Why Consistency Isn’t Always A Good Thing

“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.

much love,

Ollin

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22 comments on “Why Consistency Isn’t Always A Good Thing

  1. I love this, Ollin and I agree fully. I took my son to see a movie yesterday afternoon. I had absolutely no interest in seeing this movie because the products put out by this actor as well as others in the film is consistently of poor quality. The producers consistently have no interest in getting facts straight, keeping up with continuity details or pushing the actors towards an authentic performance.

    But my middle schooler loved, loved, loved it, as I expect this was their target audience. But just because 10 year olds are not yet able to discern quality story telling is no reason to keep producing junk.

    You said writers should be encouraged to “always make the right choice–and not that they’ll always deliver the same story.”

    I couldn’t have said it better.

    • Ollin says:

      Eventually the jig will be up, even with younger audiences. Because those audience members grow up and begin to realize what’s quality and what’s not. And who says movies for a young audience have to be of poor quality. Pixar is a prime example of what reliability does for audiences.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us, angel!

  2. Christina says:

    I totally agree with you – it’s like people think it’s better to stick to whatever, no matter if it isn’t working any more, or if people have changed their opinions. Why is changing one’s mind an issue? How can anyone broaden their horizons if changing one’s mind is no longer acceptable?

  3. I think choosing reliability over consistency takes an amount of courage–it’s easier to stay consistent and just work with what you’re already good at, but the reward for the writer as well as the reader is so much greater when we force ourselves to branch out, to explore new terrain, to write well, but not to get stuck in a rut of stubbornness or cowardice. Good insight, Ollin!

  4. When I read this post I couldn’t help but think of Walt Whitman’s line: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”

    We probably would not have considered Whitman consistent, but no one can argue he wasn’t brilliant.

    Great thoughts.

  5. spinx says:

    This might very well be one of the best posts you ever delivered!

    Wonderfuly put.

    (Hope your book goes along nicely————-let me know if you ever need a cover for it ;O)

    Peace out

  6. Consistency for the sake of consistency often leads down a very boring and predictable road. I lived that life for a while, and I’m thankful to be on a very different path now. Variety certainly brings spice, and consistency often kills creativity. My goal is to be consistently reliable and dependable. Within that, I strive for creativity and humor and variety. My tendancy is toward one style of writing, and I am working to add some variety to that. I don’t want to bore my readers with consistency.

  7. Ollin, you nailed it. Hollywood wants consistency because it’s afraid to gamble on something new. That’s why we see the remakes of old movies and TV shows. I agree that’s why the audience is staying away. If, for example, a sitcom is more situation than comedy … when you can predict the sight gags and the punchlines … then audiences will go elsewhere for their entertainment.

    • Ollin says:

      Hollywood doesn’t have to gamble as long as it understands the nature of a great story. Why not focus on that, instead of consistency? Beats me.

  8. Janet Macy says:

    Wonderful!!

    So right. I had not thought of it this way before. Thanks for challenging us.

  9. RD Meyer says:

    I totally related to your consistency comment regarding genre. I don’t just read one type of book, so why would I only write on type? I have stories in my head that are horror, paranormal, sci-fi, political, and some that don’t fit anything in particular. To limit to one genre would stifle the creative process.

    • Ollin says:

      I think it’s fine to stick to one genre if you want to, I’m not against that, I’m against just sticking to a genre for the sake of consistency. I’m against a “foolish” consistency. A virtuous consistency, on the other hand, is not a bad thing to have.

  10. As always, very informative and I’m sure it’ll be very helpful when the time comes🙂 By the way I nominated you for awards: http://evilnymphstuff.wordpress.com/2012/02/14/the-day-dedicated-to-love/
    Congrats and happy st. valentine’s day!

  11. Rainamay says:

    Funny, I have a very recent post on “consistency” saved as draft in my blog. As I began to write about how important I believed consistency to be, I began to realize how very big a word it is and the scope of space it really takes up, so I never published that post. I think where I was going with my idea of the importance of consistency was between word and deed, but if I viewed those things as separate entities (which was my basic argument for integration of consistency of the two), then the immense size and malleability of its concept became strikingly clear. There is such thing as being consistently inconsistent, so that threw the kibosh on my idea and totally negated my point. It is so true that it is really the reliability we look for when we observe where the consistencies are found in any situation. Consistency does breed comfort, and comfort continues to dwell in it. So, I therefore, believe that staying true to your integrity has really more to do with reliability than consistency–and as one of your readers pointed out, it takes courage to step outside of our automatic and at times, diplomatic comfort, standing upon principal whether it stunts us or not. It truly adds predictability and transparency to the picture doesn’t it…which now takes a turn to irony. I so enjoyed reading your post about this, as it has shed a light on the missing piece for me. The thing I so enjoy about writing is the discovery of new ideas, concepts, and the open-mindedness it has instilled in me to become more credible and my ideas more interesting. Thank you!

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