The following piece was given to me by a friend, and it seemed to me that it was an appropriate item to share as we consider the possibilities of the new year. I hope you will agree.

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

A professor stood before his philosophy class and had some items in front of him. When the class began, he wordlessly picked up a very large and empty mayonnaise jar and proceeded to fill it with golf balls. He then asked the students if the jar was full. They agreed that it was.

The professor then picked up a box of pebbles and poured them into the jar. He shook the jar lightly. The pebbles rolled into the open areas between the golf balls. He asked the students again if the jar was full. They agreed it was.

The professor next picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar. Of course, the sand filled up everything else. He asked once more if the jar was full. The students responded with a unanimous “yes.”

The professor then produced two cups of coffee from under the table and poured the entire contents into the jar, effectively filling the empty spaces between the sand. The students laughed.

“Now,” said the professor as the laughter subsided, “I want you to recognize that this jar represents your life. The golf balls are the important things–your family, your children, your health, your friends and your favorite passions–and if everything else was lost and only they remained, your life would be full.

“The pebbles are the other things that matter, like your job, your house and your car.

“The sand is everything else–the small stuff. If you put the sand into the jar first,” he continued, “there is no room for the pebbles or the golf balls. The same goes for life. If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff, you will never have room for the things that are important to you.

“Pay attention to the things that are critical to your happiness. Play with your children. Take time to get medical checkups. Take your spouse out to dinner. Play another 18. There always will be time to clean the house and fix the disposal. Take care of the golf balls first–the things that really matter. Set your priorities. The rest is just sand.”

One of the students raised her hand and inquired what the coffee represented. The professor smiled and said, “I’m glad you asked.

“It just goes to show you that no matter how full your life might seem, there’s always room for a couple of cups of coffee with a friend.”

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

The foregoing is, I believe, not only wisdom for personal living but also good advice for the world of business. Individually and collectively we all have a stake in the proper conduct of our business and the priorities we attach to that conduct. Among the most important assets (golf balls) of a business are its reputation and the institutions that nurture and promote it. For better or for worse a reputation is what will determine how you are accepted, not only in the marketplace but also in the legislative halls that produce controlling regulations. The reputation of a business grows out of its character, and the character of a business or profession has been defined as: “The aggregate measure of all the aspirations and principles of all the people who comprise it or who ever have.” We all contribute one way or another.

Our institutions are important because they help to create standards of behavior that build character. Educational opportunities, codes of ethics, peer pressure and sharing all contribute to a more responsible and responsive business environment. Field organizations such as NAIFA, MDRT, GAMA, AHIA and AALU deserve support because they consistently have, over a long period of time, worked to improve the character and effectiveness of the people who sell and service insurance. Those who do not put those golf balls in the jar are building their future on sand, an unreliable base at best.

Driving from Phoenix to San Diego, one passes through about 15 miles of sand dunes just west of Yuma, Arizona. Before a modern highway was built, the only way to traverse this desert was over a plank road built atop the sand dunes. Remnants of this old plank road are still visible as you drive by today. The biggest problem with the plank road was that every time the wind blew, the sands shifted and tore up the road. After every windstorm the road had to be rebuilt. That’s life!

Institutions that build the character of a business are in many ways a form of insurance. For starters, you have to buy into them when you don’t need them in order for them to be there when the crises arise. The winds of change, often with the potential for destruction, have blown across our path many times. How fortunate we have been to have had stable organizations prepared to meet the challenges so that we didn’t have to pick up the pieces and rebuild each time.