What’s Important in Life? The Glass Jar Experiment

I always say that wealth and fame could never constitute an entire person. No matter how successful you get, you must remain ever mindful of all in your life that truly matters to you. The best way to illustrate this point is to use an excerpted allegory from CJ Cavert’s book, Living an Exceptional Life. The story has been retold in several different ways, but it is the moral that is important. The story is as follows:

A professor walked into his MBA class carrying a large glass jar.  The students could see that the jar was jam-packed with big rocks.  The professor placed the heavy jar on his desk and turned to the class, smiling.

            “Pop quiz on time-management”, he said.  “This jar is your schedule.  The rocks in the jar are the events in your schedule, such as reports and projects.  The question is: how much time do you have left?”

Well, the students were a bit surprised by this; after all, it was clearly obvious that the jar was so full, that not one more rock could be placed in the jar.  They answered “We have no more time!” 

The professor smiled.  He reached under his desk and pulled out a pail filled with gravel.  He poured the gravel into the top of the jar and the students watched as the gravel filled in all the space around the big rocks.  The professor smiled a second time and asked “Okay, NOW how much time do you have?”

            Well, the students were surprised.  They hadn’t considered that he would use gravel, but now all the space around the big rocks looked like it had been filled in.  “There is no time left!” they cried.

The professor reached under his desk and pulled out a second pail, this time filled with sand.  He slowly poured the sand into the top of the jar, pausing every so often to shake the jar and allow the sand to sift gently down and fill in all the remaining space around the gravel.  “How much more time do you have?”

            Now the students were really surprised.  But it was clear by looking at the jar that all the

remaining space had been filled in.  “You have no more time!” they cried.

            The professor reached under his desk a third and final time and pulled out a third pail filled with

water.  He poured the water into the top of the jar, and this time it did fill in all the remaining space.  He put the empty pail down and smiled.

 “What’s the moral of the story?” the professor asked.  The students thought about this for a moment before answering.

            “If you try harder, you can do more!” said one student.

            “There is always a way to fit more into your schedule!” said another.

 “We have all the time we need to get things done!” cried a third.

            The professor nodded.  “These are all good points,” he commented, “but they are not the true moral of the story.  The moral of the story is: if you don’t put the big rocks in the jar FIRST, you won’t get them all back in.” 


So, what does this story have to do with your business, and the idea of improving yourself as an individual? The answer is everything. We are each individually searching to become a better leader and a better person – in our own way.

Many businesspeople have done a variation of this exercise; however, I did it a bit differently. What if it wasn’t just your schedule in the jar? What if amid those various objects contained in the glass was your life?

Imagine you had rocks, pebbles, gravel, sand, a piece of glass, and water. Let’s say that the rocks represent what is most important to you, such as your family, best friends, health, and passions; the pebbles represent acquaintances, work, hobbies, and so on. The gravel represents the various responsibilities that you have in your life, which can be difficult, but must be handled; the sand represents the smaller everyday errands that seem to find a way to pile up. Now for the glass…a piece of jagged glass that represents a painful memory or experience that shapes the person you are today. And the water is that which rejuvenates you.

Assuming you picked up on the lesson from Mr. Calvert, the order in which you fill the jar matters greatly. But, there’s another interesting thing about this image to consider. Once the jar were completely full, how easy would it be to see the rocks? How easy would it be to see a single piece of glass?

The answer is extremely difficult. The things that matter to us most (family, relationships, etc.) and the things that teach us the greatest lessons (painful experiences), get muddied up by the gravel and sand, only to be occasionally pushed away by the flowing water.

So how do we deal with such a difficult issue? Well, we believe that the trick is to live your life and fill your time with things that you love most instead of the things that weigh you down. A wise man once told us that you should always look at your life in units of 10. If you feel yourself getting bogged down in a routine or rut, every once in a while, stop and ask yourself a series of questions: “Will what I’m doing be important to me in 10 days? Will it be important in 10 weeks? 10 months? 10 years? 10 decades?”

If you’re spending a significant amount of time on something without getting past the days or weeks – and at times even months – mark, it is time to seriously examine your life and consider making a change. And if it seems that a change is in order, the key is to actually do it.

For me, that’s what the transition to being the best kind of businessperson and the best kind person looks like. This is what becoming a true gentleman – a true intrepid man of the world – is. It has nothing to do with what you do in your life; it has everything to do how you live it.

Some people can go through life without dedicating any time to the things that they love most. They pursue money, fame, power – and even perfection – and soon lose sight of the things that anchor them as individuals. But the funny thing is, perfection doesn’t exist. It’s imperfection that gives color and uniqueness to the world. It’s the ability to accept that imperfection, but always keep working to improve on it, that forges the strongest and most interesting people.

At the end of the day, being “perfect” doesn’t matter as long as you consume time with the people and things that you love. But, this is all much easier said than done. However, exploring how to stay on this path of continual improvement is ever vital.

So as you build your own enterprise and continue to prioritize your time, don’t forget to stop and peer through the glass jar of your own life.