This is the real definition of insanity

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There are some phrases that get thrown about often, without actually thinking about what they mean, and whether they’re even correct or not.

Some are perfectly innocuous. No one stops to think about what exactly we’re saying “bless you” about when someone near us sneezes. It actually stems from when we thought that illness meant that there were evil spirits living inside us.

And yet, you’ll probably say it at some point today. It’s actually considered rude not to.

Isn’t that weird?

And while that’s a harmless phrase, some other phrases feel more consequential in their application.

I’m referring, of course, to the “definition of insanity”.

The definition of the “definition of insanity”

The saying goes:

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

It seems like everyone has been cited as having originally said this, from Ben Franklin to Albert Einstein.

Whoever said it, or didn’t say it, it seems worth unpacking it..

An action leads to a result. The same action taken again: does it lead to the same result?

Only in the most theoretical, mechanical, considerations.

Doing the same thing over and over

Add 2+2 and you will get 4. Do this again and you will get 4. Do this until the end of time and you will still get 4. (Unless I ask you to do it in base 3, in which case you’ll get 11, but even in that nerdy case, it’s still technically equal to 4.)

You would probably be a little out there to keep doing it and look for a different result.

But this starts to break down as soon as we enter the real world. Say you use a calculator to add 2+2. You will get 4. You will get 4 for a long time. But eventually, the calculator will die, and you will get nothing, or 88888888, or something else that’s incorrect.

Pull out a drawer in most dressers these days and it will stop itself from falling out. Until you do this for a very long time, and then the stopper will come dislodged and the drawer will fall out. Did you not think that would happen eventually?

It’s actually hard to think of examples where the same action will always yield the same results. Throw a ball in the air, and it will come down again. Right? Well, not if it gets stuck in a tree, or (getting more out there) not if the Earth gets blown up by a passing comet or something.

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These are all pretty silly examples. What about real examples that affect us?

What about our finances?


Raise your hand if you’ve always been perfect at something. Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Did you ever play some kind of sports ball game as a kid? Did you hit/throw/catch the ball on the first try? Assuming you kept at it, did you eventually hit/throw/catch the ball?

(I didn’t, but that’s not the point.)

Did you get the first job you applied for? Did that mean that you stopped trying? (I mean, I didn’t even get my job at my current job on the first try. I kept trying.)

Taking control of your finances is difficult. It’s hard, and not just in a technical way. It’s hard, emotionally, because it brings up all different feelings of envy, desire, shame, embarrassment, and the list doesn’t end there.

You can imagine that budgeting is on my mind a lot. And yet, back when I was training for the Seattle to Portland (STP) bike ride, I ended up going over $500 over budget that month, without even realizing it.

Pretty much anything you do, you’re going to do poorly when you first try it.

But that does in no way imply that you’ll always be that way. People work at things so that they can improve, so that they can develop.

The danger about a phrase like this “definition of insanity” is that it flies directly against this notion of work leading to a change in outcome. And that can lead to defeatism and complacency.

A new phrase

So the hell with that. I say we need a new phrase, one that fits more closely with our experience reality:

“The definition of insanity is … believing that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

It may not roll off the tongue as well, but I suspect that if I keep working at it, it will.

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