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?
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.
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.