A Jar of Rocks

A Jar of Rocks
Terry Odell

image of rocks inside a glass jarChecking my calendar, I see that this is my last post before the annual holiday hiatus, so it’s time to think “loftier” thoughts as we reflect on the upcoming departure of 2022.

A while back, a post from Garry Rodgers introduced me to the weekly newsletter from Farnam Street.

This past Sunday’s offerings included a variation on something I used to do with my 7th grade science students early in the semester, which was to take two graduated cylinders, each with 100 ml of a clear liquid and pour the contents into a third graduate. The combined liquids did not reach the 200 ml line, and we discussed possible explanations of why. Answer in the comments.

The article included in Farnam Street was similar, but the teacher’s goal went beyond the science. I thought it worth sharing at this time of year, especially after NaNoWriMo, where word count became the focus of participants.

A high school science teacher wanted to demonstrate a concept to his students. He takes a large-mouth jar and places several large rocks in it. He then asks the class, “Is it full?”

Unanimously, the class replies, “Yes!”

The teacher then takes a bucket of gravel and pours it into the jar. The small rocks settle into the spaces between the big rocks.

He then asks the class, “Is it full?”

This time there are some students holding back, but most reply, “Yes!” The teacher then produces a large can of sand and proceeds to pour it into the jar. The sand fills up the spaces between the gravel.

For the third time, the teacher asks, “Is it full?”

Most of the students are wary of answering, but again, many reply, “Yes!”

Then the teacher brings out a pitcher of water and pours it into the jar. The water saturates the sand. At this point, the teacher asks the class, “What is the point of this demonstration?”

One bright young student raises his hand and then responds, “No matter how full one’s schedule is in life, he can always squeeze in more things!”

“No,” replies the teacher, “The point is that unless you first place the big rocks into the jar, you are never going to get them in. The big rocks are the important things in your life …your family, your friends, your personal growth. If you fill your life with small things, as demonstrated by the gravel, the sand, and the water…you will never have the time for the important things.

So, what are the “Big Rocks” in your life? Spending time with your children, your parents or your spouse? Taking the seminar or class to get the information and perspective you need to succeed? Making the time to set goals, plan or evaluate your progress? When you are hassled because there is no time, remember the story about the Big Rocks and the Jar!”

— Author Unknown

 All right TKZers, at this busy time of year, what are your Big Rocks?

(If anyone knows why I didn’t get 200 ml of liquid, feel free to mention it in the comments. Or take a guess.)

Have a safe and happy holiday season no matter what you celebrate (or don’t).

See you in 2023!

Now Available: Cruising Undercover

It’s supposed to be a simple assignment aboard a luxury yacht, but soon, he’s in over his head.

Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.”

35 thoughts on “A Jar of Rocks

  1. I have a bit of advice I always include in my final comments to my writing students. I think it fits here.

    Writing is a hobby, an avocation, or a career, but it is not a life. Real life is what matters most. You will regret it if you look up from your keyboard one day to discover life has passed you by, and the writing wasn’t worth the cost.

  2. Writing is literally the only thing in my life that gives it value. As a disabled person, I have lost almost everything else.

    My husband does his own thing, the kids live many states away and there is still a pandemic, even if most people in the world pretend there isn’t, and I can’t do the kind of things other people do in retirement: volunteer, travel, mentoring…

    Writing comes first – but I will happily let anything else on the list that is important get some of my energy. I owe it to my people to be as happy as I can manage in my condition, and that means having something that is only mine, that I do well, and that I can still do.

    I think other people have different priorities – but this is mine. It makes me, me. Without it I am simply not me, and certainly not the me I planned to be and worked toward.

    I’m sure it will go at some point, but I aim to make that happen as late as possible: it’s the passion I need. It IS my life.

  3. The big rock for me is spending time with my Maker. Everything else must fit in after.

    How interesting the theme of this week’s posts–what’s important, and how we spend our time–including hearing about a person who has managed to fit a multitude of things into their life.

    These posts come at a time when I’m having to make some life changes. I like to dabble in a bunch of things and I like to volunteer & help in my areas of interest. Just yesterday I made the difficult decision to step down as secretary of my local art league. I’ve done it for 5 years. Work is insane & some health issues are slowing me down.

    I’m getting ready to send my refusal to another historical organization I’m part of who asked me to step up and serve in a role there. It’s hard to say ‘no’ because I have observed that it’s like pulling teeth to get people to volunteer for things. It’s not easy for organizations to fill these roles.

    But I’ve finally reached the place where I have to think of my health and my energy levels and pare down other activity in my life. And FINALLY, stop flitting from one interest to another (at least for the time being) and focus on one thing–the writing.

    • I feel your pain, BK. I think one of the hardest things for me to do was to learn to say “no.” I still have trouble, but at my age, it’s a lot easier.

  4. Thanks for this story, Terry.

    Age changes priorities–the big rocks. That’s the natural progression of life.

    The bright young student said, “No matter how full one’s schedule is in life, he can always squeeze in more things!” Being young and full of energy, one wants to do/experience more, even if the additional activity turns out to be unimportant sand.

    With age, we figure out we can only do so much and learn to say no, as Terry and Brenda talk about. That’s a tough lesson b/c it’s an admission we aren’t as vigorous as we used to be when we could always squeeze in more things.

    But learning what’s truly important (big rocks) leads to wisdom and equanimity. To me, that’s a good tradeoff.

