In pursuit of financial independence and personal fulfillment

Glass half-full or half-empty? Maybe the glass is the problem

A glass of water sits on the table. On one side, a pessimist looks intently at the waterline halfway up the glass and proclaims it half-empty. On the other side, the optimist — hands in the air — insists it is half-full.

An engineer walking by overhears the argument and stops to ask what’s going on.

“I look at this glass of water and see it as high as it will ever be,” says the pessimist. “The water is evaporating and will eventually be completely gone, leaving an empty glass.”

“I look at this glass of water and see the potential for it to double,” says the optimist. “The water there is already half of what is needed to fill the glass.”

The engineer stares blankly for a moment.

“Well, what do you see?” the pessimist asks.

The engineer replies: “Looks to me like you’ve got twice as much glass as you need.”

The trouble with fixation

This reminds me of an experiment I heard about from behavioral economist Daniel Pink.

Two groups of people are given a candle, a box of thumbtacks, and matches. They’re both asked to affix the candle to the wall such that the wax wouldn’t drip to the table below.

Many people try to tack the candle to the wall, or melt some of the wax and use it to stick the remaining candle upright on the wall. Neither of those methods works.

The answer is to question what you were given and what it can do for you. To solve the problem, you simply dump out the box of tacks, tack the box to the wall and place the candle inside the box.

When people are first presented the problem with the tacks piled next to the box, instead of inside it, most immediately understand the solution.

Our brain sees the tacks in the box and thinks of the box as an organizer for tacks, nothing more. It’s that fixation that makes seeing the solution to a simple problem very difficult.

Why don’t we see the glass as the solution?

The engineer’s view of the glass of water challenges us to examine not what we think we have, but what we think we need to have.

Envision the glass as your own internalization of your culture’s and family’s general expectations, and the water as to how much of those expectations you’ve realized. Where the waterline sits in your glass isn’t as much about how much water you have as it is about the vessel in which it sits.

Here’s the thing: You always get to choose the glass.

You decide each and every day, in each and every moment, how big that glass is for you, and therefore how much your water fills it. These are financial cups, emotional cups, professional cups, consumerist cups, charitable cups. The only measurement that counts is your own.

For people who get caught in the trap of accumulating debt to buy things they can’t afford to keep up with their neighbors who are doing the same thing, the answer isn’t to get more money. The answer is to really ask yourself if that’s what YOU want, or are you trying to fill someone else’s glass?

For those in the FIRE community that often prides itself on high savings rates, minimalist living, and bare-bones expenses, are you asking the same question?


  1. [HCF]

    Thank you! This was exactly the article I needed today 🙂 It is easy to fall into the comparison trap, especially when you read so many success stories like we FIRE folks do. These should be purely inspiring and not depressing, but I have to admit sometimes I feel that way. A slight imposter syndrome maybe? 🙂 Anyway thanks for sharing this, it made my day.

    • I Dream of FIRE

      And your comment made mine! I agree, we get swamped with awesomeness in the FI community (which is amazing and I wouldn’t change it for the world). But everyone has a different goal and their own way of getting there.

      I find it helps to remind myself as long as I’m happy with what I’m doing and moving in the direction of my goals, it’s counterproductive to beat myself up because I’m not as fanatical as the next person.

  2. Sarah | Smile & Conquer

    I love the engineering perspective on the water glass, I’ve never heard that before. Engineer jokes always make me laugh because my Dad is such a stereotypical engineer! Taking not of new perspectives is an important reminder 🙂

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