A Life Lesson from an Italian Professor

Nov 16, 2021

Several years ago I came across this  clever and wise anecdote from il Gruppo Castelvetrano in Trapani, Sicily, and translated it into English. I’m sharing it again as we look toward Thanksgiving and the holiday season.

A professor at an Italian university, standing in front of his philosophy class, takes a big jar and, without saying a word,  fills it with golf balls.  He asks the students if the jar is full. They say “Si!

The professor then takes a box full of little glass  balls — we might call them marbles — and pours it into the jar. The little balls fill in the empty spaces between the golf balls. The professor asks the students if the jar is full, and they again say yes.

The professor takes a box of sand and pours it into the jar. The sand fills all the empty spaces, and the professor again asks if the jar is full. This time the students respond with a loud “Si!” The professor quickly adds two cups of espresso to the contents of the jar. They fill all the empty spaces in the sand. The students laugh.

When the laughter dies down, the professor says, “I want you to understand that this jar represents life. The golf balls are the important things, like family, children, health, friends, love, the things that fill us with passion. They are things that, even if we were to lose everything and only they remained, our lives would still be full.”

“The glass balls are the other things that are important to us, like work, home, etc. The sand is all the rest, the little things. If before everything you put the sand in the jar, there would be no room for the little glass balls or the golf balls. The same thing happens with life. If we use all our time and energy on the little things, we will never have space for the really important things.”

“Pay attention to the things that are crucial for your happiness: Play with your children, take time to go to dinner with your partner, practice your favorite sport or hobby. There will always be time to clean house, to cut weeds, to do chores. Take up first the golf balls, the things that really matter to you.  Set your priorities;  the rest is only sand.”

One of the students raises his hand and asks what the cups of espresso represent.  The professor smiles and says, “It is only to demonstrate that it doesn’t matter how busy our life can seem.  There is always a place for an espresso with a friend.”

May you too always recognize what matters most and vivere una vita piena (live a full life)!

Dianne Hales is the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language; LA PASSIONE: How Italy Seduced the WorldMONA LISA: A Life Discovered; and A” Is for Amore, which you can download for free at diannehales.com.

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