Business Musings: Schrödinger’s Future
It’s the uncertainty, really, that’s driving us all crazy. Yes, many of us are dealing with incredible fear, and some with horrible loss. A number of us have gotten sick or, in some instances, have had to ignore our sicknesses and treatments while hospitals handled COVID patients and emergencies only.
But behind it all is a nagging ill-defined dread that makes it hard to work or even concentrate for long periods of time. Many of us find ourselves busier than ever before, handling our children’s education while doing our day jobs from home, and coping with the new normal, which includes lots of handwashing and cleaning and planned assaults on the grocery store (complete with masks and tiny bottles of hand sanitizer).
Many of our little conveniences are gone, from the brand of toilet paper we prefer to that wonderful restaurant with great (cheap) take-out that we could pick up on the way home. And for some of us, the little inconveniences lead to big blow-ups because we don’t want to shout about what’s going on in the world. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with people who think their problems are minor because someone else’s are worse.
Yet we’re all here, we’re all dealing with this, we’re all stressed.
Recently, I saw a headline flow through my feed stating that the pandemic caused cognitive decline. Of course, I clicked on it. I’ve been reading a lot of the science articles—that’s one way I cope, is seeing what our heroic scientists are doing—and I thought this was one.
Nope. This was some day-job person, stuck at home, who suddenly lived in a world without a schedule. That person had lost track of time, couldn’t concentrate on the next (or current) project, and somehow constantly found themselves staring into space (or the refrigerator).
Typical symptoms of two things: a freelancer without a day job for the first time (see the time management sections of my freelancer’s guide or this post and/or a person under severe stress.
Stress causes brain fog. Lack of structure causes brain fog. Getting used to a new reality also causes brain fog.
The problem is that we are all in a new reality, but we also know that this reality isn’t a permanent one. (Okay, history and philosophy majors, I know. No reality is a permanent one. But go with me here, all right?) This reality is an interim reality, which will catapult us or, more likely, ease us into a brand new world, one we wouldn’t have recognized last December.
And if you doubt me, think about how inconceivable now is to your past self. Or rather, look at this YouTube video, which probably doesn’t go far enough.
This shot home to me this weekend as Dean and I wrangled with his exercise schedule. He and I are used to a certain level of uncertainty in our business. We’ve been through crises in the publishing industry and, although things are truly wretched in the world of traditional publishing and poised to get worse, indie (self) publishing is going to be just fine. It’ll probably grow some, and a few things will change, but as this crisis is already showing, regular readers are retreating to books, and a lot of other people are buying books because they suddenly have more time, and—as my neighbor said to me in the elevator two weeks ago—you can only watch so much Netflix.
We’re fortunate we’re in a business that allows us to work from home, one that is growing. We’re also fortunate that we cut most of the fat from the business in the past two years, so we’re in a position to keep our employees, because we can still afford them.
But other businesses aren’t so lucky. Some restaurants are open, for example, for take-out and delivery, but as many of them are saying, they’re only earning 20% of what they earned before. Some are shuttered, earning nothing at all. The devastation in the in-person entertainment field is ongoing, as well as in the world of sports, and conferences and pretty much anything that requires us to congregate in groups larger than 10.
If you’re running short of cash, you can’t figure out how to make that money stretch if you don’t know how long it needs to stretch for.
Why this uncertainty came up when discussing Dean’s exercise schedule is simple: he works with long-term goals on pretty much everything. He can control those goals, even now, with the writing and the publishing, but exercise? He runs, and to hit his daily targets, he needs a big goal at the end.
Will there be marathons run in person in the fall? We don’t know. (He doesn’t do virtual.) Or will they start up again in 2021? We don’t know. Or will they return a year from right now? We don’t know.
In the middle of that conversation, I realized that I had planned for my personal non-writing events as if the future was in Schrödinger’s box instead of that damn cat.
For those of you who know too much about Schrödinger’s cat, I’ll say this: I’m using the pop culture version of the cat so that I don’t have to (try to) explain (in vain) quantum entanglements and other such things.
For those of you who don’t know anything about Schrödinger’s cat (and those of you who need a refresher), here is the pop culture version.
Schrödinger’s cat is a thought experiment designed by Erwin Schrödinger to prove a point that’s irrelevant to this discussion here. But a simplified version of the experiment goes like this:
A cat is sealed into a steel compartment with a hammer, some poison gas, and a small radioactive substance. If a single atom of the radioactive substance decays in that hour, the hammer will fall, release the poison gas and kill the cat. But if the radioactive substance remains unchanged for that hour, the cat will live.
