Consistency Is the Hobgoblin of Little Minds

Are you a flip-flopper? Do you evolve, or just stay the same? “Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything,” wrote George Bernard Shaw.

(Hobgoblin: the mischievous, frightening and sometimes dangerous spirits.)

In career development, it’s usually the little things that derail a manager or exec. Thus, I typically focus on granular career issues. For example, I’ve never quite understood why, even when it’s done rarely, flip-flopping is such an evil. So I was intrigued to read Adam Grant’s recent article on the “virtue of contradicting ourselves.”

Flip-flopping and inconsistency, according to the well-known Wharton prof, can be virtuous. But admitting to it publicly is quite unusual. In the early 1980s, C. Peter McGrath, who was the President of the University of Minnesota, admitted to a change of mind publicly. It was so unusual that it made the front page of the Star Tribune. So much for inconsistency.

Grant’s article is especially insightful because he explains flip-flopping, using recent research as part of the evidence for his perspective on flip-flopping, as a sometime virtue. Historically, it’s been known that people will go to great lengths to avoid the dissonance and discomfort of personal contradictions.

 If you have to make a tough choice between two similarly attractive jobs, you’ll feel some dissonance about getting stuck with the negative features of the job you picked and missing out on the positive aspects of the one you declined. That’s inconsistent with your decision — so you’ll start rationalizing your decision by convincing yourself that the job you turned down was not so desirable. Inconsistency, begone. And if you’ve joined a doomsday cult that predicts that the world will end in a flood, when your prophecy doesn’t come true, you won’t give up on the cult. Unable to bear a change in your beliefs, you’ll become even more committed and double down on your efforts to proselytize.

The handling of inconsistency is especially obvious in political decision making.  As Grant writes, if you’re fiscally conservative (tax cut oriented) but socially liberal (pro-abortion), and want to vote for a candidate with decent chance of winning, your beliefs are inconsistent with the political parties. One way to deal with the problem is to change your abortion or tax policy beliefs. That’s good-by dissonance.

My personal perspective is that on accepting contradictions you might as well be more open about them. I’m one of those birds, so I’ve been told, that admits openly to inconsistencies. When it comes to politics, typically I go for the least worst. But even we celebrators of inconsistency can only deal with so much. Still, openness can be constructive.

It strikes me that some vocations provide more freedom for inconsistency, while others are more limiting. Adam Grant suggests merely the possibility of inconsistency for himself. I’ve found that many of the older literati, like me, often don’t give a damn, enjoying the delightful freedom of their inconsistencies. Chameleonlike! Don’t take that too literally. For example, I can be inconsistent on business and church taboos, but very consistent in my approach to problem solving. More than most, I’m not usually bothered at all by holding inconsistent beliefs. I tend to be more both/and rather than either/or. Like the artist, Marcel Duchamp, “I have forced myself to contradict myself, in order to avoid conforming to my own taste.”


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