Taking stock of the last year and planning for the next, it's easy to keep the same old evaluation system when deciding what worked and what didn't. But sometimes the evaluation system itself needs fixing. I had never read the essay titled "The Inner Ring" by C.S. Lewis before, but it hit me at just the right time, because it speaks to this question of what are you doing and why. Here is the essay/speech itself, it's a fast read with a high value-to-word ratio:
The idea of constantly striving for the next inner ring reminds me of the answer to the question "How much money does a person need?": "Just one more dollar." Just one more inner ring, and then I'll be set. One more step into the onion. Here Lewis turns the onion to transparent glass (all John Lennon references aside).
This especially echoes with the state of Lewis's life in 1944. It was a good time for his "output," roughly contemporaneous with the Mere Christianity lectures and The Great Divorce, 5 years before the publication of the Chronicles of Narnia and 10 years before he would move to Cambridge after repeatedly failing to enter the academic inner ring in his department at Oxford. Lewis never reached that inner ring, probably because he was true to his own words here and realized that it wasn't worth what it seemed to be worth. Instead, he focused on his craft, finished the Space Trilogy and after it didn't go as well as he hoped -- read Planet Narnia for more on this -- he turned to Narnia, which would be his true hallmark work. (Is this an act of literary kenosis?)
If C.S. Lewis had focused on the inner ring rather than his craft, he may have stayed at Oxford, but would we have Narnia today? Academics is political and those politics have probably prevented some great works from being written as academics work more to impress their fellow academics than to create something lasting. Today I don't know who was in that Oxfordian inner ring, but I do know Lewis's words. That's lasting.
Thanks to this essay, I resolve to begin the new year wary of reaching for the inner ring when instead I should be looking to the work I've been given. It will take time and care to carve out the right words for the right time and the right student. Inner rings can wait -- I resolve this year to create value, carefully, the best I can, with focus and labor.
(PS: Looking back on this I can see how my thoughts are also colored by all this talk of the politics of the fiscal cliff, too!)