#116: The terror of being left outside: (Revisiting CS Lewis' essay "The Inner Ring")
🥥 An exploration of life, work & what matters
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The Ring & The Niche
CS Lewis wrote in 1944 that one of the biggest pulls in one life was the desire to be part of an “inner ring”:
I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside.
This essay brought alive the feeling I had in college when I first found out about elite entry-level professions such as consulting and investment banking. The powerful desire of wanting to be part of something special and exclusive.
However, despite this feeling resonating with what Lewis described in his essay I am not sure this pull is as consistent and powerful for many people’s lives as Lewis describes.
I think this is because a broader, more inclusive ring has emerged. Lets call this the “knowledge ring” - the global community of people either working in knowledge work and/or have university degrees. Yes, you. The pressures to live and act a certain way are still strong within this world but they are a lot more fluid and flexible than they would have been in 1944.
In the essay, Lewis warns that the pull of the ring can nudge a “man who is not yet a very bad man (to) do very bad things.” These types of dynamics certainly exist and I’ve seen people up close who would no doubt do very bad things to stay in power but it seems most people are driven more by the second part of Lewis’ description.
That part is the “terror of being left outside.” This fear seems to be a bigger driver on people’s behavior than the pull of the inner ring itself
While there are a percentage of people that are constantly chasing the next thing, one of the most striking things about people inside the “knowledge ring” is that most people are not too concerned with progressing towards any further ring.
Is Life Design Possible Within the Ring?
At the end of the Lewis’ essay, e argues that if one is to escape the inner ring, they will need to actively and consciously make decisions to avoid it.
Any other kind of life, if you lead it, will be the result of conscious and continuous effort. If you do nothing about it, if you drift with the stream, you will in fact be an “inner ringer.”
This is where I was deluding myself for years.
I thought that if I just consciously moved from job to job and designed my career around what I was learning, I could design the life I wanted.
But I was blind to the fact that I was only playing at the margin from within the “knowledge ring” while convincing myself that I was a rebel. It took me quite a while to realize that the biggest thing keeping me back from exploring more life paths was in fact “the terror of being left outside.”
The traces of this fear still show themselves when adults ask my what my plans are for sending future kids to college or when I overhear a friend in tech talking about their stock options.
“I could get back in the game if I wanted” I tell myself.
But could I? I’m not really sure.
Digital Rings & Niches
Despite leaving the core “knowledge ring” I am still very much at the fringes of this world and it is very obvious when flashy new “inner rings” present themselves that orient around many of the things I left behind.
Sometimes I get whipped into a frenzy of entrepreneurial thought convincing myself that I want to build something that could make a lot of money. One the other side of this frenzy is hustle-creator-twitter. I start to map out how to scale my twitter following, build lead magnets and hire a team of contractors before snapping out of it and realizing that scaling to $100k MRR isn’t my game.
I’ve gotten over the fear of being left out.
Many “inner rings” have emerged both in the real world and online that are not guarded by gatekeepers as they might have been in Lewis’ time nor are they operating around the traditional metrics of money and power.
This makes the danger of the inner ring a little less scary that it might have been 75 years ago but it also means that one of the most important things to develop is a self-awareness of knowing which rings you are in and figuring out if you are there because you like the people around you or you are terrified of being left behind.
CS Lewis, “The Inner Ring”
Not Overthinking podcast on “inner rings”
Boundless: What kind of prestige do you want?
Boundless: #104: Leaving a path that makes sense
And indeed, that IS the question: whether to float with the tide, or to swim for a goal. It is a choice we must all make consciously or unconsciously at one time in our lives.
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