Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol was first published on 19 December 1843. It tells the story of a bitter old miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, and his transformation resulting from a supernatural visit by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley and the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Yet to Come.
The story’s message of forgiveness, generosity, hope and redemption resonates to this day, it possesses life and business lessons that are every bit as relevant as they were in Victorian England. It is also responsible for giving us many of our holiday customs, including the name ‘Scrooge’ for a miser, the exclamation ‘Bah, humbug!’ and the phrase ‘Merry Christmas’ itself.
The core of the story is how Ebenezer Scrooge, a miserable, self-focused businessman is transformed into a generous and joyful human being, thanks to the intervention of the spirit of Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s business partner who died seven Christmases ago, a tormented ghost to reveal the fate that awaits a terrified but recalcitrant Scrooge.
He informs Scrooge on Christmas Eve that those who do not walk among their fellow humans and treat them with care are condemned to forever walk the earth as spirits who can only observe the things they would now mend, the people they would like to help.
He also drags a chain with heavy moneyboxes and padlocks on it as he walks in spirit form and tells Scrooge that he forged the very fetters he must wear for all eternity while he was alive and indifferent to the needs of those around him.
Scrooge learns that the chain he has forged is a fearsome thing that dwarfs the one Marley must drag behind him. The ghost offers to help Scrooge and tells him that three spirits will visit him to help in his possible salvation.
What follows are visits by three spirits of Christmas past, Christmas present and Christmas yet to come. Each spirit guides Scrooge through his own experiences and illuminates the experiences of the people whose lives Scrooge has touched. The spirits succeed, and Scrooge is transformed by their visitations.
Business might be the furthest thing from your mind at this time of year, but as we all gather around the Christmas tree and dinner table it is worth reflecting on the values that A Christmas Carol highlights, and the insights it offers to enrich our business thinking:
The Ghost of Christmas Past shows us the value of perspective. While in the company of the Ghost of Christmas past, Scrooge visits Mr. Fezziwig’s warehouse, where he was an apprentice, just in time for their annual Christmas party. What ensues is an evening of joy, laughter, feasting, music and dancing that awakens a long denied aspect of Scrooge’s personality.
As the evening wanes, and Scrooge and his fellow apprentice are pouring out their hearts in praise of Mr. Fezziwig, the spirit provokes Scrooge to reflect briefly and regretfully on the mistreatment suffered by his employee, Bob Cratchit as a result of his own behaviour.
The contrast to Fezziwig’s leadership, in his sincerity and consistency is plain to see. Fezziwig’s leadership is born of high regard for the people he employs, the Christmas party serves as a celebration of relationship that are already rich and rewarding.
Perspective gives us a sense of what really matters. You must be able to recall, in the heat of the moment, what is most important. If perspective is lost then it is easy to get lost in the transactions of the moment, in doing what is easy rather than what is right, or with a longer term view for your business. Perspective enables us to view our business at a more strategic level, and in doing so, offers greater awareness and options.
The Ghost of Christmas Present provides the second insight to Scrooge and that is the importance of knowing current reality, seeing where you stand in the moment of today. The ghost helps him observe the lives and intentions of others, he gets to see how his employees interact with their family and discovers that the youngest is a little boy, Tiny Tim who is crippled and sickly of body but great in spirit.
The wealthy business-owner could not hold a candle to the brilliant light of Tiny Tim’s heroic spirit and loving heart. The child’s example touched the old miser’s heart. Scrooge was inspired to admit his mistakes and open his heart by Tim’s spirit, in spite of living in a crippled and declining body.
Scrooge sees what he is missing in the moment and how his way of thinking and behaving impact not only his life but also the lives of others. As a business leader, you must know where you stand if you are to form any realistic plans and make positive changes.
Although we can’t accurately predict every factor that will affect business even one year into the future, we need to starting to think now about the possible long-term influences that will change our business, and where the gaps are. In order to prepare your business model today for the future, it’s time to start thinking further into the future now – but you do need a firm grip on reality today in order to move forward.
The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come The third insight is the need to be brave and seek a transformation for the future. When the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come takes Scrooge to a forlorn, unkempt grave site, Scrooge sees his own name written there on the gravestone. He begs the spirit to give him another chance. Part of what Scrooge learns is that his deeds have directed his future. His greed caused him to give up the love of his life. He recognises he needs to change.
After the visits by the three spirits, Scrooge sees what his greed has cost him. He sees people who have so much less than he does and yet that they are far happier than he. As a result of this insight, he is motivated to contribute to charity and to speak kindly to everyone he meets.
He even promotes Bob Cratchit to the position of partner. Scrooge had a faithful employee in Bob Cratchit, but he treated him with disrespect. Scrooge rarely gave the man a day off and even begrudged him burning enough coal to keep warm while he worked.
