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Carroll Touts Benefits of Play at Staffing Management Conference

By Stephenie Overman  4/15/2008
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NASHVILLE, TENN.—Kevin Carroll credits a red rubber ball with turning him into a human catalyst—make that katalyst with a “k”—who helps other people pursue their passion.

Carroll tossed red rubber balls into the audience for his keynote presentation at the 2008 SHRM Staffing Management conference here April 15 to encourage attendees to find their own passion for play and for life.

“Pay attention. Each of us should symbolically have something we’re chasing,” something that inspires passion, he said.

Carroll is a storyteller, author of Rules of the Red Rubber Ball: Find and Sustain Your Life's Work, and founder of The Katalyst Consultancy. He has worked with Nike, ESPN, Disney and Starbucks, among others.

He told his audience that he has spent his life “discovering new ways of tapping into play” and urged them to look at the world “through the eyes of a child, with wonder and possibility. ... Play is critical to the imagination.”

In simple ways, “we were geniuses as children,” Carroll said. But “as we got older we got defined” too narrowly, became trapped in silos and got locked into ways of doing things.

“What is it that adults can’t stand? Change. What is that children revel in? Change. What is the 21st century filled with? Change.”

Human potential is boundless, Carroll said, using as an example his own story as a child of addicted parents, raised by grandparents who were his “rescuers.” On an empty Philadelphia playground, he found a red rubber ball that “saved my life.” Frustrated and angry, he kicked the ball around the playground as far as he could. He soon found himself surrounded by neighborhood children watching him.

“I found an instant community. They nicknamed me ‘Little Fast Kid.’ All the kids knew I wanted to chase this ball and I did it with passion,” he said. “That ball turned into a football, a basketball, a hockey stick…” and led him to a love of sports and to training positions with the National Basketball Association and an Olympics team.

“I knew that ball was always going to be in my life.”

Eventually Nike offered him a job, Carroll continued. “So many times we are risk-averse. I took a risk when I went out to Nike. They said ‘we don’t know where you fit.’ For the first 90 days, I just went out and talked to as many people as possible. I’d introduce myself and tell them about my red rubber ball and ask them, ‘What’s your red rubber ball?’ I’d hear stories about passion and inspiration.”

Carroll’s role became “giving an injection of passion across the organization.” He said Nike told him: “ ‘Call yourself whatever you want.’ I decided I’m a human catalyst, a change agent. But katalyst with a K, for Kevin.”

Carroll has traveled around the world, meeting with poor children in developing countries and giving them new balls in exchange for the ones they had made out of scraps and plastic bags and even dried banana leaves.

“I have [more than] 90 balls I’ve collected from around the world that I’ve traded with people to show what we have the capacity for” when the imagination of a child is unleashed.

Stephenie Overman is editor of Staffing Management magazine.

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