Business Musings: Fear And The Future (Fear-Based Decision-Making Part 8)
I wasn’t going to write much more on fear-based decision-making after the last post, “Fear And All Writers.” I figured I’d said what I needed to, even if the end of the series was (in my opinion) a bit lacking.
Then I saw an opinion piece on Bloomberg, thanks to my Twitter feed. What caught my eye was the tweeted hook (as it should have):
Humans normally respond to big unforeseen shocks in one of two ways:
- Recoil from risk-taking like we saw after the Great Depression
- Accept that risk is part of life and learn to embrace it — like they did in the Roaring Twenties
I’ve been searching for some analysis of the 1920s post-pandemic culture for a variety of reasons. I’m not finding what I’m looking for, and honestly, with what I do know, I’m not so sure that the folks in the 1920s are a great example. If Lost Generation’s lives and fiction are to be believed, they didn’t so much embrace risk as wander aimlessly and drunkly into their futures. There was a lot of PTSD underneath all of that illegal alcohol.
Still, I liked the tweet, which got me thinking about reactions to major crises. In the U.S., the Great Depression was followed by a war economy, which changed the way that we did pretty much everything. Yes, there was financial fear, but it was compounded by the uncertainty of war.
The 1918 pandemic came at the heels of a great cataclysm—another war, the First World War, or the Great War, as that generation called it. The two events seemed to be of a piece—the war and the flu caused millions of deaths worldwide, which once again, changed the world.
The Twenties roared here in the U.S. because we were largely untouched by the war itself. Our economy was more or less stable and we weren’t rebuilding from complete devastation. Europe, on the other hand, saw horrid inflation and more people out of work than people had ever seen before.
So the generalizations in the tweet aren’t really accurate, but they did intrigue me enough to get me to the article. Which had some lovely tidbits.
First, to the surprise of many economists, new business applications here in the U.S. are up 38% over pre-pandemic levels. (This according to the U.S. Census Bureau.) The Bureau separates the applications into two categories—High Propensity applications (for business that will grow and hire other people) and businesses that will stay small and probably only hire their founders.
Small business start-ups often grow after major economic turmoil. That’s why I wrote The Freelancer’s Survival Guide in 2009 and started to revise it in 2020. I got derailed from the revision when I couldn’t see what kind of future we were going to have, but now that I’m beginning to see it, I’ll need to get back to that.
According to Bloomberg, many economists don’t think that this entrepreneurial impulse will continue after a year or so. They’re blaming the growth in start-ups on the pandemic itself, which threw hundreds of thousands of people out of work suddenly.
Other economists think that’s precisely why we will see a growth in risk-taking and entrepreneurship. I agree with them. The worst has happened to these folks who lost their jobs. They were jolted out of their comfort zone (if they had good jobs) or forced to realize that they had crummy jobs and could do better.
If they were in the position to capitalize on their existing skills, these unemployed folks did, because they had nothing else to do—some of them for the entire year. Why not try to make money doing something they loved?
Bloomberg pointed out one other aspect of this particular downturn. It didn’t just break how we were all living—the way that previous pandemics, wars, and Depressions did. It introduced a massive technological change, which I will discuss in more depth in a future article. People had to learn how to work and go to school online, sometimes in the space of a single week.
(I still think of my Spanish teacher, who admitted in one class that she thought the internet was an actual physical thing and she had no idea how the cloud worked. Kudos to the techs at her school for getting her up to speed enough to handle online teaching. I know she wasn’t the only one who needed a big boost.)
Customers, consumers, workers, and business owners all crossed the digital divide together. People now know whether they can be comfortable working at home or working for themselves on their own schedule.
The other thing that made Allison Schrager, the author of the article, optimistic that an entrepreneurial boom is here is that the number of new business applications continued through the spring, even after many regional economies reopened and people went back to work—often at higher wages, because right now, hiring is very competitive.
That means a lot of people are willing to take on the added risk of running their own business.
It doesn’t mean these people will be successful. It’s one thing to open your own business; it’s another to make that business thrive. Most small businesses fail in the first five years. We haven’t even been at this post-pandemic economy for five months.
I did find the article hopeful, though, because of the acceptance of risk. Let me see if I can explain.
My parents were products of the Great Depression. My father’s father had a government job, and worked through the Depression. My father went to college and immediately got a job upon graduation. My father’s family had money.
My mother bounced from household to household, finally ending up living with her sister, whose husband worked for a bank. My mother remembered eating from rusty cans because she couldn’t have other food, and she always thought that radishes on white bread was comfort food.
