From the Desk of Jay Rainey – March 29, 2024

On January 3, 1943, a student in Washington, D.C., confessed in a letter to Albert Einstein that she was not as confident in mathematics as most of her friends. Einstein replied almost immediately. “Do not worry about your difficulties in mathematics,” he said to her. “I can assure you that mine are still greater.” There is no doubt whatsoever that Einstein himself was the source of these memorable words. There is significant doubt, however, that he was the source of others that are nevertheless attributed to him almost universally: “Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.” As best anyone seems able to tell, it was the Literature Sub-Committee of the World Service Conference of Narcotics Anonymous (doesn’t have quite the same ring as “Einstein,” does it?) who first made this claim, 26 years after the end of the beloved scientist’s life.

As Abraham Lincoln once said, “The problem with quotes found on the internet is that they are often not true.” Einstein, Lincoln, Maya Angelou, Winston Churchill, Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain, and other luminaries are now so frequently credited with things they did not say that even the things they did say attract suspicion. An early scene in the Netflix “mockumentary” Cunk on Earth, a ludicrous send-up of our Misinformation Age, finds its eponymous narrator, Philomena Cunk (played by the comedian Diane Morgan), interviewing Myrto Hatzimichali, a senior lecturer in classics and ancient philosophy at the University of Cambridge, about Ancient Greece. “Aristotle said a lot of clever things, didn’t he?” Cunk says to Hatzimichali. “My favorite is, ‘You’ve got to dance like nobody’s watching.’” If you can witness the conversation that ensues without laughing out loud—the confidence Cunk assumes in “knowing” that Aristotle said this, the patience Hatzimichali demonstrates in explaining that he almost certainly never did, and Cunk’s subsequent confusion and transparent deflation—then you have greater self-control than I do. (But are you strong enough not to laugh when she asks a King’s College London historian, “Who was the Darth Vader of the British Empire? Was it Queen Victoria?”) A creature of our time, Cunk would appear to care less about authenticity than celebrity. “If Churchill was around today,” she muses in a later episode, “imagine how good his tweets would have been.”

I recalled “Einstein’s” definition of insanity during spring break when I came across Things that don’t work on the Dynomight internet newsletter, which lists 43 examples of “repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.” Number 10 on the list is “expecting people to follow written instructions.” And Number 11? “Tearing your hair out because people don’t follow written instructions.” Some others:

12. Explaining board games. Here’s how people usually seem to teach board games: (1) Someone spends 5-30 agonizing minutes explaining how the game works. (2) No one understands anything. (3) The game starts. (4) As each game mechanic arises, people ask, “Hold on, how does this work?” You can skip to step 3.

17. Arguing with people. Say Alice strongly believes X. You give devastating evidence that X is false. How often will Alice turn around and say, “You’re right, I’m wrong, X is wrong”? Words do not exist that will make people do that.

27. Picking stocks. You don’t just have to beat the market, you also have to beat all the extra taxes you pay for trading more.

29. Dieting. The only way to lose weight permanently is to permanently change your food environment.

32. Quality over quantity. For scientists, the best predictor of having a highly cited paper is just writing lots of papers.

The article concludes with a list of things that do, on the other hand, “work,” which includes “dogs,” “vegetables,” “index funds,” “sleep,” “lists,” “learning to cook,” and “surrounding yourself with people you trust and admire.”

I have reflected on these compendia frequently since first reading through them (evidence, perhaps, that “lists” are indeed effective), especially as regards our work at MICDS. Great schools are simultaneously warehouses of ritual and tradition—repositories of a communal past—and engines of innovation and change. “Things that work” can be either (dogs are a tradition, index funds an innovation), as can things that don’t. I am constantly impressed by the scrutiny to which our teachers and staff subject both their individual efforts and our collective efforts as a school. Successful practices are sustained; unsuccessful ones are retired. The secret to doing both is surrounding yourself with people you trust and admire as the article suggests. There are plenty to choose from at MICDS—for children and adults alike. “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Isaac Newton said that. No really, he did. I promise.

Always reason, always compassion, always courage. Happy Easter to everyone celebrating on Sunday. My best wishes to all of you and your families for a joyful weekend.

Jay Rainey
Head of School

This week’s addition to the “Refrains for Rams” playlist: Shine A Light by The Rolling Stones, the seventeenth track on their 1972 record Exile On Main Street, which is widely acknowledged to be one of the greatest albums ever made (Apple Music / Spotify)