Friday, 30 June 2017

The stones, gravel, sand and water allegory

I keep getting emailed or seeing posts about stories about teachers filling jars with pickles or ping pong balls, and asking their class if the jar is full.

The tellers of these stories never seem to cite that this is the work of any particular author, despite the quite large number of people who have published this story in different formats over the years. 

So I am one of those annoying people, who when we see something posted on social media, we point people towards the earliest published incidence we are aware of for this story (so helpfully). I first read this allegory with stones, gravel, sand and water many years ago in a 1995 book by time management guru, Stephen R Covey, "First Things First".

The story (Covey, 1995, p. 88-89) is related as follows:
One of our associates shared this experience:

I attended a seminar once where the instructor was lecturing on time. At one point, he said, “Okay, it’s time for a quiz.” He reached under the table and pulled out a wide-mouth gallon jar. He set it on the table next to a platter with some fist-sized rocks on it. “How many of these rocks do you think we can get in the jar?” he asked.

After we made our guess, he said, “Okay. Let’s find out.” He set one rock in the jar . . . then another . . . then another. I don’t remember how many he got in, but he got the jar full. Then he asked, “Is that jar full?”

Everybody looked at the rocks and said, “Yes.”

Then he said, “Ahhh.” He reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. Then he dumped some gravel in and shook the jar and the gravel went in all the little spaces left by the big rocks. Then he grinned and said once more, “Is the jar full?”

By this time we were on to him. “Probably not,” we said.

“Good!” he replied. And he reached under the table and brought out a bucket of sand. He started dumping the sand in and it went in all the little spaces left by the rocks and the gravel. Once more he looked at us and said, “Is the jar full?”

“No!” we all roared.

He said, “Good!” and he grabbed a pitcher of water and began to pour it in. He got something like a quart of water in that jar. Then he said, “Well, what’s the point?”

Somebody said, “Well, there are gaps, and if you really work at it, you can always fit more into your life.”

“No,” he said, “that’s not the point. The point is this: if you hadn’t put these big rocks in first, would you ever have gotten any of them in?”
From the story, we can see that this was not created by the author: it was related to the author by an associate. It may originally have come from a sermon, or may even have been an embroidering or an adaptation of the Aesop Fable, the Crow and the Pitcher.

It would be interesting to know where it comes from originally - but I bet it is old.

  • Reference:  Covey, S. R., with Merrill, A. R. & Merrill, R. R. (1995). First Things First: To Live, to Love, to Learn, to Leave a Legacy. USA: FranklinCovey.

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