Consistency is an Overrated Virtue

Consistency is often a liability towards self-improvement. If putting pressure to stay who you are, how can you grow into something better? Trying to stay consistent in the eyes of family and friends can slow your growth, as you avoid challenges that don’t fit neatly inside your predefined personality.

Consistency and Social Drag

Anyone who has started setting goals for themselves can recognize what I’m writing about. It’s the social drag you feel when taking on a new challenge. Social drag is in the people that tell you 80% of new businesses fail when you express your desire to start one of your own. Or the people who tell you to forget it and eat some chocolate cake after starting a new diet.

The drag increases the more your goal fails to conform to society. Tell people you want to graduate from university, most people will applaud you. Tell them you want to drop out to start Microsoft, and you’ll probably experience some backlash. Unconventional goals require an extra effort, not only to pursue them, but also to push back the naysayers.

Social drag is made worse by the need for external consistency. If you’re a person who prides themselves on always having the same haircut, being entirely reliable and predictable and having an unchanging social group, social drag is going to be much higher. If your motto is, “be yourself,” how can you become anything better?

External Consistency

For the people that point out that consistency is the basis of ethics, persistence and discipline, I’d like to make a distinction. External consistency is the policy of ensuring that the personality you project is always the same. Internal consistency is ensuring that your actions always stay with your values. Although there are weaknesses to both levels of consistency, I think trying to stay externally consistent is the surest way to live a stagnant life.

I accept external inconsistency as a price of growth. That might result in backlash from some people who disagree with the new direction I take at any particular junction. However, it’s a price I have to pay if I want to be able to move forward.

Growth Creates Inconsistency

My life has drastically changed since I started this blog. As a result, some of the ideas I had initially, I no longer agree with. Some readers might object to this external inconsistency. How can I have any convictions if I write a post outlining an idea one year, and write another article arguing against it in the next?

I can also be attacked when my personality appears to shift. Since starting this website, I believe my life has improved dramatically. I’m in better shape. I’m more productive. I have grown this business and website. My social life has greatly improved.

But with any improvement comes changes: I go to parties and consume alcohol. I went from being completely vegan to ovo-vegetarian. I read more books three years ago than I do today. On the whole, I’ve felt net benefits, so I’m glad I made the decisions I did. Still, to an outside observer, any number of my so-called improvements could be seen as steps backwards and I could be attacked for them.

Forget the Mask

We all have social masks. Personalities we project to people around us. Yes, even the people who chant, “be yourself,” are putting on a mask. Donning a mask is inevitable as you try to communicate who you are to people around you in different contexts.

Even if you try to embrace your entire personality, you still use a mask. I write about 95% of my life on this blog, however, the biases of my interests warp my personalities. I am interested in writing about productivity, and not dating. So to a casual reader, my life is overwhelmed by productivity and I have no dating life. Masks are inevitable.

My suggestion isn’t that you shouldn’t use a mask, as that is impossible. Rather, you should forget that you have masks to protect. When you actively try to stay consistent, you turn a mask that has formed out of necessity into an artificial entity with a life of its own. Protecting your masks to “save face” allows the opinions of other people to rule your life.

Internal Consistency

A more worthwhile form of consistency is striving to be internally consistent. This is where your actions match your deeper values. This is the consistency which discipline, persistence and integrity are derived from.

For example, if I deeply believe that getting good grades in school is important, and I skip classes and forget to study, that’s an internal inconsistency. However, if other people tell me getting good grades is important, and I skip my classes, that’s only an external inconsistency. Although society will punish you for the latter, you will end up punishing yourself far more for the former.

Sacrificing Internal Consistency for External Consistency

The danger of consistency is when you violate your values to stay consistent in the eyes of others. Other people think you are an introvert, so you don’t talk to people at the party even though you want to. Other people say you aren’t entrepreneurial, so you get a boring job you hate. Other people believe you can’t dance, so you sit down instead.

Whenever you do this, you lose. You lose because you’ve missed an opportunity for growth. And you’ve lost because you’ve added one more layer to the mask you’re trying to protect.

  • David Shepherd

    “Tell people you want to graduate from university, most people will applaud you. Tell them you want to drop out to start Microsoft, and you’ll probably experience some backlash.”


    When I was 17 I decided I want to work in film, I wanted to write and direct feature films. Not your average career. Despite good grades and scholarship money amounting to a few thousand dollars, I decided against going to college/university.

