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 to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — 'Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.' — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.” -- Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance
I've always liked this quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Actually, I like a lot of quotes from RWE. His writing just seems to lend itself well to becoming sound bites that help inform reality. But like a television sound bite, it is very easy to take a quoted line out of context and make it serve meanings for which it was never intended. No wheres is this more evident that when discussing the importance of consistency.
Perhaps it would be best to begin the discussion with a talk about what consistency is. Consistency is defined by the Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary as being "a condition of adhering together, or a firmness of constitution or character... an agreement or harmony of parts or features to one another or a whole, esp. the ability to be asserted together without contradiction." In essence, it is the state of being something that seems to belong with a group of things or the ability to be unwavering in your morals/character. In a world where it often seems like everyone is swayable given threats of enough bad press, a person that has what was once called "the courage of their convictions," seems attractive. Certainly, in a position of importance, say that of a specialist surgeon, it is desirable to have a person handling your case that can be consistent. A cynic, however, would say that those desiring consistency are really after people who are predictable; that requiring you do not go back on your previously given word or decisions limits you unnecessarily. Who is right?
Certainly, Oscar Wilde would be on the side of the cynics. He has been quoted as saying that consistency is "the last refuge of the unimaginative." By which it he is saying that if one cannot come up with a novel idea or a new direction at which to look at a problem, at least you can be the epitome of perfection when it comes to doing what you already do. This ties into one of the things that RWE mentions when he states that
Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.' — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.”
Predictability, or conforming with the orthodoxy of the day, allows one to be acceptable to one's neighbours and society as a whole. Non-conformity leads to misunderstandings and being looked at quizzically by one's neighbours and co-workers. Managers don't necessarily want excessivly creative ideas and input,, which may not come on a consistent basis but only after long periods of cultivation. Instead, they seem to want consistent output -- settling for the less imaginative in the need for quick resolution.
To be creative, to be original, seems to be something that flies in the face of consistency. If consistency is so prized in the business and social worlds, it makes it difficult to innovate - to fly in the face of consistency with what is accepted practice. If the person being innovative is one who had already taken a strong stance in the opposite direction, we call into question how truthful their comments may be. A scientist, for instance, that had previously taken the viewpoint that protons, electrons and neutrons were the smallest building blocks of matter would surely end up with egg on their face with the discovery of quarks in the late 1960's. Suppose that same scientist had been used as an expert witness for court cases where he swore to the truth of the knowledge of there being only the three smallest particles. If, sometime between two court cases he was presented with evidence that (a) proved to him that quarks existed, and (b) was reproducible, would he not change his testimony next time? The next time he was in court, would he not testify that there were now four particles, not three? Surely, the defence rip his testimony to shreds because it was not consistent with what he had been spouting up till a short time ago. But just because the facts he is stating have changed, it does not mean that the veracity of the person who is saying them should be untrustworthy. What matters here is how the fact-reciter came to have his ideas changed.
In the above scenario, a scientist would not generally be easily swayed. There would have to be several kinds of proof given, and according to the scientific method, the facts of any theory should not change unless the proof being cited is reproducible by other scientists in different labs. Where people often become skeptical is when a person seems to change his opinions whenever holding the opposite opinion is more valuable; not when a viewpoint has been disproved. Politicians are famous for doing this, which is just one of the many reasons why people generally do not trust politicians. R.W. Emerson states, however, "Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day." How does that fit with the need to not seem wishy-washy? Emerson is calling on us to take a stance and defend it strongly, come what may, for so long as the conditions that make you believe that stance hold. This is not likely to be forever; for some it may not even last a season. But while you are of that opinion, do not hem and haw and be easily converted. Demand proof if someone questions your stance. Consider thoughtfully. Weigh things accurately. Then make up your mind again. If you find things need to change, then do so. If not, then have the "courage of your convictions" and stand strong. Consistency is the "hobgoblin of little minds" because only minds obsessed with the trivial minutiae of appearances should be worried about whether or not they are seeming to not go back on their own statements. The rest know that the to be obsessively worried about the little, piddly things in life will hold us back from discovery, creativity and realizing our potential.