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WHY DO WE STAY IN (BUSINESS) HELL?

06/10/2014 07:49 am ET | Updated Aug 10, 2014

C. S. Lewis, the novelist and don, wrote a wonderful little story about Hell. In his version, Hell is a dreary provincial English town where it always rains and there is nothing exciting to do. One day, a busload of people from Hell are invited to a day tour of Heaven. There is it sunny and warm, with interesting people, and jam-packed with optional events and activities. At the end of the day, the people from Hell are invited to stay in Heaven.

A typical reaction comes from an academic, who must have been modelled on one of Lewis' colleagues. "Ah, yes," he says, "well ... you must understand that I have tenure in the English department at Hell University. Would I have tenure here?"

"Yes, of course, everyone in heaven has tenure."

"Well, I was being a bit too modest. Actually I am the head of the English Department at Hell. Would I be head of department here?"

"There are no heads of department in Heaven. We are all equal here."

"Ah, well ... hmmm ... I don't much like the sound of that. I'm terribly sorry, but I shall have to decline your kind offer."

And so it went. Only one of the day visitors decided to stay in Heaven. The rest got back on the bus and returned to their bleak but familiar lives.

Why Do We Stay in Hell?

The point of the story is clear. We choose to stay in Hell, when we could experience Heaven.

Why do we do that?

It's in our nature.

Think about the times when you have been happiest. They are probably the times when you are also at your most loving and generous, and most creative. These emotions and activities require energy and it is sometimes hard to keep up the flow.

What happens when somebody offends you or takes advantage of you? In Hell, here on earth, it happens all the time. The driver comes out of a side turning suddenly, making you brake. What do you do? If you are anything like me, you hoot or flash your lights. You may get angry. You may want retribution. So you fall back into your old routines and you are trapped in negative feelings. It's hard just to shrug your shoulders and concentrate on the many good things in life all the time.

But what I think Clive Staples Lewis meant - no wonder with a name like that he used his initials and asked friends to call him Jack - I think what he meant is that the choice is ours.

We can choose to stay in a bad mood, brought on by a trigger that really doesn't matter. Or we can decide to be relaxed and happy and go out of our way to be kind and useful. We can stay in Hell or go to Heaven.

And when he are in Heaven, we can choose - we have to choose by reflection and active thought and the exercise of will - to stay there, or we can allow ourselves to be transported back to Hell.

It is heart against head, and, in this case, the head is not only wiser but also on the side of the angels. It takes an effort of will to do what is in our own best interests - and everyone else's. We need to talk to our emotions, and if they are negative, listen to them but then overrule them. We can choose to be happy, but it is sometimes hard work.

What strange creatures we are.

The lesson for our personal lives is there. But I think there is an interesting extension to our business lives.

Business Hell

In my late twenties, I was in Business Hell. I worked for the Boston Consulting Group, and I was failing. I wasn't a natural analyst, and they knew it. But I didn't like failure, so I redoubled my efforts to keep up. I worked eighty hours a week, I let my personal life slide, and I became very boring. It was no good. In the end I had to resign, just before they fired me.

There was a happy ending. I got another job that I was much more suited to, and my career progressed nicely. I was able to resume membership of the human race.

But why did I stay in Business Hell so long? Pride. The emotional "racket" that blackmailed me, and said that quitting was for wimps. The feeling that I really was an intelligent person and could turn it around. Perhaps even insecurity: a belief that I should not leave a high-paying job and might not get another one as good.

Yet also, I was inexperienced enough not to know this - I could walk out of Business Hell and walk into Business Heaven.

And so it may go with you. At some point in your career, you either have or will have a relatively unsuccessful period. And I will bet that you stick at it longer than you should.

Leave. If at first you don't succeed, quit. Chances are, you are in the wrong place. And have faith - there is a right place for you. You just haven't found it yet. So don't be afraid to experiment. Heaven is waiting for you - somewhere.

Business Hell for Companies

Companies stay in Business Hell too. They remain modestly profitable, or even head towards the rocks, and they stay on their familiar course. They hope for an upturn. They find excuses for poor performance. They remain completely unrealistic.

And yet, many of those firms could walk out of Business Hell and into Business Heaven, if only they found the right thing to do.

Business Hell is usually about one of two things - competition, or failure to find the right customers.

If you are not very profitable, the chances are that you are up against a competitor that is bigger or better at what you do.

The remedy is simple. Find a business space where you can be bigger and better than any other firm.

Not easy, but usually possible.

Or your customers are the wrong customers. Find the right customers. You might have to change your products or the way you do business.

Not easy, but usually possible.

Avoiding competitors and finding the right customers are usually two sides of the same coin. The same route to Business Heaven. You just need a better map, or more imagination.

And it is like personal Hell - a struggle of the head and the willpower, against the bad habits of the heart, the willingness to accept dreary mediocrity.

The Prison Gates Are Open

We can choose to live in Hell and Business Hell.

We can choose to live in Heaven and Business Heaven.

Not much of a choice really, if you think about it. Thinking is hard. But always worth the effort.

Think your way to Heaven.

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