Are risk-takers genetically drawn to jump off cliffs, gamble scads of cash in poker tournaments, and race into burning buildings?
Kayt Sukel, who dubs herself a lapsed risk-taker, sets out to answer that question and more in The Art of Risk.
The book is a product of its author's personal journey. In high school she told her father she'd like to be a writer when she grew up. He suggested computers. She ended up studying cognitive psychology—how humans interact with systems—as an undergrad at Carnegie Mellon before earning a master's in engineering psychology and working in the area of computer usability. Then as a jokingly self-described “dirty, liberal hippie,” she married an active-duty soldier and found herself unemployed and a new mom living in Europe while her husband was stationed in Iraq. What to do but write about it?
“I woke up in a completely different world,” she says. “I took these experiences as an ex-pat and new mom and started selling essays.” Now divorced and raising her son in Houston, she realized the risk-taker of her youth has become rather conventional. “There was no tree too high to climb, no puzzle too hard to solve and no peer too intimidating to approach,” she writes of her youth in the book. She's found herself now in a “reverse” midlife crisis. “I’ve joined the PTA and bought myself a nice, reliable station wagon. I realize I'm much more of a spectator than a participant in life. And it bothers me.”
Naturally, she approached the topic as a writer whose work often looks at the science of the mind—her first book This Is Your Brain on Sex examines the neuroscience of love and sex. “I wanted to understand why I was doing it,” she says of risk. “Was the answer in biology? Could I find a way to take risks without having to sacrifice the security I wanted for my son?”
She discovered risk-takers are much more methodical than we may give them credit for. “We talk about risk-taking in extremes,” she says. “It's either going to make us great or it's going to kill us. And there's this other thing: we mistake risk-taking for impulsivity and stupidity. We put Steve Jobs in the same category as the dumb-ass kid down the street who decides to skateboard off of a cliff.”
Sukel talked to risk-takers in diverse fields for the book—everyone from entrepreneurs to Navy Seals. “The funny thing is all of them said ‘I'm not a risk taker,’ ” Sukel says. Take Alex, a rock climber who does it with the safety benefit of ropes. “What you don't see is he worked on it for a really long time,” she says. “He probably practiced with ropes. We only see the end result.”
The book examines our brains in relation to risk. The basal ganglia tells us to push the gas on adventure while the frontal cortex tells us to hold off on taking foolish chances. “There's an intricate dance between brain regions,” she says. “Understanding the science is important. Knowledge is half the battle. We need to understand the automatic processes that occur when we encounter a situation. Is this really fear or just intensity? Knowing that helps you to regulate emotions and tamp down stress.”
Risk-taking is also about being willing to try new things, she says. “The brain loves novelty,” Sukel says. “The brain is in the prediction business so you can best deal with the world around you. In a novel situation, the brain is like ‘What is this? How do I deal with it?’ ”
That’s attractive to sensation seekers, among whom Sukel still counts herself. “Those with a predisposition to sensation seeking find a way to get that kick,” she says. “But there are so many domains where you can get it. You can be a top-notch downhill skier. You can get that kick from classical piano by pushing yourself to the edge of your abilities. You can have lots of extramarital affairs. But there are lots of healthy ways to find it.”
Sukel’s 10-year-old son has snorkeled with sharks and traveled a zip line, but last year in Wyoming he broke his ankle sledding. “It's been a fascinating lesson that there's not just risk in extreme sports, but even in these little things. It emphasizes that uncertainty can lurk around any corner. We have to have the reserves and knowledge to deal with it. The knowledge will help you to be successful.”
Next up for Sukel? She's considering writing about how the mind interacts with art and beauty. “What is it about a painting by monet that moves so many of us?” she says. Or it may be time to take a bigger risk and write a first novel. Either way she knows the secret to risk: plan it out and be prepared.Joe M. O’Connell, author of Evacuation Plan: A Novel from the Hospice, is based in Austin.