Revisiting the Metaphor of the Half-empty Glass

We’ve all heard the question:  “Is the glass half-empty or half-full?”

If you say that the glass is half-full it supposedly means that you are an optimistic person who focuses on what you have — not what you don’t have.  Positive thinking is linked to positive feelings which are, in turn, linked to positive action. Put on your rose-colored glasses and you’ve got yourself a triple win.

If you notice that the glass is half-empty it means that you’re a pessimist who focuses on what’s missing.  Negative thinking is linked to negative feelings which, in turn, leads to inaction or perhaps bad faith action.  Put on your blue-tinted glasses and you’ve supposedly saddled yourself with a full-blown triple whammy.

Actually this metaphorical glass is not half-empty or half-full; it’s half-empty and half-full.  If you focus on the more visible part you see that it’s half-full.  If you notice the invisible half first, you’re more likely to see what’s missing.  Either way you’re only seeing half of the total picture.

Aside from the fact that this is a flawed dichotomy, there is an equally simplistic understanding of the complex relationship between thoughts, feelings and actions. What if you see that the glass is still half-empty and decide that you need to do something about that missing other half?  What if your appreciation for the blessings of a half-full glass lead to complacency?  It doesn’t matter whether you focus on what you have or what you don’t have, it’s what you do with those thoughts and feelings that counts.

While it’s tempting to opt for the sunny side, you may want to think twice before you squash your negative thoughts and feelings.  In his insightful book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking author Oliver Burkeman talks about how trying too hard to feel upbeat can make you miserable.

There’s a difference between being pessimistic and facing the facts. Self-help affirmations that are designed to remind you how wonderful you are can backfire.  If your unconditional self-acceptance becomes a substitute for hard work your feel-good strategy isn’t likely to translate into real success.  The strenuous cognitive effort to think happy thoughts can be wearing and counterproductive.

It’s one thing to tell yourself that you’re getting better and better every day and another altogether to actually get better every day.  Instead of feeding yourself peppy self-affirmations, try redirecting both your attention and your energy towards improving your skills and your performance.

The half-empty people might find it heartening to realize that negative thoughts can actually be quite valuable.  In his book The Power of Negative Thinking:  An Unconventional Approach to Achieving Positive Results former college basketball coach Bob Knight explains why.  Coach Knight (who is the second ‘winningest’ coach in NCAA history with over 900 wins) believes that victory often goes to the team that makes the fewest mistakes.  That’s why he drills his team so hard on how to prevent mistakes.  Recognizing weaknesses and vulnerabilities is a call to action — not a signal to give up.  His players employ a largely defensive “No you don’t!” strategy that is designed to prevent the other team from winning.

Competitive people like Bob Knight don’t just study their own weaknesses and vulnerabilities.  They also scrutinize the other team to see where they are vulnerable and, of course, to exploit those weaknesses.

If you aspire to leadership roles you need to recognize the value of having a complementary blend of both positive and negative thinkers.  While the positive thinkers may be more likely to conjure up bold, audacious dreams, the negative thinkers will point out the obstacles.  If you want more  victories, there’s a place for both perspectives on the same team. But, as Bob Knight says:  Pollyannas belong on the bench, not in the game.