After the three visits however, Scrooge realises it is not too late to radically change his life. When Cratchit arrives at work a bit late on the day after Christmas, apologising by saying he fears he was ‘making rather merry’ the day before, Scrooge tries to reprimand him. However, the former old miser can hardly contain his newfound joy. Not only does he forgive the infrequent tardiness, but he offers Crachit a pay rise.
The business insights and lessons from A Christmas Carol are clear: first, step back and gain perspective in order to know what is most important; second, take an honest look at your current reality in order to know where you stand. Finally, understand that you have to look forward at all times, and identify where you want to be, and make adjustments – no matter how uncomfortable – to ensure the changes you need to make are enacted.
If we look at this a little closer and at the same time stand back, what are the personal lessons we can all take from A Christmas Carol as we head into the Christmas break? We all know that holidays are good for us, giving time to reflect and evaluate the past year, where we currently stand, and what we can see ahead. However, many of us do not take time off to reflect, we are constantly ‘on’, solving problems, in front of us putting out fires, thinking of ways to grow faster, bigger, better, but in truth, running too fast.
A holiday provides a great opportunity for personal growth in an accelerated way. Yes you rest, you catch up on sleep, you read a book or two, you may be even be lucky enough to fill up on vitamin D and get some sun. But above all, you constantly reflect, absorb and learn. So, what are the key lessons?
The greatest reflection of yourself is how you use your time Whatever you say about what really matters to you, the true test is where you place your time. Whatever you say your priorities, that statement will only be true if your calendar reflects it. The only reason for time is so everything doesn’t happen at once, but don’t wait, the time will never be right.
To know what you think, write it down I don’t see many people writing stuff down these days. For me, I am constantly scribbling ideas, comments, thoughts, notes, conversations into a notebook, to let it see light, it’s the best way for me to clarify what I actually think about something. ‘Writing is the painting of the voice’ said Voltaire, for me, I realise that writing is the best way to talk without being interrupted.
Replace fear of the unknown with curiosity You can’t artificially generate curiosity, so you have to follow where yours actually leads. Curiosity ends up being the driving force behind learning and the thirst for knowledge. ‘Millions saw the apple fall but Newton asked why’ said Bernard Baruch. Curiosity did not kill the cat, conventionality did. What are you curious about in your business?
Get outside Sometimes you need to step outside, get some air and remind yourself of who you are and who you want to be. Being on holiday gives you freedom from the usual routine, to breathe the air without interference and to just do stuff. What you think of yourself is much more important than what other people think of you. Be yourself, everyone else is taken, so give yourself some space.
Pay close attention to what you do when you’re alone When no-one else is around, or looking, or talking, when the house is empty, when the afternoon is yours alone, what you choose to do says a lot about you. Pay close attention to where your mind wanders in the shower. Your natural wanderings are your compass to what’s truly interesting to you. Equally, it’s bad enough wasting time without killing time.
Self-control is a finite resource I’m good company for me, I like the idea of solitude, being alone and being content with myself, but I fear loneliness, the pain of being alone, and I’ve never been lonely, an exposed position. However, you can only ask so much of yourself each day, you’ll snap or warp or splinter if you ask too much. You have a limited capacity to direct yourself a certain way. I now realise there are boundaries to being independent.
Put yourself in places that make you nervous Nerves are really the only way to know that you’re being stretched. If there hasn’t been a moment of nerves in your life for a month, it might be worthwhile asking if you’re pushing hard enough. Step outside your comfort zone into the learning zone. If you do what you always did, you will get what you always got. Great people did not achieve great things by staying in their comfort zone.
Listen to your own pulse Money can’t buy you happiness, but consciousness can. I read Laura Vanderkam’s book, ‘168 hours: you have more time than you think’ recently. She talks about thinking of your week in terms of 168 hours, instead of seven 24-hour chunks. When you look at your week from that perspective, you have more time than you think. This book is a reality check that tells you I do have time for what is important to me.
Ebenezer Scrooge shared the tendency we all have to become myopic when we focus too long on the same thing and we forget to look beyond our horizons. The lesson from A Christmas Carol is be aware, alert and alive – live for the moments of serendipity and synchronicity. Sleep. Hydrate. Learn. Move. The basics are key. You strive to be conscious in all areas of life, relationships, raising children, your work, but we all need more awareness and clarity.
I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year, Scrooge vows near end of the story. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!
Having re-read the book, and written this blog, I already feel more relaxed and more deeply connected to myself and refocused, that’s not been the case for a while. So now ready with new things identified to learn and habits to unlearn, I’ve already begun to create and continue a healthier, more authentic life rhythm that’s best for me. And the thing is, in doing that, what I give to those close to me and what I develop for myself will be so much better.
No space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused, wrote Dickens in A Christmas Carol. The simple, yet eloquent story continues to teach us much about ourselves, and what it really means to be a successful person.