# A Rational Approach to the New Year

### Published: 2024-01-02

### Updated: 2024-01-02

There's a well known adage:

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

This phrase, often mis-attributed to Albert Einstein, was actually coined by the mystery fiction author Rita Mae Brown. Regardless of who strung these words together first, it is as relevant to my topic today as this quote describing the characteristics of a rational person according to the Stoic philosopher and Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius:

These are the characteristics of the rational soul: self-awareness, self-examination, and self-determination. It reaps its own harvest. . . . It succeeds in its own purpose . . .

Stoic philosophy teaches us that to be rational we must focus on what is under our control, and as the above quote implies, we can always succeed when our goals are set appropriately. This means that we should set internal goals and measure ourselves by things that we have complete control over, so that reaching them is merely a choice to make the necessary sacrifices or not. This is what it means when a rational person "reaps [their] own harvest" or "succeeds in [their] own purpose". We each determine what constitutes success or failure in our own lives, and if we are rational, we will determine it according to parameters that we control rather than leaving it up to external factors. In this way, we have "self-determination".

At face value, these ideas are directly relevant to the new year resolutions that many of us make this time of year. But I want to explore these ideas a bit further.

The opposite of a rational person is an irrational person, and the opposite of rationality is irrationality. Irrationality is what is meant by the term "insanity" in the quote I began with, but I will use the more accurate terms *irrational* or *irrationality* for greater clarity.

So with these terms defined, we can summarize the above ideas like this:

*It is irrational to try the same strategy in repetition and expect a different result.*

and

*It is irrational to expect a result outside your control.*

I find it fascinating that both these ideas are talking about our expectations, or rather, our *misguided* expectations. I think it speaks to a larger truth, which is that our perceptions - what ultimately determines our expectations - matter a great deal when it comes to being rational.

The intersection of these two ideas about having the right expectations can be identified with a little bit of analysis. Both ideas are assertions that a certain type of expectation is irrational.

If we reword the second idea from

*It is irrational to expect a result outside your control.*

to

*It is irrational to try any strategy and expect a result outside your control.*

we can preserve its meaning while rendering it in a form similar to the first, so that we have:

*It is irrational to try the same strategy in repetition and expect a different result.*

and

*It is irrational to try any strategy and expect a result outside your control.*

By comparing these two assertions, we see a few common elements. Each one presents an expectation that a certain strategy will achieve a certain result, and claims that such an expectation is irrational. This can be made more clear by additional rewording like so:

*The expectation that trying the same strategy in repetition will achieve a different result is irrational.*

*The expectation that trying any strategy will achieve a result outside your control is irrational.*

Notice how they each contain a qualifier that modifies either the strategy or the result. In the first assertion, the strategy is "the same" strategy. In the second assertion, the result is "outside your control". These qualifiers are the fulcrum upon which the meaning of each assertion rests. Here is a table that will help us make sense of all this:

Strategy | Result | Expectation |
---|---|---|

same | different | irrational |

any | outside your control | irrational |

Reading this horizontally, we can see that an expectation of getting the result in the Result column by using the strategy in the Strategy column is irrational. Now lets try to make the inverse of this table by inverting the two qualifiers I mentioned above, as well as negating the assertion:

Strategy | Result | Expectation |
---|---|---|

different | different | rational |

any | within your control | rational |

Reading this horizontally, we arrive at the following assertions:

*The expectation that trying a different strategy will achieve a different result is rational.*

and

*The expectation that trying any strategy will achieve a result within your control is rational.*

These assertions make intuitive sense, of course. This is no grand revelation, but I think there are some insights to be gleaned from this analysis and its result.

First of all, I like the notion that we can use "any strategy" to achieve a result that is purely within our control. If my goal is to read a book every month, I could use many strategies to do that and have a reasonable expectation of success, as its just a matter of me putting the required time into it. Whether my strategy is to read on my lunch break, on the subway commute, listen to it in audio form during my workout, or do it some other way, it is perfectly rational to expect to reach my goal. The key here is that I *have* a strategy and my goal is something *within my control*.

Another insight comes from combining the two assertions in the above table:

*Using a different strategy and expecting a result within my control is rational.*

Even when we are hoping for a result that is within our control, it can be beneficial to try new ways to achieve it. Continuing the example of trying to read a book every month, what if one of my strategies ends up not working as well as I had hoped? Perhaps the subway is too loud for me to concentrate on reading or there is no audio book version of the book I want to read. The result is still firmly within my control, but it is up to me to find the right strategy, and change my strategy if it isn't working.

With that in mind, I hope that anyone reading this can apply this to their goals for the new year. The worst thing we can do for ourselves is enter the new year with irrational goals that only set us up for failure and disappointment. And even when we make rational goals, if we aren't willing to adapt our strategies according to what works, we are being irrational just the same. We should examine our own expectations for ourselves, our lives, the world at large and the new year. The more rational we can be, the easier it will be to set and achieve meaningful goals and find the tranquility that is so often lacking in the stressful modern world.

Thanks for reading, and I wish you all a rational and happy new year!