Consistency is good, right? Unless it’s not. There is a time and place for everything, including breaking expectations. Consistency should not be our main goal. What we are led to see and create is more important.


A quote we all know that is attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson usually says: Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. That seems odd. Why would he disparage consistency?

The reality is that this has been misquoted for so long that most people have forgotten the real statement. The quote, from his essay “Self Reliance“, actually is: A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. Let’s explore that.

But first, what is a “hobgoblin”? Even though I have heard this quote forever and acted like I understood it, I didn’t know what a hobgoblin was. Wikipedia says: A hobgoblin is a household spirit, typically appearing in folklore, … Like other fae folk, hobgoblins are easily annoyed. They can be mischievous, frightening, and even dangerous.

So if we accept the concept, a hobgoblin is not a scary monster but something we tend to live with and accept that is kind of annoying, maybe occasionally dangerous. Playing that out, it makes it a spirit or tendency that can be dangerous or difficult to control. Something that can occasionally do more harm than good.

Consistency is good

We usually consider consistency a sign of intelligence, of good work habits, of reliability. You are respected when people know you can be relied on to keep your commitments. It is a sign of maturity.

As adults this should be a quality we cultivate in much of our life. It makes us more predictable and helps us get along well in life. People around us need to know we are not schizophrenic. When they come to us for something, they need to know who they are dealing with, how we will behave.

So what’s not to like?

Consistency is bad

But Emerson is saying that a certain type of consistency can be bad. Is that contradictory? One of the traits of an adult is the ability to keep contradictory concepts in our head and rationalize them. F. Scott Fitzgerald said: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.

What is this, then, that Emerson calls “foolish” consistency? I believe he is referring to being a slave to consistency, even when it would make more sense to change. He says it is a trait of little minds – ouch.

We all have ideas and opinions and habits we have developed over time. Key is: they have developed over time. This means they change with time. Do not be afraid to seem inconsistent with your past beliefs when you change and adopt new beliefs.

As artists, we develop a style that is a signature of us. People recognize our work without being told. But is the style who and what we are, or is it merely a reflection of where we are right now? Don’t be trapped by your own success. We become reluctant to change it for fear of breaking our “brand”.

We grow and change. Sometimes radically. Do you ever feel trapped by a style you no longer believe in? This may be what Emerson refers to as foolish consistency.

As a couple of examples, I respect Joel Grimes for making a couple of right angle turns in his career. He became very successful for a certain look he brought to his work, mostly advertising. But he came to a point where he “used it up” and changed. He continued being successful.

Another one that comes to mind is Cole Thompson. Cole is a great black & white photographer who lives near me in Colorado. He has usually done long exposure landscapes. But his new series Negative Intersections is a big departure from his old style. I respect him for taking the risk and breaking out of the rut..

Go where the spirit leads you

Artists should stay fresh, alive, seeking, learning. When we do this, we change. We grow and evolve. Practically, this means we will change our style at one or more points in our career. Isn’t your vision different now than 5 years ago?

Let your feelings and instinct lead you in this journey as you develop as an artist. Consistency is good until it starts to limit you. Be willing to change, even if it means you now seem to be inconsistent with what you did before. You are not really inconsistent, because where you are now is authentically you.

Change or you are trapped in a box of your own making. Set yourself free. Trust that you are growing to better levels all the time.

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