I’m not totally sure where or when I first heard this story, but it’s meaning stuck with me for years after my initial exposure to it. It tells a tale of perspective and prioritization in an illustration that I’m hard-pressed to forget, and want to make sure as many people hear it as possible.
A teacher stood in front of a class of graduating seniors on the last day of school. Reaching under the table, he pulled out a wide mouthed gallon jar and set it on the table next to a platter covered with fist-sized rocks. “How many of these rocks do you think we can get in the jar?” he asked the class.
After the students made their guesses, the teacher said, “Okay, let’s find out.” He put one rock in the jar, then another, then another–until no more rocks would fit. Then he asked, “Is the jar full?”
Everybody could see that not one more of the rocks would fit, so they enthusiastically said, “Yes.”
“Not so fast,” he cautioned. From under the table he lifted out a bucket of gravel, dumped it in the jar, and shook it. The gravel slid into all the little spaces left by the big rocks. Grinning, the teacher asked once more, “Is the jar full?”
A little wiser by now, only half of the students answered in the affirmative.
“Good,” the teacher said. Then he reached under the table to bring up a bucket of sand. He started dumping the sand in the jar. While the students watched, the sand filled in the little spaces left by the rocks and gravel. Once more he looked at the class and said, “Now, is the jar full?”
“No,” everyone shouted back.
“Good!” said the teacher, who then grabbed a pitcher of water and began to pour it into the jar. He got something like a quart of water into that jar before he asked. Relieved, the class answered “YES.”
Then the teacher asked the class, “Can anybody tell me the lesson you can learn from this?
What’s my point?”
An eager student spoke up: “Well, there are gaps in your schedule. And if you really work at it, you can always fit more into your life.”
“Good answer,” the leader said. “But that’s not the point I was trying to make. The point is this: if I hadn’t put those big rocks in first, I would never have gotten them in.”