The Business Rusch: Fear Itself
The Business Rusch: Fear Itself
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Not making it to Los Angeles last week set off a little fear bomb inside of me. (For those of you who don’t know what happened on our way to LA, here’s the link.) Instead of focusing on what had gone right—we got Dean out of the heat where he could heal, and a possible serious (hospitalization) crisis got averted—I’ve been focusing on what ifs. What if we had continued on the drive? What if I hadn’t noticed how the heat was affecting Dean? What if, what if, what if….
Sometimes this kind of rumination is good. In fact, I think using hindsight to figure out what went wrong is an excellent way to learn. I wrote a post on hindsight for the Freelancer’s Guide. But at a certain point, you have to stop ruminating and start moving forward.
I’m doing that, but forward is forcing the issue since I’m planning for another trip. I’m heading to Germany in ten days for research and a convention. Along with Greg Bear, I’ll be the guest of honor at Elstercon in Leipzig, a trip I’ve looked forward to for months. I’ll be blogging about it here if the computer connections are as good as everyone says, and I’m looking forward to that too, sharing the research and the sites, as well as the convention itself. (If the computer connections aren’t good, I’ll upload everything when I get back.)
But trying to let go of an aborted trip before I head on another one has made for a bizarre loop. First thing I did when I got home was check the weather in Leipzig, even though Dean won’t be coming with me.
I thought this fear loop was just another Kris pathology until yesterday. I watched the news, talked to some friends going through a crisis, read a few blogs, and got some interesting e-mails.
Behind every conversation I had, everything I read, everything I heard? Fear.
Fear is particularly prevalent in publishing right now because the future of the field is uncertain. Even people who understand how to read tea leaves are having trouble predicting the future. It’s in such a constant state of flux—almost daily—that people are terrified because they don’t know how to behave. Suddenly all the rules of what’s right and what’s wrong have gone out the window, and it’s left us with a complete unknown.
Add to that the economic uncertainty. Unemployment is still about 10% in the U.S. (which doesn’t count the underemployed or those who have given up, weird as that may be), and the good economic numbers that came out in June and July are being revised downward. The televised newscasts, from the networks to the talking heads on cable, are paying more attention to fringe elements of all sides of the political spectrum than they are to the day-to-day stories that have an impact on our daily lives.
(Televised news, which needs to make a profit, has always done this. It’s just gotten worse in the past few years because of…you guessed it…the economic situation. Ad revenues are down, so everyone is slashing budgets left and right. And the expensive items in news department budgets are often hard news, which people have trouble watching, versus entertainment news which is codified gossip. As much as we all decry gossip, we all strain a little to hear it.)
The net effect of all of this, however, adds to the uncertainty about the future and adds to the fear factor. Unemployment is so high that most of us know someone who is struggling financially—and by that I don’t mean they’re unable to buy the latest iPhone. I mean they’re in danger of losing their house (or they already have); they can’t pay their medical bills; or they’re unable to feed their families.
Mixed into yesterday’s celebritainment news was the fact that President Obama has done what every president before him has: He’s redecorated the Oval Office (using campaign funds, not tax dollars, as every news cast was careful to point out). Around the new rug in the Oval Office are famous quotes, including arguably the most famous words Franklin Delano Roosevelt ever uttered: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Let’s look at that statement for a moment, so we share a context. Roosevelt spoke those words on March 4, 1933, as part of his first inaugural address. At the time, more than a quarter of the workforce was unemployed. Twenty percent of New York school children were malnourished. In mining country, some estimates put the number of malnourished—or starving—children at 90%. People who still had work had their hours reduced and their paychecks slashed.
Historian Jeff Shesol calls the Roosevelt of March 1933 “a light in the darkness.” Shesol writes in Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. The Supreme Court (W.W. Norton, 2010), “By the clarity of [Roosevelt’s] words, his voice, and his purpose, he transformed the national mood even before he left the inaugural podium.”
This is important, because up until that point, the nation felt as if it were drowning—and, honestly, it was. Mired in debt and loss, hopelessness seemed both natural and normal. But the problem with hopelessness is that it paralyzes, and becomes part of an endless loop.
After Roosevelt spoke that famous quote, he entered into what is now called the Hundred Days, the first months of his presidency, where he proceeded to do more than any president before him. Many of the laws that passed in those days got challenged and overturned in court (the subject of Shesol’s book), but at least it felt like Roosevelt was doing something, which was more than it seemed like his predecessor had done.
