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

Ralph Waldo Emerson

I LOVE this quote.

I do!

I am fascinated by the precision in the language — foolish consistency … little minds … and hobgoblins that are adored? 

I admit I’m a little scared of that hobgoblin guy.

Let’s find out why.

foolish consistency …

So, first up, we’re not talking about simply being consistent.   We are all incredibly consistent when we approach a traffic light — we keep going if it’s green, we stop if it’s red, and we go faster slow down if it’s yellow …  This kind of consistency is most definitely not foolish; it is a very good thing, no?

Most consistency is good!  It establishes routines that frees our minds up to think of other, more important, more complicated things.

So when is consistency foolish?  When it is apparent that by placing consistency as primary we exhibit a lack of good sense or judgment; we do things that are unwise; we are seen as stubborn.

An example is in order.

I have established a consistent schedule of posting twice a week, Mondays and Thursdays.  Let’s say that one week I don’t have anything to say; nothing at least that I think has any value.  If I force myself to stick to the schedule, thereby posting something of questionable value, might that be considered a “foolish consistency?”

Another example:  a grandmother takes her two grandchildren, one 5, another 14, shopping.  She’ll make sure she spends the exact amount on each one. But she can spend a few bucks on the five year old and she’d be happy, while the 14 year old’s happiness may require things that cost significantly more … Spending the same really raises the odds that neither are happy, right?  Grandma, though well meaning, is being foolishly consistent…

Do you think this sort of thing happens at work?  If you do, let’s hear from you; if you don’t, I really want to hear where you work!

Consistency is tempting, because it’s easier.  It’s easier to be consistent, it’s easier to keep commitments, it’s easier to go with what’s been done, it’s easier to believe today what you believed yesterday, even when it doesn’t make sense, because being consistent requires no explanation; no questions are asked…

In fact, being consistent is its own explanation.  Being consistent requires no change.  Or, more apt, no adaptation.  To be inconsistent is different, and requires an explanation; you need to have a rationale, and that leaves you susceptible to challenge…  Sounds like work.  And a little bit threatening.

We’d rather do or say or believe something that really doesn’t have merit or make sense, only to avoid having to explain that we’ve changed our mind, that we’ve learned, or that there were other circumstances…

It’s easier to be consistent.

hobgoblin of little minds …

Easier is not only foolish, it is dangerous.  When we are foolishly consistent, there’s no learning, no growing, no stretch.

Sticking to what is known, safe, and easy cuts off the flow of progress through fresh ideas and differing viewpoints.

There is atrophy.  We eventually become unable to reason, to analyze, to be logical.

And that leaves us susceptible…

… to hobgoblins!  The foolish consistency becomes monstrous.  It takes over.  We no longer think for ourselves.  We cede our thinking to past practice, to orthodoxy.

adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.


But “adored?”

Yowsa.  That’s strong sentiment right there.  That’s scary.

I can see why Emerson went there, but, for me, he didn’t need to go there …

He had me at foolish.