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But It Happened Before!
by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.

"Highly successful people recognize that almost every situation is different so that the potential for success occurs by trying again..."

You have probably heard some variation of Albert Einstein's definition of insanity: “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” This definition has been popularized by pop psychology and marketing gurus to emphasize the importance of taking a different approach to solving a problem. Basically, the idea is you can't keep engaging in the same unsuccessful or even self-destructive behavior and expect that you will succeed next time.

Although this quote is valid in the right context, too many people use it as a general principle for life without fully understanding it. Therefore, it is important to understand this quote precisely. It states “doing the SAME thing OVER and OVER.” Which certainly, if there is no variation in what is being attempted, how can there be different results? However, this quote can be used as an excuse to not be persistent. For instance, if someone makes an assumption based upon a single piece of information, they might say, “I already tried that. Why bother to try it again?”

Many people have a problem with the irrational thought process of generalization which refers to believing that because something occurred previously, you will experience the same outcome again. On the surface, this appears directly opposed to Einstein's definition of insanity. But it is not! Too often people will be afraid of trying something because they were unsuccessful previously. However, they need to recognize that it may not be the exact situation as the previous one.

For instance, a college student searching for a job contacts someone she knows at a company to get assistance obtaining a job. The person rather rudely says “I can't help you.” The college student interprets this as meaning that what she did was inappropriate and is hesitant to contact someone else she knows to network for job leads. “I'm not going to be able to get anyone to help me.” In this example she is engaging in generalization. She believes that because one person refused to help her, that another person will refuse as well.


Highly successful people recognize that almost every situation is different so that the potential for success occurs by trying again with another person or a different approach. In fact, the basic premise in the sales profession is to put the last rejection behind you quickly so that you can move on to the next sale. Just because one person isn't interested doesn't mean that will be true of the next person. The more times the salesperson fails, the more he/she is likely to be successful because sales is based on the number of attempts. A certain percentage will have a positive outcome.

The college student interpreted the situation based on herself which led to the generalization that no one will help her. She believed that she had done something wrong which led to the rejection. However, if she examined the situation differently maybe she could recognize that other factors could be present that might not be present in her next attempt.

For instance, maybe the person she called was extremely busy and couldn't assist or perhaps the person was worried about his/her own job and didn't want to give out leads to potential competition. So, unknown to her, a variation may exist in the next attempt she makes because she is contacting a different person.


Generalizing is to infer general principles based on limited information. It is the belief that what happened in one situation is likely to occur in another. Therefore, it is expecting the SAME outcome in a DIFFERENT situation.


The irrational thinking style of generalizing usually prevents someone from being persistent and trying different variations until they can achieve the desired outcome. So, just as we can't expect a different outcome in the same situation, we need to be cautious basing our decisions about trying to accomplish something on the fear of obtaining the same result.

For example, when I was first learning assertion skills I practiced them by asking for discounts when making a purchase. At first, my word choice “You wouldn't consider giving me a discount, would you?” was very ineffective. In addition, I probably conveyed in my body language that I didn't expect them to respond to my request. However, I kept trying different variations. One day I was with my sister who had just selected a washing machine and was ready to purchase it and I looked the salesperson in the eye and said very firmly, “How much of a discount are you giving her?” He immediately discounted it 30% without hesitation. If I had generalized from my initial failures, I would never have learned how to assert myself effectively.

If we generalize, we are likely to quit. If we quit, we are not likely to achieve what we want at all. Einstein also said “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Therefore, by changing our thinking we are more likely to achieve more of what we want. By changing our thinking we are more likely to solve our problems. By changing our thinking we are more likely to change our lives.


So how can generalizing be addressed?

1) Recognize that You are Generalizing. Examine the situation and determine what is the actual evidence you have? Are there other possible variations of the situation? Are you dealing with a different person? Have you learned new skills? Can you take a different approach?

2) Don't Assume the Outcome. If your answers to the above questions indicate that there are differences between the current or upcoming situation and previous situations, then you need to be cautious about assuming. Any differences indicate that you don't know what the outcome will be. When changes are made, especially if they are calculated to improve the outcome, it is more than likely that the outcome will be different.

3) Be Willing to Try. Experience often is the best teacher. If you continue to confront a situation trying different approaches or with different people you will learn what it takes for you to be successful. Even the experience of failure teaches you what doesn't work so that you can learn what will work. Thomas Edison made many attempts to create a light bulb to use in the home. However, his attitude was “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.” Obviously, Thomas Edison did not generalize. He also did not do the SAME thing OVER and OVER.


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