“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said today.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
Our culture is so obsessed with consistency these days. So much so that, today, consistency–in and of itself–is seen as a virtue.
For example, if a politician is consistent in her views, even if we disagree with those views, she’s still said to be deserving of our admiration.
Really? You gotta be kidding me.
You tell me this:
What good is “consistency” when you’re consistent only in bad policies, bad ideas, and bad behavior? What good is “consistency” if it’s of the foolish kind? And not of the virtuous kind?
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that a foolish consistency was the “hobgoblin of little minds” and I tend to agree with him.
I’ve noticed that, in today’s world, a foolish consistency has, slowly but surely, become the hobgoblin of not just little minds, but of the modern mind.
The idea that consistency is a good thing—no matter what kind of consistency it is—has permeated every part of our culture. We have been told that “consistency” is always good in what we read, in what we watch, in who we vote for, in what products we buy, and in what companies we do business with.
We have been told that consistency is always a good thing.
But the truth is that… it isn’t.
A Foolish Consistency In Writing
Writers are being coerced more and more into becoming simply “consistent.” Pick a genre, we’re told. Pick a theme. Pick a “universe” and stick with that universe forever and ever and ever and ever…. Be the “vampire author,” “the zombie author,” “the author who always writes about housewives from Alabama who solve mysteries with the help of their psychic, bisexual cats.”
Instead of simply being told to be “consistent,” writers should be told to be consistent in a good way, a smart way, a virtuous way—and not in a foolish way.
A Foolish Consistency In Hollywood
Most Hollywood movies nowadays (other than a few exceptions) all seem to have the same scripts, the same story lines, the same stock characters, and all the same familiar actors we’ve come to know very well through TMZ over the years.
Most producers in Hollywood seem to believe that consistency, in and of itself, is a good thing. It’s no wonder fewer people go to the movies these days. Hollywood can blame the economy all it wants, but the audience knows the real reason why they see less and less movies these days. It’s because on-screen all they see is the same old story, told in the same, old way, with all the same, same, same, old actors.
A foolish consistency is killing Hollywood.
Maybe What We Really Want Is Not Consistency—But Reliability
You know, I’m starting to think that we really don’t want consistency so much as we want reliability.
We want to know that no matter how things change, and no matter what difficult decisions a person or organization might to make, that they will always opt for making the right decision.
But doing the right thing doesn’t always look very “consistent” from the outside.
For example, Abraham Lincoln was never really consistent. It took him a long time to change his mind about slavery, and even when he thought slavery should be abolished, he still strongly believed that the races should be kept separately from each other.
Today, we don’t praise Lincoln because he was consistent. We praise him because he was reliable. We knew that Lincoln was always fighting for equality over inequality, for union over division, for fairness over injustice. No, he was not always consistent in reaching those aims, but, looking back at his legacy, we feel that we could always rely on his basic integrity.
What Does Reliability Look Like?
This is a portrait of a reliable person:
She knows the world changes rapidly. She knows that concrete issues can become malleable. She knows that ignorance can give way to enlightenment, and misunderstanding can give way to clarity. So, a reliable person will shift her stance if she ever realizes she’s been compromising her basic, core integrity. She knows that she must forsake her “foolish consistency” in order to embrace what is right.
A person who is merely consistent, however, might pass on her chance to do what is right in order to hold on to a sense of “consistency.” But, in the end, this individual is destroying herself because, in trying to be “consistent,” she’s inadvertently forcing herself to go against her basic, core integrity.
To be rigid is to be easily broken by the crack of a storm. So, the reliable person knows that it’s better to be flexible while still being rooted to the ground of virtue.
Reliability In Writing
People love The Harry Potter Series not because J. K. Rowling was a consistent author, but because she was a reliable author. Rowling always gave us a great story, always surprised us, and always withheld just enough mystery from us in order to keep us engaged.
If J.K. Rowling was simply “consistent,” and not reliable, she would not be as popular as she is today. For instance, if Books 2-7 of the Harry Potter series had the same characters and the same setting as Book 1, but did not have the same kind of dark and quirky flare that the first book had, it’s less likely that the rest of the Harry Potter books would’ve succeeded.
So, please, stop encouraging writers today to be consistent. Instead, encourage them to be reliable. Remind writers that their job is to make the reader trust them. The reader must be able to trust that the writer will always deliver a great story—that they’ll always make the right choice–and not that they’ll always deliver the same story.
Reliability In Hollywood
James Cameron, as you know, is the famous filmmaker behind The Terminator, Titanic and Avatar—three films that couldn’t be more different in theme, format, and subject manner. Titanic and Avatar are among the highest grossing films of all time. But Titanic is a fictional romance set during a real-life historical event, while Avatar is a science fiction war film.
It’s clear by looking at his films that James Cameron didn’t become successful because he was consistent as a filmmaker. He became successful because he was reliable as a filmmaker.
Because the audience knows that when James Cameron makes a film, it’s going to be a big event. The audience may not have the comfort of knowing that Cameron will deliver something that is “consistent” with his previous works, but they do know that he’ll always tell a great story in a new, imaginative way that they’ve never seen before.
Like James Cameron, most successful people are not always consistent. But, more often than not, they are reliable.
Stop The Foolishness
It seems to me that our culture’s growing obsession with foolish consistency is damaging us. It’s boxing us in. It’s killing us. It’s making us stagnant, boring, predictable, and decadent.
I think it’s time we change the tide before things get worse.
I think it’s time we stop our foolishness, and get back to doing some serious work.
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