    The backlash was incredible.

    It took about five years and one all expenses paid work trip to film in Vegas before people started to see my point of view. Now the same people who told me I was insane and that I should get a fall-back job are the ones who are contemplating going back to school and doing something they enjoy, rather than something that makes money.

    Because I did what I wanted rather than what I was told to do, I’m 22 with a rather bright (in my opinion) future ahead.

  • Dan

    Thank you for this extraordinary post. It is by far the most emotionally touching blog entry I have ever read and I admire the accuracy of your descriptions.

    Nevertheless, it is very tough to overcome these masks and evolve; I certainly have a few of them that could take some improvement.

  • Spencer

    The masks we wear are dangerous devices. They can protect us from the evil of others and from the evil we imagine in our own minds. To be free from these devices, we need to stop wearing masks. We need to be better at being our authentic self. Who cares what others think or say. They only speak through their own dangerous mask.

    To truly grow you need to leave you mask in the box and live your life by your choices. Be happy, strong, and proud of who you are. You are unique and the world is a better place with so many unique people.

    Thanks for another wonderful article Scott.

  • Andras

    Your post has actually moved me forward on an problem I’m currently struggling to understand. Recently, I got involved with a group of people whom I went skiing with a few months ago. I guess you could call them my friends, in a loose sense. I certainly like to hang out with them a lot.
    What I’ve noticed, though, is that the more activities we did together, the more constraints I started feeling on how I should behave and what my role in the group should be. I remember having enjoyed the freedom of interacting with new people who didn’t have any expectations about how I would interact with them. Most of that is now gone in our every day situtations.
    From slightly different point of view, hanging out with my new friends initially provided me a way to experiment, (re)discover new sides of myself and grow as a person. Now it seems like the habits and roles (external consistency?) we’ve settled into are starting to prevent me from doing the same thing.
    I’ve got to figure out how to break out of this pattern without losing too much of the valuable parts. Thanks for the hint, Scott!

  • Scott Young

    David, great to hear your story!

  • Freddy Hidalgo-Monchez

    Although I agree with most of your post, I think it might have misinterpreted what “consistency” generally refers to in terms of virtuous qualities. Used traditionally, it generally implies that one is consistent in his efforts towards an ideal or a goal. For example, if you strive to be an excellent pianist by the age of 40, the repetition of daily efforts in the form of practice is essential. That person is considered to be “consistent” in his efforts. You can also argue that putting more effort, by increasing his practice hours lets say, could be even more beneficial, and consequently render him inconsistent. However, I believe that even if this form of inconsistency is beneficial, there is more risk of a burn out or imbalance.

    Another point I would like to add is a note on external consistency. I believe that this is impossible to achieve in practicality, seeing that no one can do and be what everyone else around them want them to be. For example, your mom might want you to be a university graduate while your friends might want you to open a business with them requiring full-time presence.

    Overall Scott, you have raised good points in which I agree for the most part. Again, your title might represent your subject better if it was tweaked a bit more. As a Canadian 21 yr old entrepreneur, I am glad there are others young individuals who take stands on unpopular topics for our demographic. Well done!

    -Freddy HM

  • Enrique S

    “Just be yourself, as long as you fit in with the predetermined image that I have of you.” People like to classify things, and put them into boxes. It makes them feel in control. When you deviate from the norm, you’re turning their little worlds upside down. They feel threatened, because you’re not validating their view of the world. That’s where the backlash starts. Consistency may be a strong virtue, but some people are consistently bad. Not an admirable trait. I applaud your individualism. Keep confounding your critics with more success.

  • Jack Finley

    Great post Scott! I was looking for this kind of information for a while. Nailed it right on the head!

    -Jack F.

  • Aurooba

    Awesome article, and you know what, it came at just the right time. The social drag deal? Yeah, I’ve been facing that for a while now regarding my goals and aspirations for my future. Why? Because they don’t fit in with what people around me are used to from girls of my ethnicity. It takes courage, determination, and a real desire to attain your dreams to be okay with external inconsistency. And I fully agree with Enrique. I love this article, it’s more motivation to keep going after my dreams. =) Thank you.

  • shreevidya

    The great truth of the society! Forget about what mask others are wearing, that we often try to find out. Find the one we ourselves are wearing.