If Roosevelt had spoken those words and then done nothing, people would not have remembered them. In fact, after his first inaugural, the “fear itself” quote was not the one the press and the country remembered. Only in hindsight did those words become the central take-away from that momentous speech. Part of the reason? A man who himself could have gotten mired in fear and self-pity instead rose out of his bed after polio left him paralyzed to become President of the United States. When Roosevelt said that fear was destructive, he wasn’t just speaking a platitude. He was speaking from experience.
The other problem with fear is that it’s catching. If one person is fearful, everyone else wonders if they should be as well. Some of this is pure biology. Fear saves lives by getting us out of difficult situations. But we no longer live in the wild. We don’t—and can’t—run from every threat.
Fear is an easy emotion. That’s why fear mongers thrive in difficult times. It’s easier to decry something and look at it with a jaundiced eye than it is to examine that something—or to make changes.
I was raised by parents who were afraid of everything. When I was in the first grade, my father—who had taken a huge career risk—failed miserably and publicly, to the point where he almost unhireable in his own profession (not because of his abilities, but because of his outspokenness). He saw that moment as a failure that defined him, and gave up.
My mother was afraid of most everything—and understandably so. An orphaned child in the Depression, shuttled from relative to relative, my mother never trusted anything or anyone, and firmly believed that good times would not last. Instead of looking for opportunities, my parents saw failure lurking around every corner.
They weren’t always that way. As younger people, they balanced each other—my father being the optimist of the two of them. (My siblings, who are between 16 and 20 years older than me, had parents so different that it was almost as if they were raised by two people I never met.)
I was a sensitive child, and I spent most of my childhood terrified of everything. I also remember vividly when I decided I’d had enough. I was in junior high, and the thing that scared me the most was talking in front of class. I wanted to be the best student in school, which meant I had to do a lot of talking without shaking. So I signed up for the forensics (public speaking) team. I told my teacher, Mr. Hodnick, that I was so terrified, I thought I’d die. He promised me I would learn how to control that terror.
He did not promise me the fear would go away. Only that I would learn how to control it. And I did.
I still get terrified when I step in front of a crowd. But I’ve survived it for nearly forty years now. I know I can survive one more talk in front of one more group.
And it is the memory of that preteen me that often gets me through my fear. If that geeky little girl could learn how to talk so well in front of groups that she went on to win speaking competition after speaking competition, then I can honor her by facing any fears that I have.
It’s not about getting rid of the fear. Nor is it about getting rid of the situation that causes the fear. It’s about managing the fear.
And how do we do that?
I have no idea what the experts recommend. I only know what works for me.
First, I have to figure out what’s causing the fear. Sometimes it’s a loop, a memory, like the one from the LA trip last week. That, I think, was also a reaction—I couldn’t be afraid during the trip back, so I waited until the incident was over to feel the emotions involved.
Most often, though what causes the fear is uncertainty. And there is clearly plenty of that right now. Not only is the economy uncertain, but people’s lives are as well. Not just people who are unemployed, but people who are employed have no idea whether or not they’ll have jobs in six months.
Add to that the rapid technological change, which isn’t just hitting publishing, but most of the arts, as well as many other industries. Suddenly we as a people can’t picture our futures. That’s both unsettling and terrifying. If you can’t see where you’re going, how do you know if you’re on the right path?
The short answer is, simply, you don’t know.
But what most of us forget is this: We never really know. We have no idea if what we’re doing from day to day is right, is useful, or is even important. There’s a line in Matt Kearney’s song, “Closer to Love,” that strikes me every single time I hear it: We’re all one phone call from our knees. It’s a pessimistic view of the world, but a true one. We all have had that phone call which completely changed our world, changed it in an instant.
If we lived in fear of that moment, we would never get anything done. So mostly, we ignore it, and we forget it might happen. We proceed as if we can predict our futures when, in fact, we can’t.
Still, we want to, just so that we have the illusion of control.
Once I’ve figured out what’s causing the fear, I try to get myself out of it. If the fear’s a loop, I usually can. But if—as is more common—the fear comes from uncertainty, I do what I learned in junior high.
I run through scenarios.
I start with the worst-case scenario. I actually imagine what would happen if everything I feared would go wrong did go wrong. Then I figure out if I can live with that. As a kid in junior high, I realized what I was most afraid of in public speaking was already happening: terminal public embarrassment, combined with blushing, stammering, and self-humiliation. Since I was already experiencing that, I risked nothing by joining the forensic team.
But other worst-case scenarios aren’t as easily solved. On the upcoming German trip, I fly out of the U.S. on September 11th. That date reminds us all of what can go wrong. If I’m on a plane that includes a terrorist bent on destruction—well, I hope I acquit myself as well as the passengers did on the flight over Pennsylvania.
