“The Quest of the Inner Ring Will Break Your Hearts Unless You Break It”

C. S. Lewis gave this warning to a class of college students in an address in 1944. The message was included in the book, The Weight of Glory. The students Lewis addressed were preparing for a variety of careers, and he gave general advice that he thought would be helpful in whatever their eventual jobs were to be.

What Is the Quest of the Inner Ring?

It’s the quest to be counted among the inner circle of influential people in any work.

Lewis said there is always this invisible hierarchy in an organization. It doesn’t necessarily correspond to the official, visible hierarchy. In fact, it’s often different.

Lewis also refered to the Inner Ring as “the People in the Know.” On some jobs today the Quest of the Inner Ring might be called playing politics, cronyism, or the good ol’ boy network. On somes jobs it may mean being connected or plugged in. As the saying goes, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”

To be in the Inner Ring is to be known, respected, and included by those who seem important.

Why Should You Avoid the Quest of the Inner Ring?

It’s a fool’s game. The only ones who win are the ones who don’t play. The rules are always changing. “Who you know” can only take you so far. There is always someone more important that you need to impress, and the right person to know today could be the wrong person tomorrow.

The boundaries of the Inner Ring are always changing, so you can never stop striving to get inside and stay inside. As Lewis said:

There’d be no fun if there were no outsiders. The invisible line would have no meaning unless most people were on the wrong side of it. Exclusion is no accident; it is the essence.

This quest also has a corrupting influence. The need to be recognized as important by important people can cost you your integrity, Lewis warned:

Of all passions the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.

What Should You Do Instead?

Learn your job. Study your craft. Focus on increasing what you know. Become what Lewis called a “sound craftsman.” Strive to do the best you can and always to improve, whether you are recognized or not. Whatever your particular vocation is, seek to excel at it. Consistent good work will eventually be noticed and valued.

The Surprise Ending (Spoiler Alert)

Lewis’ message ended with an ironic twist. He told the students that while they were ignoring the quest of the Inner Ring, the one that is always changing, they would end up becoming part of a true inner ring of sound craftsmen:

The quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it. But if you break it, a surprising result will follow. If in your working hours you make the work your end, you will presently find yourself all unawares inside the only circle in your profession that really matters. You will be one of the sound craftsmen, and other sound craftsmen will know it. This group of craftsmen will by no means coincide with the Inner Ring or the Important People or the People in the Know. It will not shape that professional policy or work up that professional influence which fights for the profession as a whole against the public, nor will it lead to those periodic scandals and crises which the Inner Ring produces. But it will do those things which that profession exists to do and will in the long run be responsible for all the respect which that profession in fact enjoys and which the speeches and advertisements cannot maintain.