The Paradox of Money and Meaning: Why Thrival Comes First

by | Aug 27, 2009

Many self employed professionals in the creative and healing arts flounder on the shoals of making a profit. Experts in their craft or practice, they excel in their work of making meaning, yet fail to earn more than a survival level income.

What’s wrong with this picture?

In the Beginning Was Survival

To answer this question, we need to go back to basics, to look at the very essence of what it means to be self-employed. As we roll the evolutionary clock back to when the first human consciously chose work, we discover that the impulse to self employment is rooted in the survival instinct.

For thousands of years we worked simply to have enough to eat. In time, we also worked to secure protection from the elements and our enemies. Eventually, our attention turned to preservation of what belonged to us. And, out of this first experience of abundance and relative safety grew the impulse to make art.

Self Employment Is Evolutionary

The moral of this glimpse into pre-history is that self-employment is evolutionary. It began with our most primitive impulses and evolved along with our bodies and minds to keep pace with (and, to some extent, lead the way to) emerging problems and possibilities and ways of making sense of the world.

It’s important to notice that this evolution is holographic. Each evolutionary stage is included and encoded in higher stages. Our primitive survival needs don’t go away when higher needs emerge. Even the greatest painter has to eat.

This explains why thrival is a sacred duty. Unless we go beyond survival needs and work to thrive, we cannot sustain the meaningful work we want to do in the world.

Thrival is not a result of doing good work; it is a pre-requisite.

Thrival Is Job One

What this means is that the more elevated your purpose for self-employment, the more attention you need pay to generating abundant revenue streams. In order to free your attention and energy for the high-level work you are here to do, you need to secure a more-than-sufficient income so that you can meet a variety of needs from food and shelter to education and recreation.

Mere survival will not equip you to to the work you want to do.

If you try to get by with minimal revenues, you will spend way too much time spinning your wheels, worrying about how to pay the bills, agonizing over how to connect with clients, and even resenting the burdens of self employment.

The Good News

There is more good news in this picture than you might expect. For one thing, creating the structures and systems of a thriving business is less complicated than doing the work you’ve been trained to do. Building a business happens, by definition, at a lower level of evolutionary complexity than does meaning making through the creative and healing arts.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle that self employed professionals face when it comes to building a business is that they are more at home with the higher levels of complexity. The best practices of the business world can seem dull by comparison. But true mastery requires a command of a range of skills that, out of context, appear trivial. (Remember The Karate Kid?)

In the best of all worlds, we would have a beloved master who would model for us the relationship between the mundane skills of thrival and mastery in our chosen realms. It’s painful and frustrating to try to learn from someone who lacks our own scope and vision.
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