She was incredibly frugal. The fights I remember my parents having in front of me always came at Christmas time when my father splurged on a family gift. He came from money; he assumed a job would be there, so paying on credit or making an unplanned expenditure meant little to him.
Paying on credit or having an unplanned expenditure meant catastrophe for my mother. What if something happened? They could have used that money.
My father died seven years before my mother. Without his influence, my mother’s frugality took over—even though she had his full pension (at his salary adjusted upwards for inflation) and owned her home outright. When she died, her bathroom towels were so threadbare that my sister poked a hole through one of them just by picking it up.
That financial caution from that generation makes sense to me. I understand the cause and effect, just like I’m beginning to understand how the Roaring Twenties roared. After 15 months of constrained behavior, I want nothing more than to be around people, listening to music or going to a sporting event or laughing at a comedian. I want to spend time with my friends (those who made it through) and I want to move on, past that horrid year as if it had never been.
I, of course, kept my job, so I have no idea how I’d feel if I had suffered a serious financial hardship. I also work in the arts, so I did see a lot of people who lost their jobs take a risk and start expanding their artistic sides.
Dean, I, and WMG Publishing held a lot of sales on our writing workshops to help people learn during the pandemic, and we were surprised at the result. A lot of people took advantage of the half-off sales so that they could take the time to learn while they were at home or starting their writing businesses.
That showed a greater taste for risk than I would have expected during a tough year.
It makes sense to me, though. The world was already in turmoil. Doing something you loved while sheltering in place felt less risky. And doing so for months made it a habit, so coming out of the pandemic, a lot of people have learned how to do their art while something else is going on.
This is anecdotal, of course, but it coincides with something else I noticed here in Las Vegas. We got hit the hardest in the U.S. with the economic hardship. Most of our economy is based on tourism and hospitality, two industries that stopped one day and didn’t revive fully until the first of June, 2021. A lot of performers and theater people and artists had nothing to do. (Many of them were in my building.)
What do creative people do when they have free time? They create. The number of innovative new businesses that have started up in this city is so great that one of the local publications which tracks such things is having trouble keeping up.
What has this to do with fear-based decision-making? Well, I guess what appealed to me about that tweet is the bifurcated response to crisis. Fear can produce some major responses.
One of them is to retreat and fight hard to make sure that nothing bad ever happens again.
The other is to realize that the world is an uncertain place and risk is there, no matter what we do, so we might as well embrace it.
That second attitude is the freelance attitude. I’ve had it from the start. Looking at it, laid out in this piece, my attitude might simply have been a rebellion against my mother (yeah, I did that a lot). My father enjoyed life more than she did. He took risks. Ergo, risks were more interesting and a lot more fun.
We are all coming out of this pandemic changed. We all lived a year-plus in fear. That low-level of anxiety, whether we admit it or not, put our teeth on edge enough that dentists are seeing more cracked and broken teeth than they ever have before.
I think we all know that we can’t go back to that pre-pandemic comfort level. We’re all a bit shell-shocked and cautious. Yes, our jobs might be secure, but the world is not, and can literally change on a dime. We’ve all experienced it now—and we experienced it together.
We can make all of our decisions out of the fear that we might get hurt again (the Depression response) or we can realize that no matter how much we protect against catastrophe, something serious will happen in our lifetime. Better to take a risk now than to live in teeth-clenching fear for the rest of our lives.
I’m seeing a lot more risk-taking, and it’s cool that the statistics are bearing this out.
Our world is transformed, and one thing that might have transformed every generation that has lived through COVID is a great acceptance of uncertainty. If we accept uncertainty, then we are more comfortable with taking risks.
I’m actually looking forward to the next few years. I think we’ll see a lot of innovation and a great deal of change that we couldn’t have predicted in 2019.
I find that exciting.
As I said above, I’m ready to move into the future. I hope you are too.
When the pandemic hit, we paused our Decade Ahead classes because we literally could not predict what kind of future we would see. We’re starting it back up in 2022. We’ll also have a lot of discussion of the future of the publishing/writing business at the Business Master Class, which we’re doing online for the next year.
You can find out more about both at Teachable.com.
I plan to continue this weekly blog indefinitely. As long as I’m still learning, I’m going to share.
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“Business Musings: Fear and The Future,” copyright © 2021 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / iridi.
