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. Pingback: The Jar of Life: First things First | My Name is not Rosie

  2. Pingback: Jar of life indeed. – Bethitech fun tour

    • I love the part of the story, when the professor pulls out the beers. Not because of the type of beverage, but because as a society we might be focusing too much on efficiency and not enough on connection.

  3. Pingback: The Jar of Life: First things First — Balanced Action | IAN NEATE'S BLOG

  4. The best simplest guide to self as how one can focus on goals of life and how everything else is as important as the first.lovely interpretation. Thumbs up !!

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