But a lot of my friends flew on September 11, 2001, and they did not die. Instead, they got stranded somewhere that was not home. Just like all those tourists in Europe when the Icelandic volcano blew this spring. That’s a worst-case I can plan for. I can have money set aside for just that emergency. Dean will be staying home, so he can help stateside if something were to happen.
Worst case doesn’t look as bad as it did before the planning.
Once I have the worst-case scenario and how I can live with it, I then work my way to the second worst-case, and the third, and the fourth. I used to stop when I reached the neutral scenario—the one I expected. However, I learned over the years to plan for the best-case scenario as well, because that can blindside you as well.
Particularly in business. Dean and I did not plan for the best-case scenario when we started Pulphouse Publishing. We figured best-case would take care of itself. Instead, best-case—in which we sold all of our product the first time out—became another worst-case. We didn’t have enough funding in place to handle the production of our initial print run. We just figured it was a pipe dream and wouldn’t happen.
The true downfall of that company happened at that moment, because we were always behind financially, and we never had a chance to catch up. Now I’ve learned to look at the best-case as well, and try to predict what surprises lurk there.
Of course, you can’t predict everything. And even with guessing, you’re often wrong. But the nice thing about predicting scenarios is that it keeps you nimble, so that when something does go differently than expected, you can flow with it instead of bemoan the surprise.
Finally, the last thing I do to get rid of fear is a reality check. I look at where I’m sitting and what I’m doing.
When FDR gave his speech in 1933, unemployment was at 25%. That meant that 75% of all Americans were employed in one way or another. I’m sure they were terrified too. They had lost hours and wages; banks were closing left and right, often wiping out savings; and people were rightly worried. But most of them had enough work to pay the bills or to feed their families.
The uptick in mood that Roosevelt inspired brought an energy to the country. It didn’t get the country out of the Great Depression. In fact, if anyone had told FDR in 1933 that the Depression would continue for nearly another ten years, he wouldn’t have believed it. He probably would have been appalled that it wasn’t his programs that got the country out of the Depression, but a devastating war that pulled the economy out of disaster.
Still, historians agree that FDR’s attitude, his change of pace, his willingness to move forward, helped the country survive those challenging years. Historians disagree as to how much that attitude changed things. But they know that the United States of mid-1933 was a different country than the U.S. of 1932, a less fearful country, one that believed in its own abilities again.
You can’t run a small business if you’re constantly afraid. You’ll make mistake after mistake, because you’re always seeing threats instead of opportunities. Even in the darkest times, opportunities exist. Especially in the dark times. It just takes someone with courage to seize those opportunities.
If you let fear control you, you won’t even try. If you acknowledge your fear and figure out how to use it, as I learned in junior high, you can step into your own future.
Is it easy? Hell, no. It’s a constant struggle. If it weren’t a struggle, I would have solved the fear issue at the age of 13. Instead, I’m obsessing about a trip to a country where I don’t speak the language (well), and where I’ll be expected—of all things—to talk in public.
Imagine me telling my thirteen-year-old self that. She would have been appalled, surprised, and pleased. Yes, pleased. Because she would have assumed she would eventually conquer her fear.
But I never did conquer that public-speaking fear. I’ve just learned how to step past it. I know it’s there, an ever-present companion. I just know that fear is only debilitating when I allow it to be.
I started this column during my morning writing session. I always follow that session with a run, lunch, and some errands. As I left for my run, I realized just writing some words on the subject of fear made me feel better. On my run, I realized I haven’t been breathing deeply this past week. Breathing deeply calms. That’s one of the reasons meditation works.
I do a lot of thinking while I exercise and today was no different. The perspective I got—that I was obsessing about the past, and not really looking at where I am and what great opportunities I have—set the fear aside completely.
Yeah, I have other issues. And I could easily substitute a new fear for those fears mentioned above. As I said earlier in this column, fear is an easy default emotion.
But I’d rather enjoy life. I’ve got a great month ahead. So I’m looking forward—and reminding myself (yet again) that the only thing I have to fear…is fear itself.
I’m starting into the second month of the new column. I’ve gotten some questions that I’ll be answering in future columns, and more ideas than I know what to do with. But since my first business blog column, the donations have dropped off entirely. Just as with the Freelancer’s Guide, I do need a few dollars to pay me for my time writing this blog every week. Thanks for reading—and as always, feel free to share this column with others, so long as you acknowledge the source.
“The Business Rusch: Fear Itself” copyright 2010 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.