Loved that. One of my uncles was a surveyor at a point in time when there were a couple of construction based recessions. He went bankrupt once but was sensible enough to see it coming and had put everything in his wife’s name some years beforehand. He is definitely more laid back about risk though, he’d been there, seen it, done it, lived it. He is also more laid back with others who are not as robust about handling a crisis as he is. Conversely, other friends who have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps from very little are incredibly hard on any of their peers who haven’t managed to do so. It’s as if their opinion of themselves is so low that they can’t see that what they did was unusual and impressive. If I did this, why can’t you? kind of thing.
I wanted to say that I recently bought a copy of the Freelancer’s Survival Guide, having managed to “lose” the ebook, and it’s still very much relevant today. (Aside from the early-2010s stuff on trad publishing, which I found somewhat disconcerting.) I read it cover to cover before my second serious attempt at writing for a living. Reading now on my third attempt, having smashed my head through all sorts of issues you covered, everything makes SO MUCH MORE SENSE. A sign of a true masterpiece, I’d say.
But I’ll eagerly await a 4th Edition, too. 😉
Yes, I need to get back to it. I started rewriting it at the start of the pandemic, but life and pandemic despair derailed me. I’m catching up slowly…
The internet is a physical thing in part. Protocols don’t work on air. The hardware also had to come along.
One thing that people had during the pandemic was the stimulus payments. They could have a lot better chance at eating and not dying by having to work during a pandemic. On the other hand, those who had to work during the pandemic also got the stimulus payments, and those that survived paid off debt like fiends. (consumer debt has dropped like a rock over the past year).
Some people swore I Will Never Work For Them Again because of how they had to survive.
But stimulus payments sure helped.
People are so “brave” on the internet. You and Dean have shared plenty of the ups and downs y’all have been through over the years.
I am so glad that y’all share as much as you do and you’re major inspiration for me. I never would have finished writing the novels and short stories that I have if it wasn’t for you and Dean. Thank you so much.
Just to clarify, the brave comment was directed at the individual who was judging you. I just hope you realize how much your blog means to people like me and how much great info you have shared with us over the years.
Thanks, Jonathan. Much appreciated.
It’s a good time to be able to move fast; unfortunately, it’s the one thing I can’t do.
It doesn’t matter. As much as I would like commercial success, a sort of validation, just finishing what I started out to do – a half-million word trilogy with a big mainstream story – is enough. And that has continued, albeit slowly (stress is harder on people who already have too much stress in their lives), during the pandemic, during the move which preceded it, and will as long as I have breath.
I’ll promote the heck out of the launch of the second book, but it won’t make me much faster for the third. I’m literally going as fast as I can at the snail’s pace.
But one thing I have learned out of the pandemic is sometimes it works best to throw money at problems – and preserve what time and energy you have for the creative side. If you can afford it. In the long run, it’s better to have the problem solved asap.
Great article, Kristine! I love your research and wonderful attitude.
“I have no idea how I’d feel if I had suffered a serious financial hardship” – I think is a truly illuminating statement. I’m not being mean: I just think you literally have no idea what hardship is. That’s…interesting.
Seriously? You know nothing about my life. I’ve gone through severe financial hardship many times, in fact. I was just one of the lucky ones who didn’t go through it during the pandemic.
OK… I’m sorry you felt that was an attack. I’m currently re-evaluating everything I’ve been reading from you for the past decade or so. I don’t think you and I are or ever were on anything even approaching the same page. (Also: you know nothing about my life. Please don’t assume you do.)
“I’m sorry you felt” is not an apology. And um…”I just think you literally have no idea what hardship is” is an attack. I never did assume I know anything about you. You didn’t even have the courage to sign your name, so I literally can’t know anything about you except that something about this post made you attack me today. Hope you figure out what it is that made you lash out.
I wasn’t apologising. A statement is not an attack. I think you’re talking to a mirror. (Also: I think maybe you need medical treatment. Truly – I’m absolutely serious.)
Your statement was passive-aggressive and definitely came across as an attack. Your medication statement was pretty aggressive also. I’ve known Kris for decades and she has endured hardship more than once and made it through each time with determination and hard work. I’ve endured hardship as well, including financial, and I totally understand her statement. Until something actually happens, there is no way to know how you will feel in that moment until it happens.
Thanks, Adrian! (And yeah, we’ve been through some things, haven’t we? Sigh.)
Thanks for this series, Kris. These articles have been great. Fear was a funny thing this last year and a half. And I’m surprised what we got used to. It’ll be interesting to see where all this takes us.
I tunneled down to survival mode to take care of my family through the uncertainty and shifting and fear. I’ve only started coming out of that in the last few months, but they’ve been productive months. I’m excited doing the creative work. I hope that bodes well.