To the outside observer, the cat is both alive and dead in that hour. Either thing is possible. You won’t know what happened until the box opens, and you either face a corpse or one pissed off (and confused) cat.
Right now, our future is in that box along with the possibility of an effective vaccine or a powerful treatment for COVID-19. Instead of being stuck there for an hour, we have to wait an undetermined amount of time for that box to open. Once it does, we’ll have the answer—a recovery that might take us to a world where we can gather in large groups soon or years of struggle with occasional closures as the virus runs through the society.
If we knew which future we were facing, we could plan. The planning isn’t going to be fun, no matter what’s going to happen, but at least we could move forward.
But we don’t know. Right now, the future contains a vaccine and a return to “normal” life within a year or so…and the future contains no vaccine and years of occasional flare-ups, shutdowns, and bans on any grouping over 20-50 people.
Because we don’t know which of those futures we will live in (not to mention the other, smaller, futures that could face us), we have to plan for both of them. And that’s hard. Because the lack of a timetable makes planning nearly impossible…in a traditional sense.
That means on some things, our planning needs to be non-traditional. Dean decided to sign up for 13 marathons, one per month, starting in November. His reasoning? If one gets canceled, he has another on the horizon. If the first six get canceled, he still has goals to train for. And, in his perfect world, he would run all thirteen.
But the upshot is he has a tiny measure of control over what’s facing him.
I do realize that many of you don’t have simple problems like how to organize your own exercise schedule. For many of you, you have to find a way to earn money right now. Or you worry that your job may not return. Or you have no idea if you’re going to college in the fall.
Some of these things are easier to plan for than others in this Schrödinger’s future world. College students can decide to take the fall off, and maybe work or help the family, saving the tuition and travel and returning in January to the life of a student.
Money plans are tougher. Do you continue to spend your savings and/or your unemployment benefits, hoping your job will return? Or do you search for another job, something that doesn’t suit your education level, like stocking shelves at a local grocery store?
Do you take the time to reinvent yourself right now, with the thought that you’ve always hated your job, and now is the time to quit? I know lots of writers who are doing that.
If you can make plans based on both futures, I suggest you do so. If your job returns, then you plan for x. If it doesn’t, you plan for y.
Or is there something you can do that’s outside the box (that Schrödinger box) that might make x and y irrelevant? Can you start a freelance business now, with what tools you have? Can you pick up an old dream and reignite it? Can you reinvent yourself in such a way that will make everything you did prepandemic seem like something from another life?
Hard and harsh decisions await all of us. Some of us have been forced to choose between something awful and something merely bad. Others of us are relatively untouched by this pandemic, although inconvenienced.
All of us are waiting for it to end.
And that wait is adding to our stress.
So in addition to box-watching and trying to figure out what is really going on with that future trapped inside, let me suggest that you explore other opportunities.
See what it feels like to write more.
See if you can produce a pretty ebook all by yourself.
See if you can learn copyright once and for all. Or maybe dive into an understanding of licensing.
Even if you only spend an hour a day on these things, they will take your focus away from that damn box, and its dual futures. That hour will slow down your stress, and reduce your brain fog.
I keep saying in these posts that we will get through this. And a few people in my life have asked (rather angrily), How do you know?
History. That’s the blessing and curse of history. It shows us what has gone before. And so far, nothing has defeated the human spirit, although a lot of things have challenged that spirit—many of those things more dramatic than this one.
So, trust that we will open the box one day, and find whatever future awaits. Until then, plan as best you can, and use this interim to prepare yourself for the things you can predict. Even if those things are terrible, preparation will make them easier to bear, because preparation will give you a measure of control.
This interim won’t go on forever. We will get through 2020. And even if you, like me, want to peek to the end of this chapter to see what happens next, life doesn’t work like a novel.
If only it did. We would all be much happier. And less stressed.
Because Dean and I have an abundance of online resources for writers, we made the decision to make those resources available at reduced cost during this difficult time. We gave away about a third of a million dollars in workshop value during the last Kickstarter.
And right now, we’re holding our third half-price sale for all of the online workshops. I’ve also curated a writing Storybundle, with nine writing ebooks and a writing lecture, all for $15.
Dean and I want to help writers make it through the interim. We know you’re having a tough time, both emotionally and financially. We hope these resources will help you both now, and in whatever future emerges from inside that box.
I’m thinking of all of you, and hoping you’re making it through this.
Thanks for visiting here and my Patreon page. I appreciate you all more than you know.
“Business Musings: Schrödinger’s Future,” copyright © 2020 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / the8monkey.