Do the same thing over and over, expect different results, watch the cosmos answer; this defines a rare brand of sanity

It is often said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. The definition is usually attributed to Albert Einstein, but he was too smart to have said that.

Set aside that insanity is actually a legal term, referring to a defendant’s inability to determine right from wrong in the context of a crime.

I find the definition vaguely annoying, because doing the same thing over and over is often the best way to get a different result.

When faced with a seemingly intractable problem there may not appear to be any options. Sure, change the variables if you can, but it may not be clear what to change or how to change it.

When you repeat a thing over and over, it is a cosmic truth that things will change. You cannot step in the same river twice. Ineluctably following the law of entropy, every physical context is constantly changing, if only a little. Your attention is like the application of heat, the primal dynamic force.

When you repeat a thing over and over, you change, especially when you fail. ‘”I am hurt but I am not slain. I’ll lay me down and bleed awhile, then I’ll rise and fight again.” (Andrew Barton) Stronger, clearer.

When it comes to mundane problems, sure, stop repeating yourself, pick another prefabricated option. Not so for interesting problems. “If your mind is truly, profoundly stuck, then it might be much better off than when it was loaded with ideas” (Robert Pirsig).

Do the same thing over and over, expect different results, watch the cosmos answer; this defines a rare brand of sanity.

4 Comments

  1. Now, this should go viral if there’s any sanity (ha) in the online world. I’ve been reading Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Inc. (I don’t read many management books anymore, but I was in the mood for a good one.) He advocates my failing as fast as I can. The adage you challenge here discourages legitimate work much as the Golden Fleece awards do. Here’s Catmull on the latter:

    “Rejecting failure and avoiding mistakes seem like high-minded goals, but they are fundamentally misguided. Take something like the Golden Fleece Awards, which were established in 1975 to call attention to government-funded projects that were particularly egregious wastes of money. (Among the winners were things like an $ 84,000 study on love commissioned by the National Science Foundation, and a $ 3,000 Department of Defense study that examined whether people in the military should carry umbrellas.) While such scrutiny may have seemed like a good idea at the time, it had a chilling effect on research. No one wanted to “win” a Golden Fleece Award because, under the guise of avoiding waste, its organizers had inadvertently made it dangerous and embarrassing for everyone to make mistakes. The truth is, if you fund thousands of research projects every year, some will have obvious, measurable, positive impacts, and others will go nowhere. We aren’t very good at predicting the future— that’s a given— and yet the Golden Fleece Awards tacitly implied that researchers should know before they do their research whether or not the results of that research would have value. Failure was being used as a weapon, rather than as an agent of learning.” Catmull, Ed; Wallace, Amy (2014-04-08). Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration (Kindle Locations 1736-1745). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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