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

This has been almost an Internet meme over the last few years. It’s one of the dumbest phrases I’ve ever heard. I cringe whenever I hear it. Did Albert Einstein even say it? WikiQuotes says that this famous phrase was never seen before in print until Rita Mae Brown used it in her 1983 book “Sudden Death”. Not only is this phrase idiotic, it’s also a likely fraud.

If this phrase were at all even slightly true, we would be a world full of psychopaths. And if everyone is crazy, wouldn’t THAT become the new sane?

Here’s another quote, this time from the philosopher Heraclitus, and Plato is pretty sure the man actually said it:

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man. – Heraclitus

The world is constantly changing. Entropy goes downhill. The conditions in which you did something the first time are changed the next — if nothing else, you’ve changed. Isn’t trying and trying until you succeed how you progress?

For the past three years, CERN has fired a beam of muon neutrinos (one of the kinds that fall out of decaying muons) from Geneva, Switzerland to the OPERA experiment in a laboratory near Italy’s Gran Sasso mountain. After three years and billions of billions of muon neutrinos in and muon neutrinos out, for the first time, the OPERA physicists saw something else arrive in Italy. After the 450-mile, 2.4-millisecond voyage, a muon neutrino appears to have transformed into a tau neutrino.

Discover Magazine

Researchers have been firing neutrinos 450 miles through the Earth to a detector far away. After three years, the scientists have detected a neutrino in the act of spontaneously changing flavor. What does this mean? It might mean neutrinos have mass, in which case we may have just found a candidate for the mysterious dark matter that holds galaxies together.

I doubt the utterers of the phrase meant it to apply to human endeavor or scientific research, since both those things rely upon doing the same thing again and again in hopes of a different result. How DO people use it?

Tom Fishburne applies it to meetings. Same people in the same meeting again and again, expecting a different result. Seriously? I’m no fan of meetings, but the ones I attend are usually called to produce a result.

A Brewster Smythe uses Einstein’s example (and this mis-attributed quote) to come to grips with her algebra problem. Though I’m unsure how anyone could have graduated high school without having some knowledge of algebra, I don’t think it’s insane of her to keep on trying to learn. Sounds amazingly sane to me.

I’ve google’d dozens of people who use this phrase, and it’s almost always followed by something like “Then call me insane, because I’m doing it again”.

I’m switching this phrase up. From now on, here’s how I’m going to use it:

“The definition of learning is doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result.” – B. Holloway


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