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October 1st, 2018

Notice for a moment the similarity between the way insanity and practice are defined.


Insanity, it’s often stated, is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.


How is this any different from practice?  Practice is doing something over and over with the hope that some kind of improvement will occur.  With practice, our concentration can be on doing something we have never actually done before.  This fits the colloquial definition of insanity a little less snuggly because such a person is trying to do something different every single time in order to get the desired result. 


But, generally, once some skill is acquired, the hope and goal of practice is to ensure we can do it exactly the same over and over. We practice in order to maintain proficiency or move towards expertise.


When we begin practicing something that we have no proficiency with, it requires a faith in some kind of different and better future in order to continue.  We often stop pursuing something because we lose faith in the possibility of this new and better future because our feedback from reality provides no obvious evidence that such a future will manifest.


A previous episode of Tinkered Thinking describes a concept termed the Infernal Parking Meter, a parking meter that appears broken, and does not begin to work until hundreds of dollars have been deposited.  Most people will deposit a second coin just to make sure a meter is broken but rarely a third, because that’s just wasting money.  As an analogy for practice, this maps nicely to the behavior people have when we give up pursuing some new endeavor: we put in some effort, nothing happens, we put in a little more effort, still nothing happens, so we stop.  But there’s just no way to tell when the meter of success will start functioning. 


Investing more and more time into any endeavor is risky since time is our most valuable resource which is simultaneously the reason why people give up on things and the reason why people keep doing things that they should abandon, i.e. the sunk cost fallacy.


There is one important aspect of any ‘practiced’ behavior that is key to figuring out whether something is going to improve.


Will the change we seek come from an external or internal place?


If we are practicing something with the hope that some internal change will occur inside ourselves, then chances are quite high that entertaining some insanity will eventually yield some good results.


But, if we are seeking some external change, chances are probably lower that repeated behavior will produce an effective result.  Take for example the often prescribed and ill-received advice that family and friends will give a smoker.  They simply say “stop smoking.” And the result is resistance.  Changing strategies is probably a better idea in order to achieved the desired result of a healthier friend.


However, sometimes perseverance and repetition is exactly what is needed for an external result.  Most podcasts and blogs, for example, peter out before the platform ever finds an audience and the lack of success becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The sunk-cost fallacy is a far more important concept for external endeavors than it is for endeavors that aim for some kind of internal change for the simple reason that all personal experiences can be framed in ways that strengthen an individual whereas time wasted on external circumstances may simply be a waste of time.  Though even that experience can become a useful internal one.


What the juxtaposition of practice and the colloquially defined insanity reveal though, is that the mass wisdom behind doing the same thing over and over is not always right, and perhaps in most cases it’s wrong.  Especially when it comes to efforts to change something internal, though one’s faith might dwindle, doing the same thing over and over raises the probability that something new will happen.

This episode references Episode 78: Infernal Parking Meter.

Check out the Tinkered Thinking   Reading List

Dive in to the Archives

Podcast Ep. 169: Practicing Insanity

Tinkered Thinking

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