Business Musings: Fear vs. Growth (Fear-Based Decision-Making Part 2)

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I did not expect to be writing this series of blogs the week that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lifted the mask mandate for all vaccinated people. Ironically, the discussions around me everywhere—and I do mean everywhere—have all been about fear, in one form or another.

  • I’m vaccinated, but I’m not ready to take off my mask.
  • Did the CDC make the decision too early?
  • Are we sure we can trust them this time?

And on and on and on. I heard one famous talking head interview the CDC director—or should I say grill the CDC director, because it was clear that the talking head was deep down terrified of ever heading into a post-COVID environment. I don’t blame her. And then there was this in Vice, from an article titled (crapass punctuation and all): “People Aren’t ‘Addicted’ To Wearing Masks, They’re Traumatized.”

Yeah, that comma bugs the hell out of me. And it’s not the only mistake in the headline, as you’ll see if you travel across the link. But the article is a good and sensitive one. Read it. And think about it. Because, in its own way, it’s about fear-based decision-making. Only that fear mentioned in the article is one we’ve all been living with to some degree or another since March of 2020.

The first blog in this series went viral and a number of people sharing it over social media thought I was only going to talk about pandemic fear-based stuff. Um, no. Not at all.

When I got inspired to do this series, I was actually thinking about the non-pandemic world. Fear-based decisions happened all the time during the pre-pandemic era, and will continue to do so in the post-pandemic era.

It’s been fascinating, watching corporations deal with the rapid changes of the past year. Those changes have not just been pandemic changes, but also changes in the way business is done. People of color, LGBTQ+ people, people with disabilities, people from marginalized communities, and so many others aren’t just demanding a seat at the table, which they have done for years, but they’re actually being heard for the first time in maybe 50 years.

Let’s hope that the changes made will stick this time, especially considering the fight that the entrenched old guard is putting up. It’s rather ugly in America right now, in ways that I haven’t seen since I was a child.

Not that these things have gotten worse, no. It’s just that the past ten years or so have brought the dirty underbelly of America to the surface, and words that couldn’t be said in polite company (like the damn “n” word or words like it) have not only become acceptable in some circles, but required.

The ugliness is finally on the surface, and those of us who want a more inclusive country are fighting in pretty much every single aspect of this country.

The pandemic, along with the Black Lives Matter movement, the #MeToo movement, and Stop Asian Hate movement, have brought a lot of changes, and the doesn’t even count the economic fallout from the past year plus of lockdowns.

In other words, the old systems are falling away, and it’s up to us to replace them with new systems.

What a scary time—especially if you’re heavily invested in the old system. Watching familiar things fall away is and can be hard.

But it’s even harder when it comes time to make decisions.

I want to write this series on fear-based decision-making in the arts, but as I started to dig into the articles I had saved and newer ones that I could find online, I realized I had left out something in the first post.

It’s all well and good to tell you folks to stop making fear-based decisions, but if that’s how you’ve operated for your entire life, then what do you replace those decisions with? Courage-based decisions?

That’s what one author called it. He wrote an entire book about courage in the workplace.

Which is fine, I suppose, if you have a workplace, but the analogy doesn’t go far enough. I suppose you need courage to talk to the boss, or whatever, but what if you are the boss? Decisions aren’t just about asking for a raise or speaking up about a problem with other people in your day job.

Decisions can often mean the life or death of your business. (Or yourself or your family or your friends…as we relearned during this pandemic.)

I dug around and dug around and dug around, knowing I was missing something, but I wasn’t sure what it was. Finally, I found a framework in a personal essay by someone I’d never heard of. When I researched the person, I realized I didn’t want to promote their brand in any way. But, the framework is a good one, and the deeper I dug, the more I realized the missing piece wasn’t unique to this person. They were just the person who had expressed it clearly.

Here it is:

You can make your decisions out of fear of repercussions or harm or past experience, or you can make your decisions with an attitude toward improvement or growth.

I like taking the perspective of growth. Because improvement might not be the best way of looking at things. The word “improvement” implies that things aren’t  good now. They need to be fixed.

And that often isn’t the case in decision-making. Sometimes you’re offered an opportunity that will change your life or business, but not necessarily improve it.

Instead, for the sake of these blog posts, let’s assume that the flipside of fear-based decision-making is growth-based decision-making.

When you make an important decision, pause before you finalize that decision, and ask yourself: Are you making the decision out of fear or with an eye toward growth?

It’s a tough question to get a quick answer to. Fear-based decisions often seem easier, because they’re based (many times) on past experience or on risk aversion. No is easier than yes, most of the time. And no because we’ve never done it that way or no because we did it before and it failed or no because it will anger people or no because people will hate me is a quick and seemingly rational response to whatever question appears before you.

The problem is that a fear-based decision will eat at you. That fear will remain and will often continue to motivate your actions long after the decision is made. Sometimes fear is warranted, as in a military situation or a (ahem) pandemic or walking in a dirty crime-ridden dark alley. Fear will keep you on alert in those situations and sometimes will save you, if it doesn’t adversely effect your reactions or reaction time.

However, a growth-based decision might initially provoke fear as well. In fact, a growth-based decision might make you a little light-headed with anxiety, precisely because you’ll be going against those internal worries of What if they hate me? No one has ever tried this. What if I’m being stupid?

