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'THE KATALYST' BOUNCES THROUGH

Red rubber balls foster fun, motivation and life’s sense of adventure

by Eric Prideaux

The red rubber ball soared over a wall, traced an arc against the springtime Tokyo sky and fell — ker-plump! — into the playground of Takanawadai Elementary School.

There, it was immediately put into motion by a throng of running, jumping, laughing children, who seemed gleefully unconcerned about how the mysterious gift had arrived from above.

Nor did it seem to strike the children as odd that a smiling foreign man in a baseball cap soon appeared out of nowhere bearing more red rubber balls that he tossed about with an abandon much like their own.

Once all the balls were in circulation, the visitor in the cap, 48-year-old American Kevin Carroll, paused to savor the chaos — with a big, boyish grin lighting up his face.

“They all have a life of their own now,” he said of the red rubber balls. “She took it. He’s got one. They’ve got one right here that they’re trying to kill people with. And see way over there? The kid just kicked it? They’re playing soccer!”

An uninformed bystander might wonder who Carroll was, why he was there, and how someone could at once look grown-up and yet possess the wonder-struck expression of a child.

The answer is that Carroll — a father of two adult sons and a teenage stepdaughter — is founder of The Katalyst Consultancy, whose corporate mission is to keep alive, in people young and old, the uninhibited imagination and sense of adventure of our childhood years. It’s a mission he’s intent on taking to the world.

The “ball drop” at the elementary school was primarily an exercise in international diplomacy — a kind that gets straight to the fun.

But Carroll’s gifts were metaphor, as well. “The Katalyst,” as he styles himself, sees his role as helping children and adults identify life ambitions that are fulfilling and fun — a process he calls “finding your red rubber ball.”

Carroll has devised five “rules” for success: Dedication to the goal; taking personal responsibility for successes and failures along the way; education, or jumping at “chances to learn and grow every day”; maintaining a positive attitude; and, finally, seeking motivation to overcome life’s inevitable hurdles.

Dedication, responsibility, education, attitude and motivation: Carroll’s formula for realizing a D-R-E-A-M.

But what’s play got to do with it?

Carroll insists that a willingness to make life like play is key to this process. He cites, for example, the California-based National Institute for Play, which maintains that “science is making clear that play fulfills fundamental human needs.”

To some, Carroll’s self-help message may seem to be just red-rubber pie-in-the-sky. But not everyone’s a cynic. Indeed, according to The Katalyst Consultancy’s Web site, “It is not unusual for (Carroll) to work with CEOs from Fortune 500 companies and a group of equally unruly first-graders on the same day.”

Carroll, who developed his idea while working with the Nike sportswear company, said that since he started his business in 2004, his clients have included telecom giant AT&T, Starbucks and the Walt Disney Company.

On this, his first visit to Japan as an independent consultant, Carroll (who lives in Portland, Oregon) said this country had a particular need for his brand of inspiration.

“Play,” he said, “really plays a big role in all the success that this culture is hoping to achieve: innovation, creativity, imagination. To be leaders in that, it’s not just going to be by sheer sweat.”

While in Tokyo, Carroll also stopped off at the lively Tokyo International School in Minato Ward, where he shared with his well-behaved listeners a personal take on the connection between red rubber balls and achieving a dream.

At age 6, Carroll recounted, his mother abandoned him and his two brothers in a trailer in the middle of nowhere in rural Pennsylvania. However, with the help of a stranger, the boys were able to find their grandparents in Philadelphia, who subsequently raised them.

Alone and scared in that unfamiliar environment, Carroll said he consoled himself playing with a red rubber ball he found in a playground. Then, after local boys noticed his speed in chasing the ball, they invited him to join their own games, dubbing him “Little Fast Kid.”

That ball helped launch a long career in sports that led to Carroll joining the National Basketball Association — not as a player, but as head athletic trainer for the Philadelphia 76ers. That was his stepping stone to Nike and beyond.

At the International School, Carroll’s success story moved 11-year-old student Kyle. “I do a lot of sports, and I learned a lesson to never give up,” he said.

There were a few hours before Carroll was to hop on a plane for Okinawa to conduct sessions with U.S. military support staff. So, rather than kick his heels, he popped into the International Secondary School in Tokyo’s Minato Ward, which U.S. founder Patrick Newell (who also founded TIS) said was tailored to “kids for whom a mainstream classroom is not the best place to meet their needs.”

Maybe because of this, the multiethnic gathering of teens seemed particularly attuned to the Carroll message.

“What’s your red rubber ball? You should be able to answer that question,” said The Katalyst. “You shouldn’t be getting up just to get through the day — because then you’re cheating all of us. We’re waiting for you all to be leaders.”