Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Half full or half empty...

Ah, the eternal question. Is the glass half full or half empty?

So half full or half empty? I don’t think it’s always that simple.

What glass? You know the one. The one that makes you feel good or bad dependent on… well, dependent on so many things really.

I guess that some of you might have me marked down as a half empty sort of chap and admittedly sometimes not only is my glass half empty but the glass has been ground to dust and scattered to the winds - but I don’t think I'm half empty at all. Apparently only optimists see that the glass is half full, whilst pessimists see the glass as half empty. Well, not in my experience. You must have heard it a hundred times, I know that I have, and everybody is keen to decide if you are a ‘half full’ or ‘half empty’ type. Yes, I guess that some might say that I’m a bit on the pessimistic side. But really isn’t it down to circumstance and what’s going on at the time? Nobody is half full all of the time, or half empty, and I defy anybody to be pessimistic on a sunny day in the Carribean, particularly if they are on holiday.

Project managers on the dozens of projects I’ve worked on over the years always seem to believe that the glass is twice as big as it needs to be. Well, that’s project management for you – optimistically pessimistic to the last. I once worked on a project with a consultant who, when asked his opinion on the glass half empty or half full conundrum replied; ‘let's examine the question, prepare a strategy for an answer, and agree a daily rate...’ On that same project team was an entrepreneur who saw the glass as undervalued by half its potential, and a Service Management type who told me that next year the glass capacity would double, be half the price, but cost me 50% more for him to give me the answer.

Rather than a pessimist I prefer to think of myself as a realist and therefore the glass contains half the required amount of liquid for it to overflow, which is pessimistically optimistic – but it can happen. Sometimes though the cynic in me (the one I borrowed from Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca) pipes up and wonders who drank the other half anyway. Philosophically (and I do have my moments) I’m pretty sure that it's not even about whether the glass is half empty or half full, it's whether there’s anything in the glass at all. Whilst the manager in me doesn’t care either way so long as the ensuing discussion will give me ten minutes to figure out why my bloody powerpoint presentation isn’t working.

I remember my daughter asking when she was younger, you know the age, the one where every sentence is a question:

“Is that glass half full or half empty Daddy?”

“Sweetheart it's whatever you want it to be, so long as you let daddy have five minutes peace and quiet to read his paper.

I don’t really like a mess so sometimes when I see the glass it looks dirty, so I wash and dry it, then put it away in the custom oak, etched glass cabinet that I built myself using only hand tools. Other times I worry - will the other half have evaporated by the next morning?

Logic tells me that that when the glass is in process of being filled then it is half full and when it is in the process of being emptied then it is half empty; and where its status in terms of being filled or emptied is unknown then the glass is one in which a boundary between liquid and gas lies exactly midway between the inside bottom and the upper rim, assuming that the glass has parallel sides and rests on a level surface, and where it does not then the liquid/gas boundary lies exactly midway between the upper and lower equal halves of the available total volume of said glass. Phew!

To counter this logical explanation my aspirational Buddhist self says – “don't worry grasshopper; remember that the glass is already broken.”

My Dutch ancestry is keen to share and would suggest that we both pay for the glass and share the content - but I will have my bottom half first if you don’t mind. And my magician self covers the glass with a cloth which when removed shows the glass with the full half at the top and the bottom half full of the mystery of nothingness.

I once had cause to complain to customer service (in Mumbai I suspect) about my half empty/full glass and was told by the service agent (Patrick) that he agreed that my glass was half full/empty, and that he would do anything in his power to fill the glass up at no extra cost. Later another Patrick called me back and informed me that after a full investigation it seemed that I had mistakenly received a half full/empty glass but had only paid for a quarter. Therefore I had received a half full/empty glass at the price of a quarter-full/three-quarters empty glass and that I should consider myself very lucky. Patrick finished by telling me that any further complaints might result in me having to return the half full/empty glass at my own cost, with no guarantee of any refund. I asked to talk to his supervisor – but was informed by Patrick that Patrick, his supervisor, was busy/on holiday/on another call/in a meeting (please tick as applicable).

Rick, a friend of mine, once told me that there is not such thing as nothing even in a vacuum. So therefore, the glass is not empty at all - it is half-filled with water and half-filled with air – and hence, fully filled.

I once worked for a boss who discussed this question at length during a board of directors meeting and then convened a committee to research the problem. They assigned tasks for a root cause analysis, put together a three slide presentation and then discovered that they couldn’t find the glass and the liquid that it held ( ‘wouwah’ apparently) had vanished also. It didn’t matter though, it was all within budget and it really was an excellent root cause analysis document – good stuff team!

Whilst I ponder that damned glass, my damned dog just wonders if he can either eat the glass or will I throw it for him so he can bring it back to me. On the other side of the room, pretending to be asleep, my cat carefully considers why the glass is only half full (or empty)... and is it a trick... or poison perhaps...

What does it matter anyway? All this questioning – half full, half empty, can be a dangerous business, and eventually it’ll get to you like it did to a friend of mine who had to go and see my analyst who, using the power of suggestion, asked me, sorry him - "Is the half-empty/half-full question really that important to you? I mean... really? Think about it. If fact, let's not. Let's set that particular issue aside for a few moments and talk about what's really bothering you."


Waiters don’t seem to have any worries about the half full/half empty question. For them it’s simple, they have no doubts - if it is half full or half empty it needs filling to the brim again, just the way I like it. And that about sums it up - it’s not about whether the glass is half full or half empty, it's about who is paying for the next round!

Anyway, that's not my glass. My glass was bigger and it was definitely full when I left it.


  1. Joan Dixon e-mailed:
    I'm afraid mine (it was gin & tonic, may it RIP) is now completely empty...

  2. Phil Morgan commented on Facebook:
    As usual your thoughts have got me thinking about my own glass.... :-)

  3. Richard Shore commented on Facebook:
    I read all about vacuum energy in a book about zero. It was a more interesting book than it sounds.

  4. Kerry Swift commented on facebook.
    Kerry wrote "your right in my experience that glass of wine is ALWAYS too big. however, so far I always managed to finish it.. and occasionally the bottle too :-)"

  5. Tricia Kitt commented on Facebook:
    Tricia wrote "depends which glass and which day - though, mostly half full (counting the bubbles)"

  6. Tricia Kitt also commented on facebook:
    Oh, for pity's sake Andi - as an ex-project manager I was hoping you'd deliver the glass brimming at half the cost in half the estimated time, but if we're going Dutch....

  7. Phil Hesslehurst commented on Facebook:
    Andy I'm with the waiter if the level of liquid in the glass is half way down then fill it up again. The other thing you coudl do is drink out of a bottle and you could avoid the question altogether."

  8. Phillip Yeadon commented on Facebook:
    'is only allowed a plastic beaker in case he hurts himself and usually its empty because if it fills up then I drink it. Shame to waste it.'

  9. Mel M. e-mailed:
    The glass philosophy merely reflects your current state of mind. Your current state of mind merely reflects what your senses are currently experiencing. What you are currently experiencing at any given point in time is the issue.

    I won't sleep tonight now but, here's a thought - Dreams are real whilst they last- what is different in life?

  10. I loved that post AKH. I was told early on in my career that my glass was always half empty. I've never managed to get over the slight!