The Jar of Life: First things First


When life overwhelms us, when our mind is a whirlwind of thoughts and we are afraid to go under, it is important to refocus on what is truly important and dear to us. The story of the “Jar of Life” tells us that even if our life feels full, there is always room for an evening with friends or family.

Why stories are important
When life gets tough a simple, well told story or metaphor can help us look at a situation with new eyes. The distilled essence how a character in a story copes with the challenges of life can teach us an important lesson. For a short moment a story helps to quiet our mind, which allows us to take a deep breath and regain some serenity. In this sense a good, powerful story can act as a wise, compassionate guide.

I hope you enjoy the story of the “Jar of Life”. May it help you in a difficult situation.

The Jar of Life
A philosophy professor stood before his class and had some items in front of him. When the class began, he wordlessly picked up a very large and empty mayonnaise jar.

20121017-215351.jpgHe then proceeded to fill the jar with golf balls.
20121017-215457.jpg“Is the jar full?” he asked his students. “Yes,” everyone responded.

The professor then picked up a box of pebbles and poured them into the jar. He shook the jar lightly; The pebbles rolled into the areas between the golf balls.20121017-215555.jpg“Is the jar full?” he asked again.The students responded with an unanimous: “Yes.”

The professor next picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar. Of course the sand filled up all the space left.20121017-215657.jpgHe asked once more: “Is the jar full?”. “Yes, of course,” everyone responded.

The professor then produced two beers from under the table and poured the entire content into the jar, filling the empty space between the sand.20121017-215754.jpgEveryone laughed.

“Now,” the professor said as the laughter subsided. “I want you to recognize that this jar represents your life. The golf balls are the important things. Your family, your children, health, friends and favorite passions. If everything else was lost and only they remained, your life would still be full. The pebbles are the other things that matter like your job, your house or car. The sand is everything else, the small stuff.

If you put the sand into the jar first,” he continued, “there is no room for the pebbles or the golf balls. The same goes for life.

If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff you will never have room for the things that are important to you.

Pay attention to the things critical to your happiness.

Spend time with your children. Spend time with your parents. Visit your grandparents. Take your spouse out for dinner. Go out with your friends. There will always be time to clean the house and mow the lawn.

Take care of the golf balls first, the things that really matter. Set your priorities. The rest is just sand.”

One of the students raised her hand and inquired what the beer represented. The professor smiled and said: “I am glad you asked. The beer just shows that no matter how full your life may seem, there’s always room for a couple of beers with a friend.”

– Author unknown


P.S. While trying to find the author of this story I stumbled over many articles and videos using the metaphor of the jar. Stephen Covey uses the “rocks first” metaphor in his book First things first. Maybe he was the original author of the story, probably he picked it up somewhere and by retelling it participated in keeping this priceless wisdom alive.

P.S.S. If you liked this story you might enjoy the Balanced Action book. It contains this story and many others. Buy it today.


  1. Hello Philip,
    I loved the example you found, it makes sense. Sometimes we focus on the wrong things. The example shows that no matter how full and together our life seems, there is still space for more. There is importance in all the things that are in our life. Of course, there are things that are more important than others but, even the smaller things still have some significance. I hope many people read your blog because, they would learn something from it and hopefully smile like I did!

    • Thank you for your kind feedback. I fully agree that the ‘smaller’ things are very important. If I look at my life I realize, that everything important in my life is a sum of ‘small’ things. One small thing leading to another small thing, leading to … We forget this simple truth and try to arrive in one big step.

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  3. Zeke Amoranto

    Good reads !! What a heartwarming story. I started my morning with this one, cheers from the Philippines ^^,

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  6. Soo nicely explained.. It’s funny , that as we grow up we are taught these values , and many
    different things happen along the way. We teach our children what we have learned , and so on.
    We are soo blessed in life, and keeping these values, and using them daily are soo important !!
    There are priorities in life , which gives us balance. Thank you for sharing…

    • Hi Maureen,
      So true. With so many things happening in our lives, with so many competing priorities to juggle, we tend to forget to take a break and connect with the people around us. Thank you so much for taking time to comment on this post. I wish you a wonderful day.

    • Yeah, it’s a great analogy. I like the way it helps me understand that there is always a little bit of room – even if life is very busy – for something or someone I care about.

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  10. Fred

    I liked the version of the story that I saw first better than this version. This version, among other things, overexplains, and thus narrows the illustration. It’s not necessary to explain that the golf balls are specifically “Your family, your children, health, friends and favorite passions,” nor to lecture on visiting your grandparents and taking your spouse out to dinner. The golf balls (Incidentally, in the original story, the golf balls were large rocks, and the beer was water.) can simply respresent the things that are most important to you. Also, the “there’s always time to drink beer” bit was a superfluous addition. Someone has obviously “improved” this story with their own two cents, making it worse.

  11. Fred

    Also, this version leaves out part of the original story that I liked, viz:

    “One eager beaver raised his hand and said, ‘The point is, no matter how full your schedule is, if you try really hard, you can always fit some more things into it!’

    ‘No,’ the speaker replied, ‘that’s not the point. The truth this illustration teaches us is: If you don’t put the big rocks in first, you’ll never get them in at all.”

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