5 balls of life: Coca-Cola’s former CEO Brian Dyson’s commencement speech on love, work, family and friendship

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The 5 balls of life speech by Coca-Cola’s former CEO Brian Dyson (1986-1991) is one of the more viral speeches circulating in the web. In line with Apple founder Steve Jobs’ famous announcement speech at Stanford University, Dyson addresses the priorities in life using the metaphor of juggling 5 balls. He calls the balls work, family, friends, health and spirit.

5 balls of life: Neither 30 seconds nor a short speech

Brian Dyson’s commencement speech has reached such fame that multiple versions are circulating through the web: some “extended Director’s cut” versions are aimed at making his inspiring original speech sound even more inspiring, some claim Dyson’s address to be one of the most famous short speeches, and others label Dyson’s five balls speech as the 30 seconds speech. None of this is actually true.

Here goes the true story: Brian Dyson really did deliver his short speech about life, friendship, love, family and spirit at the occasion of the 172nd commencement of the Georgia Tech Institute, on September 6, 1991. Mark Turner did the effort to track the origins of Brian Dyson’s speech down. But the speech is neither short nor did it last 30 seconds only. The 5 balls of life metaphor is the closing part of a full 1634 words long commencement speech. Turner found Dyson’s original speech in Georgia Tech’s newspaper archives (download full speech here (page 3)).

The real version of the Brian Dyson speech on the five balls of life

This is the original text of Dyson’s commencement speech that refers to the 5 balls of life:

[…] Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling some five balls in the air. You name them work, family, health, friends and spirit. And you’re keeping all of these in the air.
You will soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls – family, health, friends and spirit – are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged or even shattered. They will never be the same. You must understand that and strive for balance in your life.Brian Dyson

Man juggling with 5 balls as a reference to Brian Dyson's speech on the 5 balls of life

Bryan Dyson continues: “You live in a world of growing opportunity at one of the most exciting times in history, and you have been prepared with an exceptionally fine education. Because you are all so well educated, let me pose this final question to you. What is education for? Is it for the pursuit of knowledge or for the pursuit of significance? How you answer makes a difference. Knowledge is merely a tool. There is someone in Argentina or Singapore who has the same degree as you. The difference lies in how you use it. Will you use your education for life or just as a living? It’s up to you now.

On Brian Dyson

Brian Dyson was born in Argentina in 1936 and joined Coca-Cola in 1959, where he worked during several years in South America, the Caribbean Sea and Mexico. From 1978 to 1983, Dyson was president of Coca-Cola USA until he became president of Coca-Cola North America. From 1986 to 1991, he finally was the first president and CEO of the newly created Coca-Cola Enterprises Inc.

On a final personal note

I feel passionate about sharing Brian Dyson’s quote and 5 balls of life, because his speech popped into my life during a phase where I started reconsidering priorities in my own life. I was dedicating an average of 90 hours plus to an executive job in a project I had felt really passionate about.

My passion for the job had started to fade, and the dedication to my work happened at the extent of two of my personal values: family and love. I asked myself: How are 90 hours per week dedicated to my job compatible with being consciously present and enjoying my siblings, my wife and my friends? Dyson’s metaphor inspired me to take action before my family glass ball got severely damaged. Since that decision, juggling the 5 balls of life is a personal mantra to me. Thank you, Mr. Dyson, for sharing your wise inspiring words.

If you find yourself at a similar crossroads in your career and life, take some real time to reflect on yourself. A good starting point is to identify and connect with your values, what has meaning for you and what is truly special about you. Connecting with these pillars of who you are is a great way to grow energy, confidence and clarity.
If you are not sure about your values, purpose and strengths, Peter Drucker’s Harvard Business Review article Managing Oneself is a great starting point to find your own answers. And maybe ask for someone external support to get things on the right track.

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