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The Horrors and Joys of Consistency

This is a guest post by Lyman Reed – @lymanreed.

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. “ — Emerson

I’ve known that quote from Emerson’s Self-Reliance for as long as I can remember, but I don’t think that I really understood it until recently.

People often use it to slam conformity, but when they do, they reveal that they are just as ignorant of it’s point as I used to be.  Conformity and consistency are two different things.  Conformity is doing something just because everyone else is doing it.  Consistency is doing something on a regular basis.

Here’s the rest of the passage:

“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.”

What Emerson is talking about is a consistency with our own beliefs.  Believing something today simply because you believed it yesterday, and the day before, and the day before, is one of the most foolish things you can do.

It’s a great way to stay stuck right where you are, never growing, never learning, and never experiencing anything new.

I recently decided to take a real look at some beliefs I had around metaphysics, specifically the Law of Attraction and what’s known (or at least used to be known) as New Thought.  While it was by no means easy, I decided to drop those beliefs in favor of a more rational world view.

This one was difficult not just because of my own internal dialogs, but because suddenly people that I associated with didn’t know what to expect of me.  The guy who used to talk about the Law of Attraction and who thought that Wallace Wattles was the smartest man in the world was now saying “Nope, I was wrong.”  Which was threatening to those who still believed as I used to.

But in In some things, consistency isn’t foolish, and can be a fantastic tool that we can use to our advantage.

For example, for the past 44 days, I’ve filled a page in my personal journal every day.  It started as a 30 day trial, to see what I would get out of it.  The benefits included a renewed confidence in my writing, massive amounts of ideas for articles, and a honing of my skills.  So I stuck with it because it made my life better.

Another example: for the past 21 days, I’ve gotten out and gone for a walk every day.  That’s a 30 day trial that’s still going on, and while I’m not sure yet if I’ll continue on a daily basis, I do know that the benefits I’m feeling (sleeping better, more energy, the ego boost) will keep me doing at least some form of exercise.

In some things, consistency can be deadly.  My personal example of this is my smoking.  It’s something that I constantly struggle with, so much so that it’s possible that I’ve built up in my mind that I consistently go back to smoking, and it’s become a part of who I am.  While I still struggle with it, I’m going to keep struggling until I win.  I will not give in to that kind of consistency.

What we are consistent with determines our future.  And what we make the decision to not be consistent with determines our future as well.

Staying consistent just to be consistent is bullshit. Staying consistent in order to achieve a goal is greatness.  Staying consistent when it’s leading us down the wrong path is suicide.

But staying consistent because we can’t bear what people would think of us if we changed?

That’s horrifying.

***

About the author: Lyman Reed is a personal development blogger who currently lives in Valencia, CA.  He you can visit his blog, Personal Development in the Real World, at http://lymanreed.com/.


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This Post Has 31 Comments
  1. “just as ignorant of it’s point as I used to be” <– this sentence has a typo; its "it's" should be "its". It's worth noting particularly in consideration of its context within the overall theme of the post and the themes of that particular sentence.

  2. Lyman,

    I scarily identified with this post as I find myself doing similar things (the walks, journals, smoking). Also, it´s refreshing to read a post that quotes ¨Emerson¨…we need more great literaly references in blogs! Thx, C

    1. Thanks, Chris… isn’t that funny – I always thought that I was the only walking, smoking, and journaling Emerson fan. 🙂

  3. Yet another great post. Love the 30 day trials.

    I believe in consistency. I found out I did not know how to swim at 32 yrs old. I proceeded to finish 9 Ironmans in 3 years right after that discovery. I swam every day.

    What you do every day counts.

    I’m currently on day #11 of no alcohol on my way to a self imposed 45 day challenge.

    Thank you for all the thought provoking posts.

    1. Holy moley! 9 Ironmans within 3 years of first learning to swim? Now that takes some (positive) consistency! Thanks for the comment, and good luck on your current challenge.

  4. This made me think about how consistent I am in my own life and I find the areas I lack self discipline in are the ones where I try to rationalize that consistency is bleak and futile. It’s then that I know it’s probably the time I need to be most consistent in my actions and intent in order to move forward. You have given me more to think about on this subject. Thank you. 🙂

    1. Ahhh… the “bleak and futile” rationalizations… got those and love them, too. It’s so damn easy for our brains to come up with the reasons why we can’t, even though in the long run it’ll thank us for it when we steer it towards why we can.

      Thanks for the comment! 🙂

  5. Having just read through the comments as well, I’m fascinated by how this last thought resonated, “But staying consistent because we can’t bear what people would think of us if we changed? That’s horrifying.”

    I think it’s the fear we all face as we begin to transform and become more conscious. It’s not easy, but I’ve found it to be so worth the effort.

    Great post Lyman!

    1. Hi Sandi… thanks for bringing that to light. It really is all about accepting that fear and then moving past it. When I fought it, it won. When I examined it, it ran.

      Really appreciate the comment.

  6. Very thought-provoking piece, Lyman. You really nailed it in the close “Staying consistent in order to achieve a goal is greatness. Staying consistent when it’s leading us down the wrong path is suicide.

    But staying consistent because we can’t bear what people would think of us if we changed?

    That’s horrifying.”

    Well done.
    I’m off to set up my consistent (to achieve a goal) writing schedule. : )

    1. My friend, Leisa. Thanks so much for the input. Glad you’re getting that writing schedule set up – I’m really excited to read those guest posts you’ve got coming out soon!