The question you next ask yourself is this: Will the correct decision grow my business? Will it result in growth in me as a person? Will it take me on paths that excite me (and make me nervous)? Or will it hold me back?

You have to be quite honest with yourself as you answer those questions.

Sometimes growth is not the best thing for you or your company, particularly at some stages in your life. But usually growth is good. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you should make your company larger or you need to spend more money.

It’s a question I’ve asked a million different ways over the years. In writing, I often ask myself if the project I’m taking on will stretch me as a writer. Will it challenge me?

(The wrong question is What will my fans think? Will they hate this new direction? Those are fear-based questions.)

In business, I ask if the opportunity is right for me. I’ve had a lot of opportunities over the years that would have forced me to step out of my comfort zone and become someone else. For example, just after I quit The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, a headhunter called me and told me she had paired me with a major editing job in New York. She listed the salary and the perks, and yeah, this was huge. A hundred thousand plus in salary and amenities like an apartment and a travel budget.

On paper, I seemed perfect for that job. It was a big-name book editing position at a major company.

In real life, it was the worst possible choice for me. I had just quit my editing job to return to writing, a decision that carried a lot of risk. But I have always seen myself as a writer first, and at the time of this call, I was losing my writer self to my editor self.

That job would have cemented the loss. Even though I would have grown my salary considerably, I would have shrunken myself considerably. And ultimately (with the value of hindsight) I would have lost hundreds of thousands doing that job. I didn’t know it at the time, though. I knew I was being offered almost 10 times my F&SF salary plus the perks, and I was turning it down. I had no idea how it would play out or that about a decade later, when I was still writing and making money, the editing job would be slashed along with every other major editing job in the business.

I made the decision to turn to writing because that was the growth decision for me. The editing job, with the added money and seeming job security, was the fear-based decision.

The writing choice was the risky decision, though, and I sometimes thought about the choice I made. I never changed my mind about it, though. (Not that it would have mattered. When I said no, the opportunity was lost.)

One analysis I saw of growth-based decision-making versus fear-based decision-making put the end result this way:

If you made a choice and then looked back on it ten, twenty, or thirty years later, did that choice become an important part of your personal history or did that choice become a regret?

The regrets are often fear-based decisions.

They twist your stomach and make your head hurt. Part of you knows you’re making the choice for the wrong reason.

Growth-based decisions also make you nervous. But they excite as well. Even as you feel the worries, the growth-based decision inspires you. You’ll worry about the risk while figuring out how to mitigate that risk. You might also find yourself flooded with ideas.

Growth-based decisions are exciting.

Fear-based decisions are almost embarrassing. Yeah, I took the job. It’s not what I wanted, but it’ll tide me over.

Fear is usually a retreat or someone clinging so hard to the status quo that there’s no way to let go. Growth will often force the people around you to question your sanity. They’ll tell you that no one else would do that, that it’s not something most people do, that it’s not the “safe” choice.

Yep. You’re in the arts, folks. There is no safe choice.

There’s only the best choice for you—and the best choice always takes you in the direction of growth.


WMG Publishing is doing a few things of interest to writers. First, I curated a Storybundle filled with writing advice. You can get all of it, including my book on the TV/Film Industry and an online workshop, for $15. Click here.

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“Business Musings: Fear Vs. Growth (Fear-Based Decision-making Part Two),” copyright © 2021 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog © Can Stock Photo / Colecanstock.

4 thoughts on “Business Musings: Fear vs. Growth (Fear-Based Decision-Making Part 2)

  1. I read somewhere years ago that “love and fear can’t exist in the same space” which rings true for me. So I usually think in terms of Love vs Fear – and personally, I have always found that decisions made from love turn out to be the right ones, whereas decisions made from fear turn out to be the wrong ones. Joy vs Fear might work, too.

  2. “Fear vs. Growth” is the wrong dichotomy.

    Wiki – Antifragile

    For a good write up of the book. If you haven’t read the book, then you are in for a shock. Make sure you read it before you make too many plans.

  3. “In writing, I often ask myself if the project I’m taking on will stretch me as a writer. Will it challenge me?

    (The wrong question is What will my fans think? Will they hate this new direction? Those are fear-based questions.)”

    So true, Kristine! I just challenged myself to write a short story (which turned out to be two short stories) that were a little out of my comfort zone…but I am so glad I did them.

    I think we have to remind ourselves there is the business side of writing and the creative side. If we only focus on the business side, it’s too easy to burn out. We need to keep those creative challenges front and center. They’re what makes us better writers.

  4. Chuckling – at the timing being slightly off, because I just finished what might be the two hardest scenes in the whole PC trilogy, the ones the readers are NOT going to like (I tell myself), but which are the most essential and the lowest part of the story I’ve been working on for twenty years.

    And my Fear Journal is full of it.

    And I did it anyway – because, as I knew all along, there was no other way out. It’s my JOB.

    But I am happy to be past these two – and they turned out better than I could have expected. As these things often do.

    Must be in the air, after the worst of the pandemic in the States (we fervently hope, knowing many out there have made it a matter of principle to become the largest virus reservoir possible), decisions are being made and revisited and changed, and we’re wondering how to make a future that works.

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