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The Art of Risk: The New Science of Courage, Caution, and Chance Hardcover – March 1, 2016
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"A rallying call to all of us to take a chance – to become better risk-takers. And it is inspiring." —New Scientist
"[Sukel] delves into the economics and neuroscience of risk and interviews people who make dicey decisions everyday to learn what holds people back or encourages them to take chances." —Scientific American
"Cultural scientist Kayt Sukel breaks down why aggressive entrepreneurs are as thoughtful, if notmore thoughtful, than more conservative businesspeople, and how smart risktaking is both importantand necessary to succeed in career and in life."
—Inc.com, naming The Art of Risk “a book that will upgrade your life in 2016.”
"Kayt Sukel blends self-help and neuroscience to explain why we do what we do when faced with risk." —National Post
"Why take a chance? It turns out there are neurological and psychological reasons, as science writer Kayt Sukel sets forth in The Art of Risk.The approachable study includes interviews with 'professional risk-takers' including a brain surgeon, a gambler and a firefighter." —The Sacramento Bee
"Interesting for both the science and the personal stories, this thoughtful book will prompt a range of readers to reexamine their lives and motives."
"The author is a blithe and personable guide to risk-taking, sharing her own experiences and getting research scientists to open up about their findings."
“This book is a road map for understanding boldness. Read it and get ready for a bolder lifestyle.”
—Todd B. Kashdan, professor of psychology, George Mason University, and author of The Upside of Your Dark Side
"[The Art of Risk] uses new research and real-world situations to help readers reframe risky decisions and make the most of them." —Houston Press
"[A] helpful guide to how people can use risk-taking to their advantage...highly recommended." —Midwest Book Review
“The book is carefully planned and well-constructed. Readers are in for an enlightening treat.”-San Francisco Book Review
“Kayt is a brilliant writer and her new book The Art of Risk is one of my favorite reads of 2016.”-Chistine Gilbert of almostfearless.com
About the Author
Kayt Sukel earned a BS in cognitive psychology from Carnegie Mellon University and a MS in engineering psychology from the Georgia Institute of Technology. A passionate traveler and science writer, her work has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, the New Scientist, USA Today, The Washington Post, ISLANDS, Parenting, the Bark, American Baby, and the AARP Bulletin. She is a partner at the award-winning family travel website Travel Savvy Mom (www.travelsavvymom.com), and is also a frequent contributor to the Dana Foundation's many science publications (www.dana.org). Much of her work can be found on her website, www.kaytsukel.com, including stories about out-of-body experiences, computer models of schizophrenia, and exotic travel with young children. She lives outside Houston and frequently overshares on Twitter as @kaytsukel.
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A typical description of research is: "At around the age of ten, urged on by sex steroids and other important growth hormones, the brain starts to prune dopamine receptors in the striatum, an important part of the basal ganglia, and the prefrontal cortex. This pruning changes the relative density of receptors in the circuit linking the area of the brain involved with processing rewards (the basal ganglia) and the area of the brain implicated in inhibition and control (the prefrontal cortex). The changes in receptors mean that dopamine is flowing somewhat unencumbered. And the result is a mesocortical limbic system that is a bit out of sync, with amped up emotion and motivation coupled with dampened inhibition and long-term planning capability. Basically you see an increase in gas and a decrease in brakes. . ."
There's a lot of jargon in there, which adds nothing to the sense of the paragraph but makes it sound more weighty and scientific. I also count eight different metaphors from gardening to electrical to automotive. These drive the readers impressions, but they are not very accurate. The paragraph does not make sense. We're told that dopamine receptors in two areas of the brain are reduced, which changes their relative density. But reductions in two places leaves relative density unchanged. Reduced receptors leads to "somewhat unencumbered" flows. Leaving out the irrelevant "somewhat," this suggests that receptors are what encumber flows, which is not true. This increased dopamine flow somehow "amps up" activity one place it happens, and dampens activity in the other. Without any explanation of this stuff, the paragraph is pompous blather.
At a higher level, the paragraph suggests this is an integrated understanding. But how does anyone know dopamine receptors are pruned? A bit of reflection will show that this result has to come from animal studies, and animals are not necessarily a good model of either human adolescence or human higher-level brain development. Increased dopamine flows and activity in various brain regions can be inferred in humans experimentally, but links to behavior are difficult to establish. Only by stitching together a lot of different experiments, none of which are directly related to why a teenager takes stupid risks, and many of which have small samples and statistically tenuous results, and all of which rely on unproven assumptions and ignored complexities; can you begin to discuss human brain development in terms like these. That's fine for professional scientists who understand the limitations of the theory and evidence, but when dressed up like this as pop neurobehavioralism, it gives a seriously misleading picture. Crude metaphors and speculation are presented as if they are established theory.
