The Pickle Jar

(cc) Ken Kennedy (Flickr)

(cc) Ken Kennedy (Flickr)

Making their way into the large classroom, the students began to settle into their seats and prepare for the day’s instruction. They were mostly freshmen, trying to figure out all of the intricacies of college life, the majority of them still somewhat awkward and uncertain of themselves in this new environment. It was only the third week of school.

This particular class was “Introduction to Modern Chemistry”. Professor Lindstrom appeared to be in his late fifties or early sixties, with thinning hair and a graying beard. His meticulously-pressed white lab coat bore his name emblazoned across his heart.

“Good morning, students. Please take a moment to close your textbook and put it away.” His pupils had become accustomed to the professor’s quiet demeanor and measured tone. He had a grandfatherly air about him – wise, patient, and genuinely caring. These qualities endeared him to his students, who were now wondering at the reason for today’s unusual instructions. “Please also put away your pen and paper, and clear everything off of your desk. You will not be taking notes today, but you will need to pay careful attention to everything I tell you. The next forty-five minutes could change the course of your life.”

The professor was not known to exaggerate or sensationalize. The students quickly put away their things as quiet anticipation filled the room. Now enjoying the rapt attention of one hundred twenty-three eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds, the professor slowly produced a moderately large, empty pickle jar from underneath the lectern and placed it in the middle of the lab desk at the front of the classroom.

“I have here an empty pickle jar. Can everyone see that it is empty?” The students nodded their heads in agreement as the professor stepped back over to the lectern. This time he brought out a bucket of golf balls, which he placed next to the empty pickle jar. “I will now ask Mr. Simpson,” pointing to a student in the second row, “to step forward and assist me. Mr. Simpson, if you please.” Jeffrey Simpson stepped over three classmates as he made his way to the aisle, then down to the front of the room to join the professor. “Thank you, Mr. Simpson. Your task is to take one golf ball at a time out of the bucket and place it carefully into the empty pickle jar. Repeat the process until the jar is full and no more golf balls will fit. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir. I understand.” Jeffrey proceeded to carefully place the first ball in the bottom of the empty jar, then the second, and the third, continuing until no more golf balls would fit in the jar. “I believe the jar is now full, Professor. It doesn’t look like I can fit any more golf balls inside the jar.”

“Thank you, Mr. Simpson. You did remarkably well. You may take your seat.” Holding up the ball-filled jar, the teacher addressed the rest of the students. “Class, how many of you would agree with Mr. Simpson that the jar is full?” Most of the students raised their hands. “It looks like you have quite a following, Mr. Simpson,” the professor said cheerfully, evoking laughter from the room. After setting the jar back in the center of the lab desk, the professor returned to the lectern and fetched another jar, this one filled with small pebbles.

Without saying a word, he walked back over to the lab desk and slowly began to pour the pebbles into the jar of golf balls. The students quietly watched as the pebbles fell into the open spaces between the golf balls. Two or three times the professor picked up the pickle jar and shook it gently, causing the pebbles to settle and pack themselves more tightly around the golf balls. Before long, all of the pebbles had been poured into the pickle jar.

Professor Lindstrom held up the jar for the students to observe. “Just a moment ago, almost everyone in this room agreed that the jar was full because it would hold no more golf balls. As we have now seen, we were wrong. By placing pebbles in the empty spaces between the golf balls, we have now filled the jar to capacity. Correct?” Most of the students nodded.

Returning the pickle jar to the lab desk, the professor made yet another trip to the lectern, this time returning with a jar of sand. As he held it up for the students to see, some chuckled knowingly. Carefully he poured the sand into the pickle jar, once again shaking the jar gently a few times to allow the contents to settle. The grains of sand were tiny enough to fill the small air pockets between the pebbles. When the sand was level with the lip on the jar, the teacher asked the students one last time, “Now is the jar full?” Again, the majority of the class nodded in agreement.

On his final trip to the lectern, the professor retrieved two cups of coffee and carefully poured them into the pickle jar. The demonstration was now complete, and the room erupted into spontaneous applause.

After a moment, Scott Sanders raised his hand near the top left corner of the room.

“Yes, Mr. Sanders?”

“You mentioned at the beginning of class that today’s lesson could change the direction of our lives. Could you explain?”

“Thank you, Mr. Sanders.” Taking a seat on the lab stool in front of the lectern, the good professor explained. “Life is full of choices. The choices you make have consequences, and some of those consequences have the potential to change the entire course of your life, for good or for bad.

“The golf balls represent the really important things in your life: your family, your friends, your faith, your health, the things that you are passionate about. If you lost everything else and only these things remained, your life would still be complete.

“The pebbles represent things that are significant and give your life meaning, but are not as important as the golf balls: things like your job, your education, your hobbies, music, and sports.

“The sand represents everything else in your life: all of the thousand-and-one tasks and possessions that fill the empty spaces every day. For example, surfing the Internet, or running errands, or playing video games.

“If I had filled the jar with sand first, there would have been no room left for the pebbles or the golf balls. Life is like that. If you spend all your time and all your energy on the small things, there will be no room left for the really important things in your life. Put the big stuff first. Give priority and attention to the most important things, the things that bring true fulfillment and happiness. Follow your passions, spend time with family, nurture and grow your faith, pay attention to your health. Then take care of the pebbles. Get a good education, work hard at your job, pursue your hobbies. The time that is left can be spent on the trivial things.”

Allowing a few moments for the message to sink in, the professor sat quietly. Maggie Harrington, sitting on the far right about ten rows up, timidly raised her hand. “Yes, Ms. Harrington?” Maggie asked the question that was on a number of the students’ minds. “What about the coffee? What does it represent?” The professor chuckled softly, then explained. “Ah, yes, the coffee. That’s actually my favorite part. The coffee simply illustrates that, no matter how full your jar is, no matter how busy your life seems, you always have time to share a cup of coffee with a dear friend.”

As the students left the classroom, they each picked up a golf ball from buckets that the professor had placed at the exits. They were encouraged to carry the ball in their pocket or purse from time to time as a reminder of the day’s lesson. On each golf ball were imprinted three simple words: “BIG STUFF FIRST”.

Golf Ball

NOTE: Numerous adaptations of the above story have been told and printed through the years. There is no way of knowing where or with whom the story originated. I have added considerable detail in my retelling of it here.


What are the things in your life that you would classify as “golf balls”? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Paul O'Rear Signature


Image Credits:

  1. Pickles!, by Ken Kennedy (Flickr), Creative Commons License.
  2. Golf Ball, courtesy of

Please be respectful of others when posting a comment, even if you disagree with me or with another commenter. I reserve the right to delete any comment that is snarky, offensive, off-topic, or contains profanity. By posting a comment on this blog, you agree to abide by my Comment Policy .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

One thought on “The Pickle Jar

  1. Paul, I LOVE this story, probably because I need to be reminded EVERY DAY that I should put the BIG STUFF FIRST! That isn’t something that really resolves itself BY ITSELF as one grows older. Even after the family is all grown and gone, and the nest is empty, sometimes it is difficult to separate the BIG STUFF from the LITTLE STUFF. The LITTLE STUFF has a way of nosing itself into one’s life every day, and sometimes it is hard to make it “go away”. I believe that my BIG STUFF has always been the things that this story categorizes as BIG STUFF: spending time with family–no matter what stage of life one’s family occupies, nurturing and growing one’s faith–which I badly need to pay more attention to, paying attention to one’s health, and following one’s passions. I put “following one’s passions” last instead of first, because for me, the next three ARE and HAVE ALWAYS BEEN my passions. The pebbles, and the sand, and the coffee just have to find their place as they are able, and as time permits!