The Mayonnaise Jar and Cups of Coffee

Americans have a love affair with their coffee; and that affection comes with a hefty price tag — $12 billion per year. More than 50% of Americans over 18 years of age (150 million +) drink coffee (or coffee-related drinks) each day. Among coffee drinkers in the U.S., the average consumption is 3.2 cups per day. Since the average cup size is 9 ounces, that amounts to 28.8 ounces of coffee per day. Who needs Red Bull with this amount of caffeine? Men and woman drink about the same amount of coffee per day; however their motivation for drinking differs dramatically: paradoxically, women state that drinking coffee helps them relax, while men indicate that it helps them complete their work. By extension if Starbuck and Peets were to close shop, American business and commerce would come to a grinding halt (pun intended). To fuel corporate America, coffee shops are conveniently located to provide consumers their daily fix — Seattle has 15 coffee shops per 100,000 residents, while San Francisco and Manhattan have 9 per 100,000 residents.

A cup of coffee consumed on a typical work day can be rather prosaic and inconsequential. But a cup of coffee in the hands of perspicacious old professor is another matter altogether:

When things in your life seem almost too much to handle, when 24 hours in a day are not enough, when life seems to be passing you by, remember the lecture of the mayonnaise jar and two cups of coffee.

A wise elderly philosophy professor stood before his class of young students, hungry for his insight and wisdom. Before him was a table with a large, empty mayonnaise jar and a box of items. After the students settled down, without speaking a word, the professor filled the jar with the eggs. He turned to his students and asked: is the jar full? They unanimously agreed that it was.

The professor then picked up a box of pebbles and poured them into the jar, shaking the jar lightly. The pebbles gently rolled into the space in between the eggs. He then asked the students again if the jar was full. They agreed that it was.

The professor next picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar. The sand slowly filled in the remaining space. He asked his class once more if the jar was full. The students responded in unanimous agreement.

The professor then produced two cups of coffee and poured the entire contents into the jar. The sand absorbed whatever coffee did not fill the remaining space in the jar. At this point, the students were amused but puzzled. Clearly the professor was up to his usual pedagogical antics — “there is some profound meaning in all this,” they collectively thought.

“Now” said the professor to his intrigued students, “I want you to note that this jar represents your life. The eggs are the important things in life — your faith, family, children, health, friends, and passions; the things that if everything else in your life was lost — and only these things remained — then you could conclude that your life would be full. The pebbles represent the other things that matter — like your job, house, car, and so forth. The sand is everything else — the small, trivial matters.

“If you were to put the sand into the jar first,” he continued, “there is no room for the pebbles or the eggs. Life is the same way: if you spend all your time and energy on trivial matters, you will never have room for the things that are important to you. Pay attention to the things that are critical to your life, that bring you fulfillment and happiness. Play with your children. Take time to get medical checkups. Take your spouse out to dinner. Enjoy your hobbies. There will always be time to do the thousand little things in life. It is so important to set your priorities.”

A wave of enlightenment passed through the class, evoking smiles and knowing grins. Sitting at the back of the class, one student remained puzzled. She raised her hand and asked, “Professor, what does the coffee represent?”

“I’m glad you asked,” he said, smiling at his own cleverness, “It just goes to show you that no matter how full your life may seem, there’s always room for a few cups of coffee with a friend.”

Class dismissed.

For further reading:
Story adapted from the story by an unknown author who posted “The Mayonnaise Jar and Two Cups of Coffee” on a myspace bulletin board many years ago.

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