Benefits of the baffled mind: Why so many people end up choosing self-employment these days

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.

Copyright ©1983 by Wendell Berry, from Standing by Words.


A friend sent this to me over the weekend, in response to something I’d written about a personal challenge. (My best days often start with someone sending me a poem in response to an issue that seems unsolvable except by mental gymnastics. Life is good.)

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

I ended up in self-employment because I didn’t know what else to do. There was something pretty fundamental that I couldn’t figure out: How can I earn a living without feeling like crap every day?

I was literally sick ALL the time. I developed pancreatitis from extreme stress and anxiety. I commuted through clouds of carbon monoxide and angry drivers. I had eating habits that created neverending inflammation in my body. All of them a result of trying to serve the needs of my ultimate customers: rich men struggling to get richer.

There seemed no option. This is simply what you DO when you have a mortgage and dental insurance and credit card bills to pay. Right?

I didn’t know what to do.

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

I blame the red-haired videographer who came to our office one day to interview our CEO.

First, she shows up barefoot. No kidding. She was dressed in expensive turquoise and denim, with not a shoe in sight. She hauled up her own equipment, hefting the heavy cameras and other props like they were made of balsa wood. She wore no makeup, just a Mona Lisa smile, a suntan, and hip-length russet hair slung over one shoulder.

I talked to her as she set up. She’d started her own company because she wanted to choose the people she “helped with her work” (the first time I’d ever heard that expression). Originally it was just her, then she hired a couple of other people to help with admin and marketing. She made her own hours, chose her own clients, and won lots and lots of awards for her work.

It took a couple of years to convince myself that her journey could be my journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

Self-employment, I discovered, is an endless ebb and flow of bafflement followed by a clarity that vaults us forward. We don’t have the safe, bland routine of company life; we solve myriad problems, improve the way we do things, explore different ways of earning money, explore different ways of helping.

I am still frequently baffled. And it can be uncomfortable. How to show up as myself in the world. What to offer my clients, and for what cost. Why a particular promotion didn’t work. Where to go next. But it’s not the helpless bafflement of figuring out someone else’s vision. It’s the empowering, mind-expanding bafflement of a puzzle or a mystery novel.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

If you’ve ever spent time sitting next to a stream that’s full of rocks and riffles and logs and waterfalls, you know that song. The obstacles give the water its music. (Conversely, the eerie quiet of a stream moving slowly through a sandy channel seems abnormal to me.)

It’s the obstacles in our work that make it interesting. Each little bump helps us grow bigger and better. Visiting the moving water of other peoples’ work—our clients, for example—can be just as good, and sometimes our eyes can follow the twists and turns of the water better than they can, having become so used to its shape. We can hear what they’ve long relegated to “white noise” and point it out to them, providing clarity and a way forward.

It’s a good life, isn’t it?

Be baffled. It’s the way to your real work, your real journey.

 

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