Let the Ball Fall
In high school, I spent weekends and summers working at my best friend’s family-run auto shop in South Louisiana. My job was mostly grunt work supporting the crew and doing lots of cleaning, which often meant using the shop vac. One day, I accidentally tipped the vacuum over, and it started making an awful noise. Panicked, thinking I had broken it, I tried turning it off and on several times, but the noise wouldn't stop. I had no idea what to do.
That's when Ronnie-Roy, a seasoned mechanic at the shop, noticed my struggle. He casually walked over, turned the vacuum off, and said, "Let the ball fall.” I gave him a puzzled look, and he repeated, “Let the ball fall.” And after a few moments, he flipped the switch back on, and the vacuum was working perfectly again. He walked back to his work with a smirk on his face.
The shop vac has a safety mechanism that kicks when it gets tilted too far. A ball moves into place, blocking the vacuum from operating until you turn the machine off and the ball settles. This is a feature and not a bug. It’s a clever mechanism, but no amount of force or effort will fix the situation. The only thing you can do is let things settle before you can proceed.
That day, I learned an important lesson: sometimes, you must step back and let things settle before it is possible to reach your goal. When things feel chaotic, I’ve always remembered what Ronnie Roy told me: don’t freak out, just let the ball fall.
It is distinct from dropping the ball.
Letting the ball fall is not dropping the ball. When you drop the ball, you fail to act by mistake or neglect on something you are responsible for. When you let the ball fall, you mindfully allow things to play out by removing your active involvement to reach your ultimate goal.
We easily worry that folks will perceive us as dropping the ball when we let it fall, but sometimes, this is the right thing to do. For instance, if work is piling too much on your plate, you might start working longer hours to make up for this. You also might notice that this additional work is the same as trying to operate your vacuum with the safety valve blocked. There is no way you are operating at 100%, and that ineffectiveness is a catalyst for a feedback loop to brute force your way through more work to try to solve the problem. You are making a systemic problem (your company’s inability to allocate work properly) an impossible personal problem (not enough hours in the day to complete your work). You tell your boss, “We need more help; I’m working longer hours with no end in sight; I can’t keep up like this; it is not sustainable.” If the problem isn’t addressed directly by leadership, the most reasonable thing to do is to let the ball fall. Demonstrate to your employer what a sustainable work-life balance is and let the organization handle this dysfunction directly instead of obfuscating the problem through personal grit. Your ultimate goal is for both you and the organization to operate sustainably. This short-term pain of taking a step back to let the ball fall will lead to a long-term benefit to both you and your company.
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