This problem is exacerbated because the author's subject spans many scientific fields, and the experimenters are usually working at the boundaries of one or more of them. It's probably true that some of the most innovative and important science is done at intersections, but it's definitely true that the fringes are more comfortable places for nonrigorous science, unreproducible results, unskeptical review and experiments designed to get attention more than to increase understanding. Questions like why teenagers do such stupid things and why men take more risks than women have evolutionary, neurological, genetic, behavioral and social explanations. These are individually complex and can overlap in complex ways. It's easy to make reasonable-sounding pronouncements backed by anecdote, simple thought experiment, intuition or small-scale highly artificial experiment; it's not wise to rely on such things.
The author defines "risk" as "a decision or behavior that has a significant probability of resulting in a negative outcome." While the word "risk" is often used in this way, a more precise term is "danger." There are four reasons people do dangerous things: for the thrill of it, because they don't realize the danger, as an unavoidable byproduct of something else they want to do or because the probability of positive outcomes outweighs the negative. The author's primary concern is with the first, the book is motivated by her nostalgia for her risky past (skydiving, traveling, mountain climbing) with her boring present (steady job, suburban house, kid). Most of the research she cites concerns the last, how the brain weighs potential bad and good outcomes to come up with a choice. The middle two, in my opinion. are the most important for the kind of life risk management advice the author wants to give, and they are largely absent in the book. Moreover, by not distinguishing among these motivations, the author manages to mix dissimilar material and muddle conclusions.
A more expansive definition of risk would also include opportunities, behavior with a significant probability of a positive outcome. Meeting new people, starting a blog, taking up a new activity, applying for a job; these are the flip side of what the author calls risk. I consider opportunities more important than dangers, I think people lose more by failing to take advantage of opportunities than by exposing themselves to too many dangers. Moreover it's opportunities that change the world more than dangers.
Then there is a third concept of risk, something you dial up or down to accomplish a goal. Sports teams behind in a game dial up the risk--throwing "Hail Mary" passes to the end-zone, pulling the goalie, throwing up quick three-point shots--while teams that are ahead dial risk back by slowing things down and only running conservative plays. Portfolio managers typically chose a target level of risk and try not to come in either higher or lower. Project managers analyze whether to run things in a high-risk (win big or fail fast) way or a low-risk (make sure it's on time and underbudget) one.
I think any "art of risk" book should consider dangers, opportunities and optimal risk levels as an integrated concept. Focusing entirely on dangers gives a distorted picture. At the very least, the book should discuss the distinction to put its material in context.
I can recommend this book as pleasant to read, with entertaining anecdotes and interviews, and some superficial summaries of neurobehavioral experiments. It will like provoke a lot of interesting thinking and further reading. But it's not a precise or rigorous treatment of its subject. It raises some interesting questions, but doesn't push to get answers.
To be honest, I'm struggling to keep working through the book and I doubt I will ever finish it (unless one counts skimming and skipping ahead to the end "finishing"); the author and me, well, we're not on the same page. Sadly, there was absolutely zero connection between me and the material.
I guess the first obstacle was style; I just didn't connect with it. Every time I picked the book up I felt like I was reading something I found on the table at the dentist's office. In other words, something to pick up and read a few paragraphs, put down, and never think about again (until the next office visit).
The second obstacle was the "me" focus/first-person perspective/buddy approach the author adopts throughout the book. I guess some would argue it makes a dull/tedious subject palatable (there's a bit of irony; as if "risk" is dull, tedious, and boring!). I guess the idea is that the author serves as an intermediary; a conduit/guide/pal through whom risk becomes more accessible and understandable. Perhaps this is the new literary style; to make books read more like long magazine essays. Okay, but it didn't work for me. Instead, for me, the author got in the way of the subject because the danger in this style of writing is that the reader forms a relationship with the material based on the relationship the reader feels with the author. If you "feel" like you "like" the author, then odds are you'll "like" the material. Of course, the opposite is also true. In this case, the latter occurred. I didn't connect with the author; hence, I didn't connect with the material. Frankly, it was off-putting.
