain.
Gelb has held several seminars for managers and employes at E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. in Delaware.
Will Lock, program manager at Du Pont in Wilmington, Del., says he finds juggling to be "the perfect stress release exercise."
And Thomas Jenkins, manager of learning resources at Du Pont, who uses lacrosse balls instead of tennis balls, claims juggling has enabled him "to maintain much more consistent higher levels of energy and interest."
"Part of what I want for them," says Gelb, "is to learn with the same kind of openness and genius of a child. Letting the brain function in that open, exploratory, nonjudgmental manner -- it just takes in information, it's interested, takes in more information, what does it taste like, smell like, how does it look from this angle -- explore, explore, explore."
Michael Gelb is presenting a one-day Reading and Study Strategies seminar July 20 (cost: $125), and a two-day High Performance Learning seminar Sept. 14-15 (cost: $250). Both are sponsored by the National Learning Laboratory, a nonprofit corporation, 8417 Bradley Blvd., Bethesda, Md. 20817. (301) 365-7700. For information about setting up a program, write: High Performance Learning Center, 3620 38th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20016, or call (202) 537-0775.