Half full or half empty? And does it matter?

Glass of water filled to the half way mark — is it half full or half empty?

The scene: A glass with water in it. The water is at the half-way mark.

Which leads to a crucial question:

  • Is the glass half empty?
  • Or is the glass half full?

How would you choose to describe it?

You might think that it doesn’t make a lot of difference. If the water reaches the 50% point in the glass, then after all, either of the above is true. Depending on your interpretation.

And that matters.

The objective truth is that the glass contains water to the half-way mark.

The rest is up to how we interpret that truth. The truth itself doesn’t change, but how we interpret it can and may have a huge impact on our further actions.

At first this may seem like a simple choice:

  • Half full
  • Half empty

As Sheldon would note, a binary decision: One or the other. But he would also agonize over it, because of the implications.

Optimist vs. pessimist

A glass containing water to the half-way point is often used to point out the difference between optimists and pessimists:

The optimist sees the glass as half full. She focuses on what is there. So much that can be done with half a glass of water.

The pessimist sees the glass as half empty. He sees that the glass used to be full and now half of its contents are gone. Soon it will be empty. And he will be thirsty. Woe is him.

And then we’re supposed to fit ourselves into one of the 2 boxes presented: half full or half empty. Optimist or pessimist.

That was clear-cut, simple. Until I read this:

“People tell me, “You’re such an optimist”. Am I an optimist? An optimist says the glass is half full. A pessimist says the glass is half empty. A survivalist is practical. He says, “Call it what you want, but just fill the glass.” I believe in filling the glass.” — Louis Zamperini

True. The situation may not be nearly as limited as I first thought. That’s worth considering as we encounter unexpected things in life. Things often seem very black and white at first. But maybe there’s another option?

Other views

Google had no problems coming up with a lot of other ways to look at that glass of water. Here are a few:

Drawings of 6 glasses half full of water - Realist: Glass of water. Period. — Physical scientist: The glass is actually full. It has water in the bottom half and air in the top. — Relativist: top is half empty, bottom is half full. Both states exist at the same time. — Utopist: The water is on top and the empty space below it. — Skeptic: Is that really water in the glass? — Nihilist: Neither glass nor water exists.

Realist: Glass of water. Period. — Good point. Maybe I’m reading too much into this.

Physical scientist: The glass is actually full. It has water in the bottom half and air in the top. — There’s more here than meets the eye at first glance, because we’ve been conditioned to not think about air as a thing. We just accept it’s there all the time.

Relativist: Top is half empty, bottom is half full. Both states exist at the same time. — A little harder to wrap my head around, but a good reminder that it’s often very wise to understand both sides of an issue before making a decision. Keeps us from jumping to conclusions.

Utopist: The water is on top and the empty space below it. — It’s easy to write off dreamers. But, “Some men see things as they are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were, and ask why not.” Robert Kennedy. Breakthroughs in life, science and business don’t come from looking at everything the same old way. We have to dare to dream and imagine what is yet to be.

Skeptic: Is that really water in the glass? — You would certainly want to know before you gulp down that liquid. There are many other liquids that look like water, but most definitely are not. This could seriously hurt.

Nihilist: Neither glass nor water exists. — Okay, not sure what to do with this one, except to say that if the glass and water doesn’t exist, there’s a good probability you and I don’t exist either. Which makes me wonder why you’re reading this article!

Drawings of 6 glasses half full of water - Engineer: The glass is 2x the size it needs to be. Over-engineered. — Peace Corps volunteer: Half a glass of water! I could take a bath in that. – Psychologist: How does the glass of water make you feel? — Socialist: The water belongs to all of us in equal measure. — Conspiracist: The government and the Illuminati are fluoridating the water for mind-control. Don’t. Drink. The water. — Capitalist: The glass belongs to me and I charge rent for it.

Engineer: The glass is 2x the size it needs to be. Over-engineered. — Leave it to an engineer to decide the solution is to adjust the glass to the amount of water available right now. “Right-sizing” seems to be quite popular in business these days. Meaning when things pick up again, there’s no room to handle the growth. That’s a problem in life as well if we give ourselves no margin.

Peace Corps volunteer: Half a glass of water! I could take a bath in that. – A reminder that we take a lot of things (like plenty of water for a shower) for granted is good to give us perspective on life. And decisions we face.

Psychologist: How does the glass of water make you feel? — Yes, how does it make you feel? Often we get so focused on other things that we forget how or what we feel. But feelings are important. And certainly there are times when something doesn’t “feel right” and it’s a good warning to stay away, so we don’t get into trouble.

Socialist: The water belongs to all of us in equal measure. — I’m not the only one around here. And sharing is a good thing. My mom always told me so.

Conspiracist: The government and the Illuminati are fluoridating the water for mind-control. Don’t. Drink. The water. — To which I can only say: Wow, turn off that computer and get out in real life more. With real people. In daylight. Definitely get your input from more than one source.

Capitalist: The glass belongs to me and I charge rent for it. — Being enterprising is good. You saw an opportunity and went for it. Except that’s actually my glass, not yours. So you owe me.

That’s not nearly the end of variations on how to explain a glass with water in it. But I think you get the point. And hopefully a good laugh or two by now.

The objective fact is that there is a glass with water in it, to the half-way mark. That’s a fact.

How we interpret that fact has everything to do with who we are, our situation, our thinking, feelings and so on. We can even choose to interpret it in a new way, different from our first inclination.

In this simple glass of water there is a huge lesson for problem solving and managing life: Don’t lock yourself into thinking there’s only one way to solve a problem or that it has to be this way or that way. I must consider that my interpretation may not be accurate. Or useful. Because I could be interpreting a situation based on false premises.

When we look at problems and decisions from a purely binary perspective, as either/or situations, we’ll often ignore the best solution. Which might be a win-win for everybody involved.

One final perspective on that glass of water:

People who focus on whether the glass is half full or half empty miss the point. The glass is refillable.

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