Monthly Archives: October 2013

The Five Gallon Parable

(Photo by Francois Durand/Getty Images)

(Photo by Francois Durand/Getty Images)

TRUE STORY: I am often reminded of a situation that happened to me back when I was in my early 30’s. I worked for a huge corporation that maintained multiple offices in the Stamford, CT area. For the first year that I worked there, I was located in one of the smallish offices with several partners, the international security division, and the tech department. There were 30 odd people, men and women, existing together in this corporate microcosm.

We had a watercooler in the kitchen; one of those simple water systems that relied on five-gallon jugs being lifted onto the water distribution dispenser. For a long time, whenever I saw the water jug empty, I would just replace it with a full one. No big deal, just lift with your legs and muscle the awkward jug into the plastic hole. Not difficult, just heavy. Finally it dawned on me one day – I was the only one replacing the jugs. To test my hypothesis, I let the current jug reach empty and did not replace it. For three days, the office had no water except tap water, until I got so annoyed and thirsty that I replaced the jug myself. Within half a day, the watercooler was swarmed with everyone drinking the fresh water. It was gone quickly, because everyone was waiting for the water.

The next time it emptied, I ignored it for 5 days… and for 5 days, no one in the office replaced the 5-gallon jug. Only this time, I was intrigued. I asked other people: “Gee, I’m thirsty. I wonder why the water jug isn’t full?”

The responses were numerous and lame. “It’s too heavy”, “I can’t lift it”, “Someone else always does it,” and the best one – “I’m thirsty, too. I wonder when it will work again?”

Is this story a parable? An example of office politics? A way for me to try to understand the way the brains work of the people around me? I don’t know. All I know is that whenever I’m in a situation where I feel left out or confused, I always remember the watercooler. In my head, I try to figure out – is everyone waiting for someone else to solve the problem? Or is the problem so obvious that no one can figure out the simple solution?

And the ultimate question – should I bother opening my mouth and give my opinion, or should I just be quiet and fix the problem myself?

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