When I first read the title of Kayt Sukel’s The Art of Risk: The New Science Of Courage, Caution, and Chance, I’ll confess I had a mini adrenaline rush. After all, the topic of risk is exciting! The idea of a 288-page book dedicated to helping readers understand how to make more successful risky choices? Well, that is a read I can’t pass up! My excitement was short lived, however, after realizing that Sukel’s book more thoroughly explores human biology than how to improve your risk-taking abilities. The closest thing to “the art” of risk-taking is chalked up to a few points in the final chapter that could be easily summarized in a blog. This did come as a disappointment, but the analysis on risk was educational none the less.
Sukel’s desire to understand risk-taking is triggered by a whirlwind proposal, which is concisely laid out in her opening chapter. She candidly writes about adventure; her stories about swimming with sharks and climbing mountains are filled with more zest and life than can be found anywhere else in her book. But, Sukel’s descriptions turns melancholy when those days of adventure have been traded in for a mini-van, a residence in suburbia, and the responsibilities of being a newly single mother. As a reader, it was not hard to see why she was yearning to explore what risk means. Enter love! Sukel writes about the scars she carries from her first failed marriage and her hesitancy to enter a second marriage despite meeting a man she believes will suffice as a lifelong partner. Sukel admits they fell in love quickly and after only six weeks of dating, he proposed.
Because she has a child to consider, though, this swift proposal requires some serious reflection. “Do I consider the possibility of marrying again, especially so soon, even though my first trip down the aisle ended in such disaster? And how can I even begin to calculate how marriage, whether it fails or succeeds, may affect my child?” Sukel ponders. Coming full circle, these thoughts propel her forward into writing The Art of Risk.
But first, Sukel wonders, what is risk? Answering this question actually requires an entire chapter. While we could all easily Google the definition of risk, there is a point to Sukel’s madness. A fair look at risk, as Sukel’s later chapters confirm, requires exploring different definitions because risk is everywhere. Risk is defined by probabilities, outcomes, consequences, actions, end results, situations involving danger, and so on. It is both scientific and emotional. It is calculated and intuitive. Our desire to take risks is stimulated in different ways by different variables. It is prompted internally and externally. The verbiage for the economic definition of risk is not the same as the psychological definition. Although Sukel never quite puts forth a structured definition for the book, it is in analyzing what the definition should be leads her to the bulk of her book: What influences why we take risks?
Is it age? Gender? Experience? Emotion? Genes? Community? Turns out, the short answer to all of these things (and a few more) is yes, they do influence you! The heart of The Art of Risk, how and why, truly begins in Part II (of four). While the first section (“Risk and the Brain”) is heavy on medical terms, the succeeding chapters are worth the wait. The structure of almost every chapter is as follows: Introduce a new character, share case studies from experts in various fields, tie them back to character and self (Sukel). While the psychology and science talk is informative, it’s the character stories that pull at the heart strings and make every piece of data relatable.
However, despite each chapter offering exceptional research, I was left wondering three things. First, will there be a study that combines all predispositions that influence your risk-taking ability? For example, am I inherently more risky than an 80-year old man because I am a 30-year old woman? Or is it the other way around when two of those predispositions tend to even one another out?
Second, is there an art to risk taking? Sukel writes early on, “I use the word ‘art’ intentionally. Because the pervasive take away from much of this work is that human beings are pretty bad at making good (or, at least, rational) decisions when faced with risk. We are terrible calculating the actual probabilities of specific outcomes. We hate ambiguities the point where we just pretend it doesn’t exist. We would rather hear a good story than bother with a not-so-good reality.” I can’t help but wonder if she was looking for a good-story-fairy-tale-ending regardless of her research. By the end of the book there was no clear correlation between what she had learned and her big decision to get remarried. (Spoiler alert: She does accept the proposal.)
Finally, can risky behavior become addicting? My previous book review of Habits of a Happy Brain has me speculating that you can…. After all, risky behavior is tied to emotions, and people get into behavioral cycles all the time as a result of this connection. Consider those who are addicted to gambling. Or those who seek “the travel high.” I think back to my early twenties, when I volunteered abroad. During vacation time, I traveled the country alone — a risky decision that resulted in a feeling of personal triumph. Since that time, I frequently long for that same daring feeling.
Ultimately, The Art of Risk will not give you tips on truly becoming a better risk taker, but it will give you answers about why you may or may not be a high-risk, high-reward type of person. If nothing else, it might be worth reading just for that.
The Art Of Risk: The New Science Of Courage, Caution, and Chance
National Geographic Society, March 2016
Hardcover, 288 pages