My non-love affair started right off. The author, in describing her life's arc, seems to be making much ado about nothing. We all become less the risk taker as we get older as maturity kicks in and we do a better job of realizing we're not immortal, our bodies don't heal like they did when we were younger, and we generally have more responsibilities and take them more seriously than when we're younger. This is not us becoming more cowardly, it's us understanding others depend upon us. To ascribe something positive to the middle-aged person who starts acting again like a 22-year old is getting the story backwards; that person is not some sort of reborn risk-taking hero, that person is acting the childish fool. I'm sorry, but no amount of spin makes this vice a virtue.... And the book ended with a return to the author's life's arc. Meh. Don't care about her divorce, her singlehood, or her whirlwind romance resulting in getting married after a short courtship. Don't see any of this as "risk." The author does, but not me. Just didn't work.
I was confused how in the first chapter the author winds up stating (following her definition of "risk") that risk-taking is something we all do everyday. Mmmm, okay, based on her definition, yes. But if that's the case, doesn't it render "null and void" the next bit where she writes about "natural born risk-takers"? Based on what she had just stated, wouldn't we all then be "natural born risk-takers"? Kinda seems that what she's saying by the end of the book. Or did I miss something? Additionally, isn't "risk" often a matter of perspective in that what seems like "risk" to the untrained observer is not risk at all to the pro undertaking the act? I guess I left the book saying, a) "I'm confused," and b) Who cares?"
Years (and years and years) ago - when I was a young, wee lad of a lieutenant in my first assignment as an armored cavalry platoon leader in Germany - a very sage "old man" (my troop commander) drilled home to us why understanding "what risk is" was important. This wasn't a one-time talk so having heard it over and over again it became seared into my memory: "There are three courses of action in life: the 'sure thing,' the 'risk,' and the 'gamble.' The only difference between the three is the amount of 'control' you probably have over the outcome. As a matter of course, we generally opt for the 'sure thing.' As officers, we should all understand that we never 'gamble.' We don't gamble because then we are betting the lives of our men on something we have no control over. And officers don't do that because our troopers are here because they're out on loan from their moms back home. So what sets the cavalryman apart from all the other Army folk is that when necessary a cavalryman will take the 'risk.' So take risks, yes. But never gamble." Yes, much of this was "U.S. Cavalry" hoo-ha and bravado; the "Cav" ain't the only place in Uncle Sam's military that thinks this way. But it was still an important point to be learned: using "The Old Man's" definition I came to learn that people truly are risk-averse but in an odd, almost perverse, way. Most times folks opt for the safe/sure thing. However, they also seem inclined to skip "risk" and move right on to "gamble" (lotteries, casinos, etc.). It seems so extreme: why do people who generally want safety and security 24/7 jump at the opportunity to throw "it" away over an activity they know in both their heads and hearts they have absolutely no control over the outcome? Is it "existential malaise"? Is it a re-creation of childhood (i.e., where we convince ourselves that the gamble has no real consequence; it's just play)? Is it that in the end we're all addicts of some sort? What? In the end, "The Answer" seems to be that "risk" is actually nothing more than decision-making and that our life can be made better if we were to become better decision-makers. How we do that is made possible by the resurgence of the behaviorist school whereby all behavior is reduced to biology/organic processes that can be trained to some extent via conditioning (thereby harnessing biological impulses to the power of cognitive insight). This might be entirely true; if so, I find it unfulfilling/sterile, reductionist, and more than a bit sad. The book's thesis is more Huxley's "Brave New World" than Homer's "Iliad" and I'm not comforted by this (despite the cheer-leading tone of the author). Perhaps I've become a bit of an anachronism, but I think there is still much to be said for character, moral fortitude, and "true grit" and that these things are not just the result of someone's gene pool. I also think the author is devaluing "true risk" by making simple decision-making seem heroic. I guess the "Frontier" truly is closed; to be heroes today we have to make the mundane task of everyday choice seem heroic. I know some readers of this review will say I'm missing the point. Could very well be (probably is) true. It could all come down to a matter of definition; the author and I do not share the same meaning of the word "risk." So I guess I chalk it up to what I said at the beginning: that I was hoping for something quite different from what the book actually sets out to deliver.
Let me end by saying that this could very well be an excellent book. Maybe there is something here. I didn't see it, but it could be all on me. So let's be charitable and give it the benefit of the doubt: 3 stars it is. For me, however, the cover perfectly illustrated my experience trying to work through the book: frayed nerves. But I'm not giving up. I owe it to me and the author to see if it's me, the subject, the author, or a combination of any/all of these so I bought the author's first book (Dirty Minds: How Our Brains Influence Love, Sex, and Relationships). We'll see.
Told from the perspective of the author, as she seeks answers she can apply to her own life. Well worth the read!
"The Art of Risk" is more than a look at the art and science behind risk, it's a bit of a parenting book, too--that owner's manual for teens you always wish you had.
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