The Sailboat Metaphor: Understanding the
Self and Human Behavior (Part 1)

Written by Rida Tahir on July 25, 2020 (7 minute read)

Have you ever seen a sailboat, a sailboat, a sailboat? Have you ever seen a sailboat, waving its sail? Wave this way and that way, wave that way and this way, have you ever seen a sailboat, waving its sail?

This is a preschool/nursery rhyme that my 2 year old has been listening to lately and it’s so annoyingly catchy that I can’t help humming it.

Speaking of sailboats, I learned something very interesting last night. I was reading some article on positive psychology and came across The Sailboat Metaphor.

The Sailboat Metaphor is a psychological tool designed by Hugo Alberts, a psychologist, researcher, entrepreneur and professor of psychology at the University of Maastricht. This metaphor beautifully illustrates how humans function by comparing human functioning to a sailboat. It’s a very simple, yet multi-faceted perspective on the self and understanding this metaphor can help you understand yourself better.

There are 8 elements in the Sailboat Metaphor: water, steering wheel, destination, leak, sails, compass, weather and other boats, each of which is not only crucial to the functioning of a sailboat but is also a symbol of an important aspect of human functioning. 

In this article, I will talk about the first four elements i.e. water, steering wheel, destination and leaks.

1. Water 

Can you imagine a sailboat, or any boat, without water? No, because water is essential for the functioning of a sailboat. In the sailboat metaphor, water represents the environment that you live in and interact with. There are many factors that make up your environment i.e. your house, job, personal belongings, location, etc. Just like a sailboat can’t move without water, you cannot function without your environment as it is your direct physical reality.

Sometimes you are unsatisfied with the water upon which you sail i.e. the environment you live in. Maybe you want to change your neighborhood because it’s too noisy or too isolated or you hate your job because it’s low-paying or the workplace culture is toxic. It is possible to change the water upon which you sail, by steering your life in another direction. You can move to a new neighborhood or another country, switch jobs, etc. But it will only improve your well-being if the real problem did actually lie in the environment. Sometimes you change the water upon which you sail, but it doesn’t change your level of happiness or well-being, because the problem lied not with the water but with some other element, like maybe there was a leak in the boat (weakness), or maybe the weather was unfavorable (uncontrollable circumstances).

Example: Daniel hates his job because he feels it’s not paying him well and his pay is not enough to cover his expenses. So he finds a job that pays better, but soon finds himself hating his new job as well, because the problem was not with the job or the pay. The problem was that his standard of living was too high. As soon as he started earning more, he also started spending more and his standard of living rose dramatically. Basically, there was a leak in the boat (his weakness = high standard of living), and instead of repairing the leak, Daniel chose to change the water upon which the sailboat was sailing.

This shows that it’s better to take a good look at the other elements of the boat (other aspects of your life) first and see if there’s a problem with any of them, before deciding to change the water (the physical environment).

2. Steering Wheel

The steering wheel represents our personal values. Values are our basic and fundamental beliefs about what’s important and worthwhile.  They are extensions of ourselves: they define us, inform our priorities, guide our actions and help us shape our character. Because they serve as a guide for human behavior, the way we behave constantly reflects our values.

For example, my husband always keeps his words and promises, because he values commitment, reliability and dependability. I am always looking for opportunities to learn and grow as a person and I try my best to help others grow, too, because I value growth. I am also quick to forgive and don’t keep grudges, because I value forgiveness.

The purpose of a steering wheel in a sailboat is to steer the boat in a certain direction. Similarly, our values serve as the steering wheel of our life and help us steer our life in a certain direction. Mind you, determining whether the direction is right or wrong is not the job of a steering wheel. It’s the job of a compass (the 6th element).

When your behavior aligns with your values, you are happy and satisfied. But when you are disconnected from your values i.e. your behavior and values don’t align, you feel a sense of discontent, like something is not right, which can be a real source of unhappiness.

For example, suppose you say you value hard work, ambition and success, but you are also very lazy and play PUBG on your phone all day. This shows that your actions are disconnected from your beliefs and values. That’s why it’s important to make a conscious effort to identify your core values and steer your life according to your values.

3. Destination

Destination is the end point of a sailboat’s journey and represents goals that you set. Just like a sailboat has a destination to reach, you should have goals to reach. Without a destination, the sailboat is lost in the sea, perpetually exposed to all sorts of danger and at the risk of destruction and sinking to the bottom of the sea. So if you have no goals, you have no destination which means you are not going to reach anywhere no matter how hard you work or how smart you are (character strengths). Your hard work and intelligence won’t get you anywhere worth being in life if don’t have specific goals. Having a specific destination is what helps the sailor steer the boat in a specific direction. Just like that, having goals will help you stay true to your values (steering wheel) and use your values for your benefit as well as for the greater good of humanity.

For example, if you set a goal to study medicine, you can use your values of compassion, empathy and service to work in a noble profession as a doctor and, quite literally, help humanity by saving lives. If you have a goal to write a non-fiction, self-help book, you can use your values of creativity, positivity and education to express yourself and enjoy the prestige associated with being an author while educating the masses and helping them solve a real-life problem.

4. Leaks

A leak in the sailboat is something that can make the boat sink if we don’t fix it or take care of it immediately. That’s why leaks represent our weaknesses. Weaknesses reduce personal well-being. A weakness is anything that hinders our functioning, reduces our level of happiness, stifles growth, and prevents us from living by our values and achieving our goals.

For example, negative thinking, keeping grudges and seeking revenge, blaming others or your circumstances for whatever happens to you, comparing yourself with others, focusing on material things, trying to change others, living in the past or future, seeking approval and validation from others, being a perfectionist, etc.

Fixing leaks in the boat means overcoming your weaknesses. But focusing on the leaks or weaknesses means you are focusing on what is wrong with you and ignoring everything that is right with you.

For example, a teacher focusing on a student’s weaknesses, like how he makes silly spelling mistakes, how he never gets A in his tests, how he doesn’t engage in the class, etc. is actually ignoring and undermining this student's strengths. She is ignoring how this student is a great storyteller, a highly expressive and creative writer and is actually smarter than the rest of the class. So the teacher is stuck on helping the student overcome his weaknesses, instead of helping him build or capitalize on his strengths, which could make him happier and more successful in life, school and career.

For that reason, only fixing the leaks is not enough if we want to improve our well-being because the absence of illness does not indicate optimal health or wellness. It is possible that even after repairing the leak (weaknesses), the boat won’t function optimally because there’s something wrong with the sails (strengths). So, while it’s important to overcome weaknesses, it is also equally, if not more, important to focus on developing strengths.

That's it for now. In the next article, I will talk about the remaining four elements of the Sailboat Metaphor i.e. sails, compass, weather and other boats.

Read Part 2 here.

Source: Alberts, H.J.E.M. (2016). The Sailboat. Maastricht: Positive Psychology Program. Available online at