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On Repetition :|

You should try it some time

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

This is what Einstein supposedly said. It might be true for math and physics experiments.

But is it for living your life?

Looking at my own life, I see a lot of repetition. I get up every morning around the same time; I work out, and I listen to a Japanese podcast so I can talk myself into doing something for my listening comprehension; I read.

I drink the same coffee most days, sitting at the kitchen table while looking through the leaves of my plants at the building on the opposite side of the street. My breakfast food choices aren't hugely varied either. Occasionally, I'll spoil myself with a fancy croissant, but I don't bother going to the bakery most days. 🥐

In the afternoons, I go down to the river, turning either to the left or right, walking down a path I've walked at least a hundred times.

If you were to check my listening history, you'd find that I've repeatedly listened to a handful of the same concerts and symphonies for the past weeks. I probably listened to this one at least five times yesterday.

Not very exciting, right?

Certainly not something to brag about on Social Media, nor put in my Bumble bio.

“There’s a general belief that if you want to seem like an interesting, cultured person, the best thing you can do is to showcase that you’re open to new experiences. That may be true, but I think we take for granted the other value of really digging deep into one domain.”

Ed O'Brien

After all, Influencers and the experience economy suggest that your social status is directly tied to the number of new things you can buy, do, or see. People have even gone so far as to post their to-do list on Instagram.

As if there wasn't already sufficient pressure to be productive.

When we see someone constantly sharing exciting live events on Instagram or TikTok, we start getting FOMO. We wonder if maybe we, too, should do more new things, travel more, go out more, and spend more money on food eaten in fancy restaurants. It doesn't need to taste good; just be Instagramable, I guess.

At least, my seemingly mundane, not very impressive life routine has prompted me to think more deeply about repetition. Turns out I'm not the only one.

But if you start looking into repetition a little, you quickly realize:

Repetition has a bad rep

Calling something repetitive is one way of calling it boring. And boredom is an emotion we (unrightfully) try to avoid at all costs.

And still, repetition probably makes up 70% or even more of our daily lives. While your feed might not show you the same videos twice, your surroundings likely are.

As humans, we are hard-wired to seek the novel and exciting, and social media has understood this perfectly well. FOMO is evolutionary. Paying attention to the new and potentially dangerous has paid off for us in the past.

When trying something new, at least you know you're acting in sync with the Zeitgeist. But it'll soon be scrolled away, so you have to queue up the next new thing.

We elevate creativity, the process of creating new things, yet conveniently forget that repetition enables it in 9 out of 10 cases.

We celebrate our musicians and writers, sometimes as "overnight" wonders, dismissing the fact they've probably repeated to refine their craft for years.

But repetition isn't just the stepping stone to mastery.

It can also be a way to experience things more deeply.

To explore that, I'll get some help from a Danish Philosopher.


That's the title of one of Soren Kierkegaard's books, which explores the importance of repetition in understanding life. It's the Danish term for repetition, which, linguistically, would be more accurately translated as "To take again."

The book is essentially about temporality, the fact that time flows, constantly drowning any precious moment in the ocean of the past.

Just like we lose that one tweet we wanted to bookmark as we refresh, so we're losing the battle against the incessant, tidal force of time.

But the philosopher doesn't leave us on this rather depressing note. Instead, he shares that we have ways against it, namely, repetition and recollection.

As the main character in his novel mentions

" Repetition and recollection are the same movements, just in opposite directions. What is recollected has already been and is thus repeated backward. Genuine repetition is recollected forwards."

But how do we recollect forwards?

In his blog, Piety on Kierkegaard, the author, a fountain pen lover, provides the example of going back to using his old Pelikan 100 fountain pen, made between 1934 and 38. Even though it's a gorgeous pen, he often finds himself on eBay looking for other vintage pens.

But the search takes away from his time for appreciating what he has. He forces himself to halt the search and sit down with his Pelikan 100.

As he calls it making it present again.

It's weird. He reports that the joy he's had when using it for the first time comes back to him. It is not diminished or lessened by repetition. Yet, he still finds himself pursuing the new.

Next shiny thing

It might not fix us. When we think of the future, we have a tendency to think about new, exciting events ahead, about variety. Not about repeating what we do.

Maybe we've taken some lessons from economics to close to heart.

Take the concept of diminishing marginal utility.


According to that law, the more of something you consume, the less utility you get from it.

In psychology, this idea is called "hedonic adaptation" and establishes that the more a stimulus is repeated, the less pleasure you get from it.

While this might hold true for doing drugs (not an expert in that one) or eating lots of cookies in one sitting, it's less so for experiences.

We tend to underestimate how positively we'll react to reading the same book, listening to the same music, or watching the same movie again. Remember, once upon a time, in the days before streaming, you'd buy CDs and listen to them repeatedly.

In a study by the University of Chicago, people realized that the repeat experience was a lot more pleasurable than they expected and just as fun as the first time.

We're quick to conclude that we've seen everything. Yet, we're almost always wrong.

Especially for multi-layered experiences. Take a museum visit.

I don't know about you, but after two hours, I have information overload and can't take it all in, even though there's much more to explore.

But it doesn't even have to be an excursion like that.

Even a daily walk can be exciting. That is if you take a lesson from kids.

"Going for a walk with a two-year-old is like going for a walk with William Blake"

Alison Gopnik

Curiosity didn't just kill the cat

It's also what allows us to enjoy our repeat exercises. Or, as Proust would say, "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes."

Often, all it takes is walking around with open eyes and attention to detail. What you look for is quite literally what you get. We get engaged by noticing new things in familiar environments. Imagine being a 2-year-old—or maybe 5—else you'd have to stop at every bug. 🪲

Looking for new things in your usual surroundings in itself is quite fulfilling.

And chances are, it's never the exact same.

Because you aren't.

Our minds tend to wander.

Doing something again gives us a chance to experience it fully.

The first time in the new cafe, you might be thinking about that email you have to send or wondering why he isn't texting you back.

The second time, without those worries, you notice the little flower arrangement on the table and that each mug in the cafe is slightly different. You might recognize the melody playing in the back without needing to shazam it.

"There is pleasure in repetition, and cognizance in recognition."

The Correspondent

Each repetition brings something new if we set our mind to it.

Take music.

If you listen intently to the same piece over and over again, something fascinating happens.

The first time, we might focus on the melody and try to grasp it. But with each repetition, more nuances unfold. You might suddenly hear the theme repeated in the strings while the soloist is playing variations.

Or you might notice that the orchestra is slightly out of sync with the pianist in this performance. You might find yourself longing to hear that beautiful melody again.

Whatever it is, you're anticipating and expectant, active rather than passive. Fully immersed. Like a kid going on a walk.

That's as long as you do it deliberately.

Repetition is beautiful.

Take Philipp Glass's music built from repetitive structures.

Or my favorite poem by Erich Fried

It is nonsense
says reason
It is what it is
says love

It is calamity
says calculation
It is nothing but pain
says fear
It is hopeless
says insight
It is what it is
says love

It is ludicrous
says pride
It is foolish
says caution
It is impossible
says experience
It is what it is
says love

For the German original, you can listen to it here.

And with that, I'll go back to listening to Perlman playing Kreisler (that run up and down the scale around 4:00 always gets me) or re-reading my favorite Carlos Ruiz Zafon books.

Thanks for reading 💚


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