Are you a plate spinner?

I finished another Travis McGee novel last night titled, “Dress Her In Indigo.” I simply love the McGee character John MacDonald created for this book series. Each book includes gold nuggets on how to live a good life. MacDonald had a gift that he used to entertain and teach at the same time. Through his stories he teaches us to question our lives and to make sure we’re really living well.

In this particular book, Travis McGee is hired by a father to find out what happened to his daughter who died in Mexico during a trip with a group of friends. This father had been a very successful business man who had recently been in bad car accident that left him paralyzed. Prior to his car accident, his wife and the mother of his only daughter had died from what seemed to be brain cancer.

His life went from ultra successful to an ugly disaster very quickly.

MacDonald described this father (Mr. T. Harlan Bowie) as…

“The memory of my short visit with Mr. T. Harlan Bowie was recent and vivid. Maybe any complex and demanding life in our highly structured culture is like that old juggling routine in which a line of flexible wands as long as pool cues is fastened to a long narrow table and the juggler-clown goes down the line, starting a big white dinner spinning atop each one, accelerating the spin by waggling the wand. By the time he gets the last one spinning, the first one has slowed to a dangerous, sloppy wobble, and so he races back and waggles the wand frantically and gets it up to speed. Then the third one needs attention, then the second, the fifth, the eight, and the little man runs back and forth staring up in horrid anxiety, keeping them all going, and always on the verge of progressive disaster.

So Mr. Bowie’s white spinning plates had been labeled Vice President and Trust Officer of a large Miami bank, Homeowner, Pillar of the Community, Husband of Liz, Director of This and That, Board Member of The Other, Father of Beatrice known as Bix, the lovely daughter and only child.

He kept his plates spinning nicely, and I imagine he expected to eventually take them off the wands and put them down, with each deletion simplifying the task that remained, until maybe there would be just one plate called Sunset Years, placidly spinning.

But somehow life is arranged so that if one plate wobbles too much and slips off the wand tip and smashes, the rest of them start to go also, as if the sudden clumsiness were a contagion.”

In other words, we create complex and demanding lives with many plates to spin. We struggle running back and forth trying to keep each plate moving. We think we’ll be able to take down these plates whenever we want; however, life doesn’t work that way.

Sometimes one plate falls and knocks down several other plates on the way down. Sometimes life takes one or more of the plates down for us. And sadly, we don’t get a say which plates fall or when they’ll fall. They just starting falling without notice and we’re left with a mess of shattered pieces.

The life philosophy MacDonald has offered for us is as follows:

  1. Be careful trying to spin too many plates. When you put up too many plates, you create a life that is very hard to maintain. Because you have so many plates spinning, you cannot invest much time or attention to any one of them, and everything suffers. Your plates wobble and fall knocking others down in the process.
  2. Make sure you’re spinning the “right” plates. Why race back and forth spinning a plate that doesn’t provide any meaning or happiness in your life?

For reference, a “plate” could be your job, your business(es), your important relationships, your important responsibilities, your health AND every goal you’re pursuing.

For example, say you have a goal to be a multi-millionaire. This goal is a plate that you’re spinning. It’s a plate that is very heavy and large requiring a great deal of your effort to keep it moving. In fact, it’s so heavy that it almost forces you to spin it non-stop for 10 hours a day, 6 or 7 days a week, for decades.

While you’re frantically spinning your multi-millionaire plate, all of your other plates wobble and fall. These plates that wobble include your marriage, your relationships with your children, your brothers/sisters, your parents and your friends, and your health.

This is what happened to me.

The crazy part is that we seem to take pride in spinning lots of plates. I certainly did when I was spinning many plates. I felt important because I was a master plate spinner adding more and more plates with each passing year. More businesses, more investments, more employees, more obligations, more responsibilities, and more debt.

Until my first plate fell knocking down several others on the way down.

Here’s how my plates fell….

1. The real estate market crashed and all of my real estate investments dropped in value over 50% leaving me owning more money than I was worth. I was bankrupt on paper.

2. The buyer of my real estate business defaulted and a large portion of my income disappeared instantly.

3. My mother was diagnosed with lung cancer and died within months.

4. As the market continued to tumble, I lost many of my best friends. They had worked with me and had invested in real estate suffering massive financial losses just like me. These losses strained our relationships never to be the same again.

5. I lost my self-confidence and felt like a massive failure walking away from everything for several years.

On a small level, we’re all like the character in this McGee book.

We’re all plate spinners running around trying to keep everything together. The question is… is it really worth it?

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