Albert Einstein, Ben Franklin or Whomever Said It Was Wrong On the Definition of “Insanity”

If I hear someone say, one more time, the definition of “insanity” is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result,” I’m going to lose it!

And, if they attribute it to Albert Einstein or Benjamin Franklin to try to add credibility to it, I’m going to have to ask them to produce an original source.

There seems to be great debate on the original source of this quote, which is beside my point for this blog, but you can read at the end what I’ve found searching the internet for direct sources.

My point for this blog post is two-fold:

  1. It is disingenuous and dis-respectful to use this statement when there are people with real mental health issues who have been clinically diagnosed as ‘insane.” (one of my long-time best clients is an agency that works with the mentally ill so I am particularly sensitive to this type of thing).
  2. It is not true 100% of the time and I would argue is not accurate most of the time.

True, if you repeatedly take some type of actions you will get the same or similar results. Such as:

  • following a cooking recipe,
  • if I spin around in a pirouette I’m going to continue to make myself dizzy (unless and until someone shows me how those beautiful figure skaters do it without getting dizzy), or,
  • if I continue to make right turns driving my car when I leave my driveway I will continue to go around the same block over and over.

However, as a business person, here are a couple of ways you would get different results taking the same type of action:

  • If a business has continued to market the same way in 2011 as it did in 1980 believing it will achieve the same/similar results, I think that business owner may very well find himself out of business by now…
  • If a college grad was hired in 1981 and his/her boss was using the same motivational, compensation and reward strategies in 2001, when this person were more mature, 20-years older and in a different stage in their life, I bet the boss would find those strategies not nearly as effective as they once were…
  • E-mail marketing. E-mail open rates continue to decline, so if you are sending blast e-mails to a opted-in list and expecting the same open rates as 5-years ago, or 10-years ago, you will be extremely disappointed (I know I am!).

We have to be diligent and watch our language when communicating with ourselves and our team members.

It is dangerous to speak in absolutes.

There are few absolutes when it comes to getting results in life and business. Each situation must be viewed as unique so we can evaluate it in the moment on its own merits and not fall into the trap of pre-judging the situation.

One of the earliest lessons you probably learned is what happens when you “assume,” right?

So, my challenge for you this week is to take a look at all the things you have fallen into the habit of doing and notice how you probably are not getting the same/similar results as you used to…

Especially when it comes to communicating with your team members.

When that starts happening its time to make a change (or, if you are communicating the same as before, and you are getting the same results you are not happy with, then maybe its time for a change, too?).

Remember, sometimes (I would argue most times that count for us in business) when you find yourself doing the same thing over and over you may get a different result, don’t be surprised. Just decide if its the result you want. If it is keep doing it, if its not change what you are doing!

By the way, if you are struggling to get results (or just responses) from your employees and direct reports for key initiatives, and would like to take a different approach, you may want to schedule a private, 1:1 Leadership Communication Strategy Session with me. Learn more about the value and results you can expect from a Strategy Session here .

It seems, in my internet search, there is much debate over the original source of this quote. There does not seem to be an actual document quoting Einstein from the time he was alive. And, from my limited online research, the only documented quote is in a 1983 novel written by Rita Mae Brown. It also exists in the Basic Text of Narcotics Anonymous published in 1983 and in its final approval draft of November, 1981, according to someone on, for whatever that’s worth. And, although it sounds like something Poor Richard would have written in his almanac nowhere on the internet has any official documentation attributed the quote to Ben Franklin. So, give it up people and especially for reason #1 & #2 above.

’til next time, make it a great week!



3 thoughts on “Albert Einstein, Ben Franklin or Whomever Said It Was Wrong On the Definition of “Insanity”

  1. Dr Greg Manley says:

    Dear Skip,

    While I applaud your disdain for attributing the quote to Einstein or Franklin (I agree, I don’t think there is any credence to the urban legend of the source of the quote) and for the quote itself, it might interest you to know that the terms “insanity” and “insane” are not clinical terms. In fact if you consult the DSM-4-TR (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual), you will find that the term is not even mentioned. The terms are ubiquitous in popular culture and are part of layperson’s common language usage. However, the terms are also legal ones with legal definitions and interpretations (as in mentally fit to stand trial and assist with one’s defense or did the defendant understand that the alleged crime was wrong at the time of committing the crime, i.e., “temporarily insane”).

    Thus, when you state, “It is disingenuous and dis-respectful to use this statement when there are people with real mental health issues who have been clinically diagnosed as ‘insane’,” I can agree with the sentiment; however, it is an incorrect usage of the term “insane” in the literal and clinical sense.

    At any rate, I enjoyed your blog and hope my input is helpful to you.

    Gregory Manley, PhD
    Industrial/Organizational Psychologist

  2. Skip Weisman, Workplace Communication Expert says:

    Dr. Manley,
    Thank you for stopping by and being inspired to leave a comment. I appreciate you setting me straight on the clinical definitions. I stand corrected!

  3. Diane E. says:

    Mr. Weisman,

    I was compelled to comment after Mr. Manley explained the usage of the term “insane” as strictly non-clinical; claiming that it was merely “ubiquitous in popular culture” and part of the “layperson’s common language usage.”

    While that may be true today, for a large portion of the history of psychiatric medicine the term was just the name for the general grouping of mental illnesses. It is described as “a severely disordered state of the mind usually occurring as a specific disorder” in the medical dictionary used by the American Psychological Association and the National Institutes of Health’s Web site: (which is produced by the National Library of Medicine) Stedman’s Medical Dictionary © 2006.

    What later became the APA started off as The Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions for the Insane, which adopted “The American Journal of Insanity” to be it’s official Journal. That journal, along with several editions of a handbook called “The Statistical Manual for the Use of Hospitals for Mental Diseases” was to become the DSM. (Which btw is currently in it’s fifth edition- not fourth.) It was used in medicine for many years before giving way to the more scientifically acceptable generalizations of “mental illness” and “psychopathology” and I think it’s an inaccurate summation to declare it a strictly non-clinical term. Really it’s more like an out-dated term that medical professionals have since replaced.

    And how exactly did you both literally and clinically misuse it in your blog entry??

    Also, I don’t believe Mr. Manley when he said that he hopes his information was helpful; I don’t think he particularly cares one way or the other. My impression was more that he just wanted a chance to superciliously correct you in order to show off and attempt to sound impressive. The tone bothered me and made the content all the more irritating until, as I said, I felt compelled to say something.

    Whether it’s useful to you or not I’ve said my piece & now I’m content- thank you for your time & I enjoyed your blog very much.

    Diane E.
    Curve-Wrecking Psychology Student/Malcontent

Comments are closed.