There is a popular Albert Einstein quote: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” At least, it is popularly attributed to The Einstein. However, I’m no longer sure that he spoke this quote at all. Ryan Howes PhD, ABPP writes “It’s not clear who said it first, but according to at least one blogger (link is external) it’s “the dumbest thing a smart person ever said.” The catchy saying has gathered steam in the past few years (example I(link is external), II(link is external),III(link is external)), and regardless of the source, it’s gotten a lot of mileage.”
The quote doesn’t work for leadership and culture building. Culture building is about instilling attitudes, habits, and protocols. Very often, the principles and theories of culture building are used to change an organization’s culture. An organization’s culture can be changed for better or for worse. Todd McKinnon, CEO of Okta, says leadership is about communication: “Communicate your values and culture explicitly and continuously, both internally and externally. Employees must understand your culture, and why it’s important. Reward employees who advance your culture, and be open and honest with those who don’t.” Repetition of the message is a big part of culture building though. There are slogans you need to repeat to highlight or emphasize the meaning behind rewards, discipline, the value of events, as well as the vision and mission of your organization which leads to the powerful influence of small networks on to the larger networks. Ironically, repetition is also how the quote attributed to Einstein, built up such power. Like in the book Brave New World, we read it in different places enough times, we come to believe it as true.
But let’s return to Dr. Howes’s article. Dr. Howes explores the legal definition of insanity, that the quote doesn’t support how a court would diagnose insanity, but he shares that he also “started hearing people use it in the service of avoidance (link is external), which is a defense mechanism (link is external). Rather than facing their fears, they grab on to this saying for protection against possible failure, pain or rejection.”
In addition to the avoidance mechanism that I too have observed, I have observed it used as a truism against 19th and 20th century education. Drill and repetition, for example, is said to deaden the mind and kill creativity. This is not the case even in creative work.
In creative work, research suggests that repetition proves it can be a necessary part of creativity, not just for the visual arts, but also in the performing arts. There is an acting method called the Meisner Technique that uses repetition. “Two actors sit opposite each other and respond in the moment with a repeated phrase, breaks down overly structured technique and builds openness, flexibility, and listening skills.” Famous Meisner students include Robert Duvall, Grace Kelly, Gregory Peck, and Diane Keaton.You would never say these actors are not creative. Even if you argued that the artists were creative in spite of the repetition, you have to reject the other belief that repetition “kills” creativity, since the list of Meisner Technique professionals is so long. And yet, some education reform thought leaders would claim that repetition is not useful, and lead the charge to reject drills and repetition.
Repetition is found as part of the preparation of the artist and is part of the novice’s training.
Why am I going to these lengths to fight the rejection of repetition? Why did I indicate the uses of repetition in a number of disciplines as well as in the natural world?
Creativity and leadership are connected. Many of the necessary skills and behaviors, even the attitudes, are common. In transformation leadership, and other types of dynamic or transactional leadership: “Over the years the philosophical terminology of “management” and “leadership” have, in the organizational context, been used both as synonyms and with clearly differentiated meanings. Debate is fairly common about whether the use of these terms should be restricted, and generally reflects an awareness of the distinction made by Burns (1978) between “transactional” leadership (characterized by e.g. emphasis on procedures, contingent reward, management by exception) and “transformational” or “transformative” leadership, which is characterized by charisma, personal relationships, creativity). Leaders need to be brave, need to promote a vision, and and need to inspire. This is true of creatives despite the many domains they master and media that they use.
It is clear that in the uncertainty of the knowledge era, in the digital world, in the information age, lifelong learning is a must. We must keep learning, and finding ways to succeed. Learning, involves a great deal of unlearning. Instead of holding on to the false quote about insanity, this un-truism, we should be looking at repetition for finding insights and mastery. It has its place in sensorimotor activities but has its uses in intellectual and creative activities as well.