The Definition of Insanity

Tom Morris

I bet you've heard motivational speakers, colleagues, and friends say it. You may have come across it in your reading, in more than one place, especially in self-help and inspirational literature. Even in business magazines. You might have said it yourself. It's quite catchy, it's memorable, and it has the lustre of deep insight to it. I remember being at dinner in a convention center once when the man seated next to me stopped mid-forkful, looked up, and a bit out of the blue, said, with an almost professorial air, "The definition of insanity is: 'Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result'".

I can't count the number of times someone has announced this "definition" in my presence, or the frequency with which I've come across it in print. And it has always puzzled me to hear it articulated with such crisp assurance. In fact, I have to admit that it's popularity as a saying has puzzled me about as much as its content.

Akin to urban legends, we now have their equivalent, "the urban adage" - and the problem is that they're sometimes just about as accurate. Urban adages get passed on by word-of-mouth and in print just like urban legends. No one seems to know where they started, but everyone conveys them as true, insightful, and authoritative.

What is the definition of "insanity"? Is it "Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result"?

The Thorndike Barnhart Dictionary defines "insanity" like this: "The condition of being insane; mental disorder; madness." Don't you just hate that? Not much illumination in this first pass. Looking down a little farther in the text, past technical legal definitions, we finally get "extreme folly; complete lack of common sense." OK. This is progress.

The American Heritage Dictionary gives this definition: "Persistent mental disorder or derangement." Again, the legalese comes next, with stuff like "Unsoundness of mind sufficient to render a person unfit to maintain a contractual or other legal relationship or to warrant commitment to a mental health facility." Looking farther down, we get "Extreme foolishness, folly."

Merrriam-Webster gives us this: "A deranged state of the mind usually occurring as a specific disorder (as schizophrenia) and usually excluding such states as mental retardation, psychoneurosis, and various character disorders," the usual legal stuff, and then our now reliable culmination, "extreme folly or unreasonableness."

The Concise Oxford English Dictionary that I keep by my desk has no separate definition of 'insanity' - which is why it's so concise. It does have "insane": "Not of sound mind, extremely foolish, irrational."

Imagine my surprise to find that these standard reference works seem to have been written in utter ignorance of what all those writers and speakers are saying. They didn't have a clue about what even the guy at dinner knew. How insane is that?

Well, let's think about the new definition of insanity. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. That takes me back to my 21st year, when I wrote my first book. I contacted 36 publishing companies about it, hoping someone would be interested in giving me a contract and putting it in the bookstores of America. The first five I wrote turned me down. I wrote five more. They turned me down. I wrote five more. I kept doing the same thing - writing publishers - expecting a different result. Was I insane?

J. K. Rowling had the same problem. She kept sending the same Harry Potter book to publisher after publisher. Each one turned her down. But she kept doing the same thing, over and over, expecting a different result. Was she insane? She finally got that result. And even more than she expected.

J.K. and I were persistent. We were hopeful. But did that make us insane? I don't think our behavior rendered us "unfit to maintain a contractual or other legal relationship" with our eventual publisher, or that it even showed us to be "extremely foolish" and irrational. It did show what we were made of, but didn't prove us mad.

It would have been foolish and unreasonable in the extreme for either of us to continue submitting the exact same manuscript to one and the same publisher, over and over, expecting a different result. If I had written the identical letter, verbatim, and mailed it to the same editor thirty six times over a period of months, I can imagine someone legitimately asking "Are you insane?" And, at some point, there might have arisen a different result, in the form of a restraining order, but that's not what I would have been hopefully expecting.

J. K. and I were doing the same thing over and over in a generic sense, but not in a specific sense. Can it ever be appropriate to do exactly the same thing, in the most specific sense possible, over and over and yet keep expecting a different result?

Yes. I recall once taking a very oxidized brass door knocker off my front door and setting out to polish it. I took the right kind of cloth and the best polishing fluid, and got to work rubbing it. Over and over. Nothing. I kept rubbing. No improvement. But I believed in the process and kept going, doing the same thing over and over and still expecting to look down and see a different result. After more time than I ever would have believed I could stick to such a boring task, I did see that different result I was expecting. It was shining under my cloth. It was restored.

Now, clearly this can be a metaphor for lots of stuff. There are times and circumstances in which doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result is not only sane but very wise and incredibly effective. In his new book, Good to Great, recently reviewed on this website, Jim Collins dedicates a chapter to what he calls "pushing the flywheel." Most of us just call it "persistence" or "consistency." This is how stars are discovered in bars in the worlds of music and comedy. They play the small clubs, doing the same thing over and over, polishing, not in this case, the brass, but their acts, always expectantly hoping for that different result - a big discovery, a wave of popularity, a huge "hit."

Sometimes you have to keep doing the same thing over and over until the world catches up with you, notices what you're doing, and is ready to make the most of it. On occasion, you just have to continue on until the right person with insight and resources crosses your path. If you changed too quickly, in the face of apparent defeat, you'd miss that meeting with destiny that could have been yours had you just been tough enough to keep doing your thing, over and over, expecting a different result.

I remember the old quote from Mark Twain: "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Then give up. There's no sense being a damn fool about it." There are limits. But they are quite a bit farther out than the recent urban insight about insanity would give us to believe. Sometimes doing the same thing a second time when it hasn't worked the first is indeed just foolish. But sometimes it's shrewd. Wisdom consists, in part, in knowing the difference. Flexibility is a virtue. But in most matters, flexibility properly kicks in only after persistence has been given a fair chance.

Every urban adage can serve us well if we use it as a focus for reflection. And that's true of the words of even the greatest philosophers. They're not always right. But they can be very helpful if we use their words to stimulate us to our own thoughts. A popular saying, whether new or old, should never substitute for thought. If it leads us to our own, more careful, thoughts, it has done us a good deed indeed.

So my advice is: Do this with every new "insight" or catchy "definition" you hear. Turn it over in your own mind. Examine it for truth. Question what it means and how it can help you come to your own conclusions. Do this same thing over and over, and - guess what? - you can almost always expect a different result!

Which is why being a philosopher is sometimes insanely interesting!


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