  7. The law of attraction as taught today has very little in common with Wallace D. Wattles’ work. TSGR is one of my favorite books and I credit it as one of the keys in turning my finances around years ago. It’s highly practical and is more about application than dreaming – particularly when TSGR is read with The Science of Being Great.

    Re. conformity – I write a personal finance blog and recently decided that I would start focusing on fulfillment rather than frugality as my personal perspective has changed after months of inner contemplation which likely came across as a manic phase of bipolar to readers. 😉 So I’m spending everything I make rather than being an uber-saver. Regular commenters said nothing at all – the silence was telling – other readers came out of the woodwork to applaud.

    I hope I don’t quit changing and keep surprising people – especially myself.

    1. Hi Jacq (is that pronounced like “Jack”. Sorry, just fascinated by it).

      Your story about your blog’s shift in direction really hit home. I’m impressed, because I just couldn’t do that. I had to start completely from scratch, remove my old blogs and reboot. It was the only way I could deal with it. Good for you for making such an authentic move. And yes… silence sure can be telling. Sometimes it’s the best communication out there.

      Thanks for the input. Much appreciated.

  8. Great piece Lyman. When we do habits over and over again they become wired into our neurology. It’s called long-term potentiation (aka – learning!)

    Sometimes getting a habit wired in our brain can be beneficial, like your daily writing. Other times it can be hazardous, like your smoking. So, yes, you are absolutely right that consistency is a double-edged sword.

    Lucky for us, our brains are not set in stone. There is neural plasticity. The key then to personal development is knowing how to exercise this plasticity. Part of it I believe is staying open-minded, trying new things, and remaining flexible.

    I too used to be a sucker for the Law of Attraction philosophy. But then I found it wasn’t working for me and that my allure to it was superficial and materialistic. I then got rid of it and worked on building a more rational philosophy. I began reading more about science, psychology, and other philosophies. It was harder work than just “visualizing my desires,” but it pays off more in the end. Knowledge and self-improvement is a difficult process. Magic pills don’t exist.

    1. Hey there, Steven. Always good to meet a fellow ex-sucker. 🙂

      I love what you said about the plasticity of the brain. It sure ain’t easy (at least none of the “easy” ways I’ve tried have worked), but we can rewire it to work with us rather than against us. I appreciate your insight on this.

  9. Hi Lyman,
    I love Emerson’s essays and philosophy. You really nailed it. Of course, what you articulated so well is the key word is “foolish.” We all have the divine right to change our minds and choose our beliefs. If we are not exercising that right we sleep walking through life. Conversely, consistency is a very powerful force… the only way to really have a huge breakthroughs is through repetition, repetition, repetition and more repetition of empowering thoughts.

    1. Thanks for the comment, rob. I slept through so much of the 90s (and some of the 00s) and I’d rather not do that again. The bus was moving, but the driver was asleep. You can imagine the consequences of that.

      Now the driver gets to choose where the bus goes, and sometimes putting it on autopilot is the right thing to do… as long as he stays aware of the direction.

      Thanks for the comment. Checking out your own blog right now, and liking it.

    1. Hi Evan, thanks for that. It *is* a challenge to stay fresh… creating habits is a natural way to live. I really don’t want to have to be 100% conscious every time I brush my teeth – although it can be a great exercise in bumping the mind out of a rut.

  10. Lyman. You’ve always been A list in my mind! Now you’re A+ list!

    I like this article, personal and wise. Beliefs tend to be quite deep-rooted in my experience .. and being deep rooted means three things for me:

    1 They give us stability and grounding when all around is changing. They allow us to carry on in difficult times and give us strength to thrive in good times.

    2 Deep-roots are devilishly difficult to remove especially the old, deep ones. And some need to be removed to give space for the new growth to flourish.

    3 Because they’re deep they are often invisible, sitting well below the surface – keeping us fixed in one placewithout us being aware of why. To find them we need to dig around in the dirt which can sometimes be a messy experience.

  11. Lyman,

    I especially liked this section:

    “But staying consistent because we can’t bear what people would think of us if we changed?

    That’s horrifying.”

    This statement rings true for me. I feel like often in my life the expectations of others and my own desires were at odds, and too often in the past I let others expectations dictate my life. During the past two years or so I have grown to trust myself more and make my decisions based on my own intuition and knowledge rather than leading a life that is based on others expectations (or my perception of their expectations). It is an incredibly liberating feeling and I feel like I am on the right path now and trust myself more than ever. I am still on this journey but it is very freeing.

    It takes courage to break consistency, as you noted with your law of attraction story. But as you wrote, sometimes it is vital for our personal growth. Let’s cheer each other on!

    1. Thanks, Jay. Trusting ourselves is so key to this. Freeing is a great description!

      And yes… cheering each other on is the way to go!

    1. My pleasure, Lyman 🙂 I think your next article should be about labels. I don’t feel like an “A-lister” yet and I doubt I will ever feel like one. But I do value authenticity, courage and knowledge. And you always had plenty of them 🙂

  12. Lyman,

    A very interesting look at both sides of consistency. The lesson I gained is that it’s good to consistently review your consistency to see if it’s a good habit or a bad one! It all comes down to conscious living. Thanks for this inner exploration.

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