    Will someone please explain why 100 plus 100 equals less than 200? Obviously I never did that well in science class. 🙂

  5. Great question, Terry. And a good time to reassess priorities.

    Big rocks for me: Realizing that I can’t take on physically demanding projects, like repairing a rental for sale. No more of those. Realizing that I need to get physical and spend more time on my feet (instead of in my comfortable writing chair). Writing gets the creative mornings. Afternoons go to woodworking. And time to get on the speaker circuit and talk about legacy.

    And the reason why 100 + 100 = <200? I had to cheat and look it up, so I won't tell.

    • Thanks, Steve. Admitting we’re aging and having to adjust our priorities to match our physical capabilities is a big step. Good luck on the speaker circuit. I find I want to get out amongst people less and less these days.

  6. I also read that same article last Sunday, thanks to Garry for recommending the Farnam Street newsletter. I thought it was a brilliant way to get the point across. We used to say, “Major on the majors. Minor on the minors.” Same thing, but I love the visual lesson.

    During this busy time of year, writing takes a back seat so I can concentrate on my family and friends. I think a short break makes me feel more relaxed and energetic to hit the keyboard running in 2023.

    Best wishes for a wonderful holiday season!

  7. Dealing with my father’s estate and finding a new place to live – actually deciding where that new place should be.

    The water question – I’m going to say because there is residue left over in both containers.
    Also like life – just when you think something is ALL DONE there is still that little bit of whatever left over. Example – when you load the dishwasher – then wash everything that didn’t fit or can’t go in – turn it on – ALL DONE. Sit down on the couch to relax and sure enough – there is the spoon you used to stir that cup of tea you had hours ago on the coffee table.

    • My brother and I are still dealing with my mom’s estate, but the rocks are getting smaller on that one. It’s a time suck, to be sure.
      Sorry, but not the right answer. Hint – you made an assumption not stated in the question.
      As for that spoon. It’ll get put in the dishwasher when the cycle is done and the dishes are unloaded. Ignore it until the next time you get up. 🙂

  8. Great post, Terry!

    For me, the “big rocks” this time of year are family and friends–making sure that I connect with them, spend time with them. Another, which I don’t always put in, is being present now.

    My writing is a central focus of my life–I worked many years for the day that I could make writing my full-time job. Now that I’m here, focusing on writing is really about balancing. Putting the “right now” rocks in your time jar and pouring in enough water so that you reach the fill line, so that the jar is balanced at full, not over flowing or with too little water in. There will be times when I have to write less, and other times when I have to write more.

    You can tell, I love this metaphor. Thanks for today’s post! Another that’s helping me both now and in planning for the future. Thanks for all your insightful posts here at KZB!

    • Thanks, Dale, and glad my posts get you thinking. My jar right now has some big writing rocks (finish this manuscript on time) but also the family rocks. With two of my kids not living nearby, having them closer for the holidays is special–and adds motivation to get the book finished so I can spend time with them.

  9. My writing rocks in my jar have gotten bigger these last few months. It used to be something I’m passionate about, but I had to focus on “real life stuff” or else I was wasting my time. Funny enough, I’m on the job hunt at the same time as my writing has become more important.

    Here’s my guess on the water thing. The clear liquids have different densities (or whatever the sciency word is) and they sort of mixed together in the third beaker.

  10. 100ml + 100ml = 200ml problem: The only thing I can figure is that the 200ml jar is mislabeled; or, it has something to do with ml volume vs. weight.

    Beyond that, well . . . I was never known for my math skills.


  11. I asked my friend Sisyphus about big rocks, and he told me to shut up.

    Sometimes the writing life can feel like pushing a boulder up a hill, only to see it roll back down. But it’s bearable with family and friends who support you, and that team effort will eventually lead to getting that rock up…and over! (Even if a few people in your life think you’ve got rocks in your head to be a writer. Ha!)

  12. For me there are many rocks in my life, big and small ones. And it becomes a question of which of them, at this moment, shine the brightest. I set goals for the year, months and weeks, but I only plan one day at a time.

  13. For me, my big rock of all rocks is giving thanks that somewhere in some midwestern university thirty or forty years ago some sophomore in college was sitting in an Intro to Philosophy seminar thinking “what in heck should my major be? You know, that biomedical research thing sounds interesting. I’ll go talk to the Chair.” Or some medical person back in the thirties working in a hospital for gassed veterans of World War One said to himself or herself “You know, these guys, their white cell counts are all screwy. What’s up with that?”

    All of this accounts for why I’m here with y’all trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up and what stories I want to tell. I’m gonna keep on truckin’.

  14. For those who are still curious about why there wasn’t 200 mil of liquid in the graduate:
    One of the graduates contained water
    The second contained ethanol (alcohol).
    Ethanol molecules are smaller than water molecules, so there is space between them when they combine, much like the example of the rocks, etc.
    The ethanol fills in the spaces between the water molecules, thereby leaving some extra room in the combined graduate.

    • I would have never guessed that in a million years! Of course, I never took chemistry, but I do love the sciences, so I find it interesting. If I had been able to continue on one career path in my younger years, I would have taken chemistry. I was taking the prerequisites for the nursing program, then hurt my back so I couldn’t continue. Writing though, is what I’ve always wanted to do. Thank you for the lesson! 🙂

    • Thank goodness you answered this question! I got hooked and couldn’t move on until I found out. Thanks for a perfect demonstration of how to hook your reader!

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