Insanity is Doing the Same Thing

If you are defeated once and tell yourself you will overcome, but carry on as before, know in the end you’ll be so ill and weakened that eventually you won’t even notice your mistake and will begin to rationalize your behavior.


In today’s entry in The Daily Stoic, author Ryan Holiday uses the above quote from former-slave-turned-philosopher Epictetus, and he draws a parallel with a famous quote generally attributed to Albert Einstein that we’re all familiar with: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

Holiday highlights that you’ll need to change your strategy if you want to see a different outcome (“hope is not a strategy” he bluntly states), and that it may actually do us harm to to repeatedly fail in the same way. Epictetus says the same in his quote above, that you’ll become “ill and weakened” and you won’t realize how far off-base you are, and you’ll start to explain away your faulty approach because you basically have blinders on at that point.

What’s easy is doing the same thing. That doesn’t require a lot of courage, or even commitment. Changing what you’re doing to get a different result — that’s hard! But like they say: nothing that’s worthwhile is ever easy. So it has to be a conscious choice to learn from what hasn’t worked, learn from your mistakes, and then alter course to get the outcome that you really want.

The sports analogy

I’ll draw an analogy here with the Seattle Seahawks, my favorite sports team, but really this could apply to any type of team sport. The coach of the Seahawks is determined, and I mean really determined, to run the ball on offense no matter what look the opposing defense presents. It doesn’t seem to matter if they have the right talent at the running back position. It doesn’t even matter if running the ball has failed 30 times in the game so far, coach has decided that he will run the ball again, and again…

I’m sure you’ve seen the same when your favorite team plays. They have a strategy to start the game, the strategy doesn’t work, and… they fail to adapt. Rather than adjusting the strategy, they just keep trying to ram the existing gameplan through, and what happens? It fails. Failure to adjust, failure to learn, and ultimately it’s failure to swallow hard and try something else.

Quitting smoking

Quitting smoking is easy, I’ve done it hundreds of times. That’s the wry joke that people make when they admit they’ve been unsuccessful at halting their nicotine habit.

I used to make that joke. And the next day, I would “carry on as before” like Epictetus said above, doing exactly the same thing: I just told myself that today was the day, and that I’d quit today. It never worked. I became “ill and weakened” in spirit as I realized I wasn’t keeping my promise to myself, and yet I somehow hoped that tomorrow it would just finally magically stick.

It wasn’t until I tried a different approach that something finally clicked. I used a self-hypnosis recording, which incorporated visualization and breathing techniques, and this new strategy worked. I haven’t looked back, and my lungs thank me daily. I’m glad I took the extra effort to try a new idea.

I tried for years to quit smoking weed too, but of course I did the same thing — just kind of hoping that it would stick. That maybe today was the day, and it would work, and I would quit. Day after day, nothing changed, because I kept trying the same non-strategy, and I was unsuccessful and became heartsick at my inability to control my urges. Eventually, I decided to change up my strategy and take a more conscious approach, and it worked!

Change is hard, but you can’t expect amazing results from doing the same thing repeatedly. Courage!

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