Try, try again (it’s not insanity—just tenacity)

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

— Unknown (often misattributed to Albert Einstein)

persistent in maintaining, adhering to, or seeking something valued or desired


Much of my work involves troubleshooting issues of one form of another, like “Why is my check engine light on, again?” and “Why does this piece of code not work?” and “Why is this webpage breaking on mobile when it worked fine yesterday?”

Some of the issues I encounter are in essence, naturally occurring. That is, they happen simply because we live in a world where things don’t always work correctly or as expected 100% of the times. Sometimes the issues are self-inflicted due to human error.

Finding symptoms is easy. Identifying root causes and correct solutions is much more difficult. I often know what needs to be done, but not how to do it. It’s at that point that I bang my head against the keyboard. It’s at that point where I start to feel a bit of deja vu because I’ve tried so many times to get something to work that all the attempts seem to blur together and I’m just working so fast that it’s impossible to document every single variation that I’ve tried.

And so I find myself in a recursive loop of trial and error that sometimes make me wonder if I’m just insane.

So what’s the difference between insanity and tenacity?

I distinguish insanity from tenacity thus: insanity is a way of relating to the real world that denies the fundamental truths of reality like physics and morals. Tenacity recognizes and honors all of the fundamental truths of reality and says, “What I’m doing is possible given the constraints of reality, but I haven’t found the right key.”

Imagine a janitor who has a collection of thousands of keys. The janitor has not labeled all of the keys and so sometimes has a hard time matching the keys to their correct lock. Insanity would be like the janitor yelling at a door lock to open without trying any of the keys. Tenacity would be the janitor patiently and methodically trying each of the keys until he finds a match, at which point he labels the key for future reference.

Insanity disregards the logical structure of the system and fails to see how everything is designed to work together and demands that things “just work.” Tenacity seeks to understand the system and trusts that a logical system can be known—even if that requires a seemingly insane amount of trial and error.

The difference lies in how we approach problems. If I think my inability to fly is a real, present, and important problem to solve, I can:

  1. disregard physics and my anatomical limitations and try flapping my arms until I generate lift
  2. think about different ways that the problem could be solved and iteratively work toward a solution that actually gets me airborne.

Option 1 shows that you’re crazy and will wear you out and probably give you a rotator cuff tear. Option 2 brings you along on a process of learning that tests your creativity, patience, and perseverance.

The Wright Brothers probably seemed insane to many of their contemporaries. But it turns out that it was just tenacity.

And moreover, that tenacity changed the world as we know it.

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