We have been conditioned to believe that outside the box thinking is good, while consistency in thought and action is bad. Countless people tell us to go through life coloring outside the lines while conforming to norms is the worst thing you can do. If we are always thinking outside the box then how are we supposed to know what’s in the box?
Consistency has, all of a sudden, become a dirty word. It’s not. In fact, consistency is quite comforting. Whether eating spaghetti sauce in a fancy restaurant, having our annual physicals or flying from Maine to Washington, we want the person in charge of it all to be consistent. Most of us would not want lumps in our sauce or having the pilot recalling her days of fighter training school. While a Boeing 757 can do a barrel roll, I don’t think I’d sign up for it.
When I go for my annual physical, I would be a lot more comfortable if my physician and her staff would remember to take my blood pressure instead of saying, “Who cares about blood pressure? Today, let’s have Steve dance around the office to Polka music!”
My point in this silliness is that consistency is a good thing, and while it’s “in the box” or coloring “within the lines,” we deeply value it. While, the next part may sound inconsistent, it’s not.
Using the examples above (or what you do for a living for that matter), the chef, the physician and the pilot are all highly trained to do what they do. In fact, without training, I think we’d all agree there would be complete chaos. Well, don’t the so-called pontificators want us to be chaotic? They might tell us that’s what we should be, but that’s really not what they mean.
Consistently training over and over again, seeking perfection, striving for results allows us to be highly creative, enjoy chaos, and arrive at solutions. I call it being inside the box.
The pilot, facing an unusual weather situation by virtue of consistent training and practice, knows exactly what she should do in rough air. The physician, seeing an unusual condition, an inconsistent laboratory result, a troubling MRI knows what needs to be done next. Even the chef, one who has trained to make all variations of sauces, might be fascinated with a different herbal flavor and imagines how it might taste. This creative leap does not happen by accident. Consistency is what transforms average into excellence.
Rembrandt, Picasso or Georgia O’Keeffe did not begin to experiment with color or shape or composition without first having a solid, consistent grounding in the arts. Without putting words into their mouths, I believe if you asked anyone from artists Jackson Pollock to Frida Kahlo when they first started painting outside the lines, they might be inclined to ask you what you’re talking about. For they would undoubtedly tell you that the principles they used in their art were extremely consistent with artistic principles.
What is often funny about all of this, is whether a Vincent Van Gogh, George Gershwin, Ella Fitzgerald or Duke Ellington, Maya Angelou or Jane Austen, all extremely talented artists, came from disciplined practice of perfecting their art. It was exactly the consistency of principles that allowed each to soar to fame. The funny part is that when they made their leaps, they all had tons of critics.
However, being consistent in that box is hardly the domain of those who really do paint. The skilled builder must read blue-prints designed by a creative architect who themselves are highly trained; the software engineer, though creative, must operate within the consistency of language before using that language to flow into a novel result.
The fact is, being in the box, consistently learning to color within the lines leads to magical outcomes. I would argue the most creative among us have been the most consistent at their crafts. Before you venture outside the box, I would challenge you to learn what’s inside the box.