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  • Ben Musburger, Keynote Music Therapy Founder

Einstein's (or someone's) Definition of Insanity


When change is the topic of conversation, it is common for a quote (often attributed to theoretical physicist, Albert Einstein) to be offered. I have observed leaders, consultants, and others who are interested in change to cite the adage that "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” While many likely take this quote at face value (and I agree that achieving change may require one to do something different), the quote also raises some questions.

Did Einstein actually define insanity in this manner (likely doubtful)? Is repeatedly doing the same thing an adequate definition of “insanity” (nope)? Does the statement consider that many people repeatedly and successfully rely on their personal strengths to overcome challenges time and time again?

And then there is the question of why do people repeatedly try the same solutions when faced with a problem even when those solutions are not working? Is it a sense of comfort and familiarity that drives the same attempted solutions? Is it because these efforts have worked in solving past problems? Is it due to a lack of knowledge about other possible solutions or an absence of creativity?

The late co-developer of Solution-Focused Brief Therapy, Steve de Shazer, in his book, Keys to Solution in Brief Therapy (1985), advises that the solutions people select to address difficulties are influenced by the assumptions that they make about the problem to be solved. These assumptions result in the kind of solutions attempted and the repeating of the same solutions over and over again.

Assumption 1: How the problem is viewed, or what kind of problem is this problem?

How a person defines the kind of problem affects the solutions that are attempted. Is the problem medical, psychological, resource-based, knowledge-related, internal, external, structural, cultural, systemic, or a natural phase? Once the problem is viewed through a specific lens, a specific solution is chosen.

For example, if a parent determines that a child’s problematic behavior is due to the child being “bad,” solutions are often then limited to punishment for bad behavior or rewards for good behavior. If a child’s problematic behavior is viewed as a developmental phase, different solutions then become available. And yes, the “bad” view can be applied to groups of people just as easily.

Assumption 2: Unsuccessful solutions continue because the original view of the problem does not change.

After solutions are attempted and the desired results are not achieved, people are likely to attempt more of the same unless the original view of the problem changes. If levied punishment did not change the child’s behavior, the parent would likely question the punishment itself instead of their view that punishment is necessary. The parent may conclude that the punishment was not frequent enough, implemented quickly enough, or severe enough. Without questioning their view of the problem, the parent is prone to do more of the failed solution.

To apply de Shazer’s thinking in your life, with your family, or with your organization, here are three questions for you to consider:

  1. What assumptions are you making about the causes of your problems?

  2. How do your assumptions influence your attempted solutions?

  3. What solutions are currently unavailable to you because of how you have defined the problem?

What solutions can Keynote Music Therapy offer you? Please contact us for a meeting or a free consult.


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