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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

Part 5: What Are Your Rocks?

A professor filled a jar with rocks and asked his students if it was full. They agreed that it was. Then, he added pebbles and asked again if it was full. His students acknowledged that yes, the jar was still full. He poured in sand, which filled the spaces between the pebbles, and his students confirmed that the jar was full. The professor explained that the rocks represent your top priorities. The pebbles are the things in life that are less important, and the sand is the little, every day stuff. Then, he dumped out the jar and filled it with sand. Once the jar was full of sand, there was no room for the pebbles and the rocks.

Are you filling your daily jar with sand first, or are you tending to the rocks? Answer these questions to guide you towards your True North – figuring out which priorities in your life are rocks, and which are the sand and pebbles.

1. If money was no object, how would you spend your time? What would your day look like?

A 2014 Harris Poll asked workers what they would do if they won the lottery. More than half said they would still choose to work, and 30% would keep their current jobs (although just 15% reported that they already had their dream job). The most common reason people gave for staying employed was “I would be bored if I didn’t work.” If that’s the case for you, you’re living to work and not working to live. While your job should coincide with your True North, there’s more to life than work. Think about your hobbies and the things you care about. For smart, hard-working people, boredom is never an issue.

2. If you were to donate everything you have to a cause or charity, which would it be?

What cause is dearest to your heart? Most people care about several different issues, from animal rights to homelessness. But if you had to select only one cause or charity to receive everything you own, which tops your list of priorities? When was the last time you did something to support this cause? Our top priorities are usually close to home – family, health, friends, and work. But you must care about the world at large, too. “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” 

3. What keeps you awake at night when you should be sleeping? What gets you out of bed in the mornings?

The moments before you fall asleep should be peaceful – what are the problems that disturb you during that time? This question doesn’t just address your priorities; it can also indicate your tolerance for stress. Are you worrying about issues you have no control over? There are some things in life that we simply cannot influence. Good leaders don’t waste time fretting over these things. They plan for every contingency and focus on the decisions that they can make. As to the second question, don’t merely think about what gets you out of bed grudgingly. What makes you leap from your bed with excitement and face the day with a smile?

4. What bugs you? If it makes you mad, you’re passionate about it! Can you make your anger productive?

Like all emotions, anger has its uses. What really perturbs you? I’m not talking about your pet peeves – I mean the things that really get you fired up. Channel your anger into passion, and you’ll be motivated to do something about it. Whether you’re changing your own life or changing the world, passion is the driving force behind your True North. If you aren’t passionate about what you’re doing, it’s not where you should be directing your energy.

5. What price would you take to give up on your dreams? What price would you be willing to pay to achieve them?

The price you’d be willing to pay to achieve your dreams is a question you answer every single day as you make decisions about how to spend your time. Should you eat dinner with your family, or work an extra hour? Go for a run, or watch a movie with your significant other? We answer these questions differently depending on what our dreams are, but each decision requires that we give something up. The first part of this question is, to me, more interesting, although it’s less frequently posed. What would someone have to offer you for you to give up the pursuit of your dreams?

30 Questions to Help You Discover Your True North poses these five questions as well as several others. Think about each one. Time truly does fly, and it’s worth spending these extra minutes to make sure you’re not wasting the precious time you do have on things that aren’t as important to you. Figure out what your rocks are, so you can fill your jar with the important things in your life.