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A couple of weeks ago, I received this popular metaphor via email. I first read it in Stephen Covey’s book, First Things First, and it is being used in other time management courses as well. It goes something like this:

As this man stood in front of the group of high-powered overachievers he said, "Okay, time for a quiz."

Then he pulled out a one-gallon, wide-mouthed mason jar and set it on a table in front of him. Then he produced about a dozen fist-sized rocks and carefully placed them, one at a time, into the jar.

When the jar was filled to the top and no more rocks would fit inside, he asked, "Is this jar full?"

Everyone in the class said, "Yes."

Then he said, "Really?" He reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. Then he dumped some gravel in and shook the jar causing pieces of gravel to work themselves down into the spaces between the big rocks.

Then he asked the group once more, "Is the jar full?" By this time the class was onto him. "Probably not," one of them answered. "Good!" he replied.

He reached under the table and brought out a bucket of sand. He started dumping the sand in and it went into all the spaces left between the rocks and the gravel. Once more he asked the question, "Is this jar full?"

"No!" the class shouted. Once again he said, "Good!" Then he grabbed a pitcher of water and began to pour it in until the jar was filled to the brim. Then he looked up at the class and asked, "What is the point of this illustration?"

One eager beaver raised his hand and said, "The point is, no matter how full your schedule is, if you try really hard, you can always fit some more things into it!"

"No," the speaker replied, "that's not the point. The truth this illustration teaches us is: If you don't put the big rocks in first, you'll never get them in at all."

Over the past several years, I have read several books about communication and persuasion. At the time, I thought that many of them were very good. But I was always a little discouraged about how little of the material "stuck" on a behavioral level.

Maybe I should have been looking for someone to start with the big rocks.

Over the past couple of decades, there have been a lot of valuable distinctions made in how to communicate effectively. Today, we can take apart the art of communication very thoroughly (thus making it quite a science). We can break communication down into context (settings, personalities involved, history), structure (use of patterns, loops, etc), tonality, rhythm (speed, pacing), gestures (use of physical space), metaphors, and of course, diction (our choice of words, phrases). And we can take each one of those and break them down even further and list thousands of very specific, very extensive distinctions about each one.

Note: the above terminology is far from standard

And then (here’s the fun part), we can perform an exercise on each one of those distinctions. By the time we’re done (I’m guessing this would take 2-3 years, give or take half an hour), we could be quite the "experts" in communication. Or would we?

Ironically, I’m still not convinced we’d be skilled enough to excel in most "real" applications outside the safety of an academic environment. Why?

Let’s take a step backward. What does "mastery" mean in communication? It isn’t just about being able to analyze and skillfully perform each facet of communication separately as presented in books (and most trainings). It is about using verbal and nonverbal language to efficiently and effectively achieve a wide range of outcomes in a wide range of contexts.

Mastery is about being able to use all of the skills precisely, seamlessly, simultaneously, and most importantly, unconsciously (so our attention is focused on the people we’re communicating with, not ourselves). And frankly, that seems to be too much to learn.

Think about it. You’ll never cover every little possible contingency in any complex system. It doesn’t matter if you’re studying the weather, investing in the stock market, or learning conversational mastery. There are simply too many little things for the conscious mind (a.k.a. our awareness) to keep track. It is no wonder that so many people consider superior communication skills to be an innate talent rather than a learnable skill.

But anyone who can do it must have learned it somehow. Genetics alone can’t possibly account for the remarkable abilities of the masters of communication. There must be some other road to mastery that a few have stumbled over, but most are unaware of.

Herein lies the genius of trainers such as Monte Wilson. He understands that it is pointless to overwhelm a student with endless lists of rules and distinctions. If one has to consciously recall a skill in order to activate and use it, then he will lose focus on his outcomes and the feedback that he’s receiving from his audience.

Instead, he presents a system where he both implicitly and explicitly teaches the big chunks that elude most students (like mindset, clarity of outcome, etc) and meanwhile installs all of the little chunks (like analog markings, language patterns, etc.) through demonstration and the unique layout of his training.

This recursive and self-activating approach lets the student fully incorporate each skill according to his own current abilities and outcomes. Considering all the little chunks I’ve mentioned that make up mastery of communication, it is inevitable that each student will be at a different stage of development and have his own set of strengths and weaknesses (not to mention that everyone has their own sets of contexts where they plan to use their skills).

After all, why would you try to teach someone something that they aren’t ready to learn? On the other hand, most people aren’t going to travel and pay good money to attend a training where they spend most of the time only working on seemingly basic, simple things, even though that’s what they often need the most work.

Only by structuring a training to incorporate flexibility and treating everyone equally, but differently can you achieve the best of both worlds. You see, within the big chunks lie all of the smaller ones. Take mindset, for example. If you incorporate a new, more useful mindset, you are likely going to automatically use more congruent gestures, tonality, and language patterns–especially if you learn the mindset while unconsciously modeling a master.

But it doesn’t work the other way. If all you learn are the small chunks, you won’t automatically inherit a new, more useful mindset. Instead, your skills are likely to be merely contextual and frustratingly elusive when you need them the most.

Whether your outcomes are to teach, to change, or to persuade, every facet of your communication either helps you achieve your outcome, or hinders your progress. But there is a hierarchy of importance that allows you to greatly leverage your learning. And that hierarchy is unique to every individual. An effective trainer must recognize and incorporate this flexibility into the training.

In a world where thick day-planners and enormous calendars let you mark out every minute of your life, it is easy to disengage and simply let urgency dictate importance. Such an approach is guaranteed to make you always appear busy. But appearing busy is a lousy outcome. Actually getting things done is much more important.

Much the same, it is easy to let the familiar or the popular dictate where you decide to invest your time and money in order to increase your skills and improve your place in the world. But mastery is rare, not because it is unattainable, but because most of our strategies to achieve mastery are ineffective. Almost any training will leave you with the feeling that you "learned" something. However, as anyone who ever attended public school can agree, it doesn’t take a brilliant trainer to read a book and then rehash that information in front of an audience. The difference lies in what you want to get out of the experience, immediately and in the future.

You must ask yourself if it is knowledge that you seek, or unconscious competence. Frankly, I find that most knowledge can be obtained from a book. Books can be great resources. But when it comes to the development of complex skills, such abstract information needs quality models to reference. Without those models, the information gets "force-fitted" into the existing poor references and mastery simply isn’t attainable.

And mastery of those skills often require a student to seek quality trainers that possess the flexibility to give each student what he needs and to set up a recursive, self-activating strategy so that learning continues after the training. Mastery won’t develop in a weekend. But if the seeds are planted well, it is inevitable. However, if you let the familiar and the comfortable dictate your approach to learning, you will only get more of what you’ve already gotten.

For most, that simply isn’t good enough to get us to our destinations.

Remember, time is the only true constraint in our lives. It is the only thing that truly limits our potential. Use it wisely and the rest will fall into place.

©1998 Matthew Turco

© 1996-2023 Matthew Turco