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Fill Your Work-Life Jar With What Matters Most: Relationships

What's at stake if we treat our workplace relationships as an afterthought.

Key points

  • Our collaborative workplace relationships matter because they help us feel connected and engaged, and because they help us achieve our goals.
  • Like all important relationships, collaborative relationships take real effort to build and sustain.
  • At work, as in life, devote time and energy to developing workplace relationships.
Universal Eye/Unsplash
The jar of life.
Source: Universal Eye/Unsplash

During my tenure as a professor at Harvey Mudd College, one of my favorite courses to teach was Psychology of Close Relationships. I would always save until the last week of class the three lessons I most wanted students to carry forward with them into the real world: (1) relationships take real effort to build and sustain; (2) it’s absolutely possible to learn how to do relationships well; and (3) the first step is to make room in your life for your relationships.

I’ll connect these ideas to workplace relationships in a moment.

But, first, I want to share the story—derived from one that has been floating around the internet for at least the past 15 years—that I told each semester to make the point about the importance of making room in life for your relationships.

The golf balls in the pickle jar

A professor walks into her classroom and sets a large pickle jar on the table. She proceeds to fill the jar with golf balls. When it is clear that no additional golf balls could possibly fit, she asks the students, “Is this jar full?” The students look a bit perplexed because, obviously, the jar is full. Nevertheless, they humor the professor and answer yes.

The professor then produces from her tote a bag of pebbles. She proceeds to pour the pebbles into the jar. Not surprisingly, the pebbles find plenty of interstitial space among the golf balls. As the pebbles settle, both the professor and the students are amazed by how many actually fit into the jar. As before, she fills the jar to the top. As before, she asks her students, “Is the jar full?” Amid smiles, the students nod yes.

Next, the professor reaches back into her tote and produces a bag of fine sand. (Sidebar: I know from experience that one should use dry sand at this point in the demonstration!) She looks up at the students, gives a wry smile, and proceeds to pour this fine sand into the jar over the golf balls and pebbles. And, of course, the sand finds the interstitial spaces. As the sand reaches the top of the jar, the professor again asks, “Is the jar full?” The students nod.

At this point, the professor pulls two cans of beer from her tote, cracks them open, and pours them into the jar. Not surprisingly, the liquid finds plenty of space in this supposedly full jar.

As she takes a breath, the professor surveys the room with warmth and positive regard for her students. She gently places her hands on either side of the jar and says:

“This jar represents your life. The golf balls represent the most important things in your life—your health, your passions, your work, your relationships. Fill your life first with golf balls. Your life will be full. You will be happy.

“Next, fill your life with the other things that matter to you, perhaps attending special events or deepening your learning about a particular subject. Finally, let the other stuff—chores, social media, or finally running the pile of clothes to the donation center—sift into the remaining spaces.

“If you fill your life with sand and pebbles first, there’s simply no way to squeeze in the golf balls. Make room, first, for the big stuff.”

At this point, one student raises her hand and asks, “But what the heck is up with the beer?”

The professor says, “I'm so glad you asked. In the jar of life, there’s always room for a beer with friends.”

The end.

How does this story connect to collaborative relationships at work?

While various versions of this story exist—sometimes involving a mayonnaise jar vs. a pickle jar, ping pong balls vs. golf balls, and coffee, tea, or wine vs. beer—the take-home point is always the same: make room for the important things in your life so they don’t get crowded out by the unimportant stuff.

I haven’t been in the classroom for a couple of years, but I've been thinking about this story a lot lately within the context of our work lives. At work, just as in life, we need to make room for the important stuff first.

And here is where my passion for collaboration comes in: Our collaborative workplace relationships matter, and not just because they help us feel connected and engaged at work. These relationships are also critical vehicles for achieving our most ambitious goals. They're important. They're golf balls. We need to invest in them.

Yet, we don’t often treat these relationships like the golf balls they are. Rather than putting in the time and effort it takes to build and sustain healthy workplace relationships, we expect those relationships to somehow develop and grow on their own. We treat collaborative relationships—and professional development around how to do those relationships well—as an afterthought, more like the sand in the story. Not surprisingly, in the absence of healthy collaborative relationships, best intentions fizzle, projects crumble, and good people walk.

Like all relationships, collaborations take effort

What I have come to realize in the years since leaving the classroom is that the same takeaways I sought to impart to my students also apply to workplace collaborations: (1) collaborative relationships take real effort to build and sustain; (2) it’s absolutely possible to learn how to do collaborative workplace relationships well; and (3) the first step is to make room in your work life for your collaborative relationships.