In her new book, “The Art of Risk,” Sukel explores why some people are more comfortable with risk than others, how risk shapes our lives, and attempts to explore how we can manage risk more successfully.
Mike Yawn: Risk means different things to different people, but you came up with a working definition of risk in your book.
Kayt Sukel: Simply put, risk is a decision that involves uncertainty with a potentially negative outcome. It could be going “all in” in a poker game or wearing a white blouse on a rainy day. It could be all manner of things.
MY: Speaking of going “all in,” you mention in the book that your boyfriend proposed to you and you went “all in” and said, “Yes.” Is that still accurate?
KS: Yes, I am married! Otherwise, I would have had to make the acknowledgement section a bit different.
MY: In your book and in other studies, it’s made pretty clear that people aren’t good at predicting outcomes.
KS: Our brain tries to predict what is coming next, but given the amount of information we face, it would be overwhelmed unless we use shortcuts. Our past experiences, our learning, they help our brain hone in on the things on which we need to focus. But sometimes those shortcuts aren’t applicable, and that’s why the book is called “The Art of Risk.” It’s more of an art than a science.
MY: People’s acceptance of risk, as you point out in the book, is a function of both biology and environment.
KS: Two parts of the brain are very important for influencing how comfortable a person is seeking risk: the basal ganglia, which is sometimes referred to as the reptilian part of the brain; and the frontal cortex, which is the seat of executive control. The basal ganglia shouts, “Yes, I want rewards! I want excitement—food, sex, money, prestige!” And the frontal lobe says, “That stuff is great, but maybe this isn’t the best time” or “If you do that you’ll probably end up in jail!” These two parts of the brain are tangling all the time and biology helps shape which of these brain regions may be more influential. But our family environment, our peers, and the life cycle have considerable sway.
MY: You’ve previously researched stress and early childhood. How does that connect to “The Art of Risk”?
KS: Risk is often seen negatively, but without some kind of risk, we wouldn’t be able to learn and grow. Some freedom to take risks is important for healthy brain development in children. Similarly, stress can motivate people. We don’t want chaos, but a certain amount of stress helps us learn and grow. Risk and stress in your children can be managed to an extent, but there is a big difference between a parent who permits a ten-year old to walk to school after discussing safety with them, and a parent who sends their five-year old to the store alone to fetch cigarettes for them. It’s important for parents to know the difference so that children take part in healthy learning, growth, brain development and, ultimately, decision making.
MY: How old are your two children and, as you were writing this book, did you at times think of risk through a parental lens?
KS: I have a son who is 10 as well as a nine-year old daughter. And, yes, I thought of them extensively as I was writing. It’s funny, from the time my son was a baby, I strapped him on my back, and we travelled all over the world. He’s been to more than 40 countries, snorkeled with sharks, and has ziplined through jungles. But last winter he busted his ankle sledding! Of all the activities on which to get hurt, it seemed like the most mundane activity ever. But, you know, we live in Texas where there isn’t much snow, so he doesn’t sled often. It makes sense that this would be an activity where he hasn’t had enough experience to fully assess the risks. I can either say, “Everything is terribly dangerous, and I have to wrap my child in bubble wrap to keep him safe,” or I can say, “Let’s learn from this, take corrective action, and do our best to avoid this kind of accident on the next sledding attempt.” I want him to learn how to do cool things; sliding down a hill wicked fast is one of them.
MY: You discuss training as a way to manage risk and decision making. You use the term “deliberate practice,” which is different than just “practice.”
KS: I think of “practice” as what my kids do at the piano each afternoon. They plunk away without much thought, and it’s not getting them very far. Deliberate practice is practicing at the edge of your performance ability. Athletes, classical musicians, and artists do this all the time. They choose a project that exceeds their abilities and they fail over and over again until they get a step ahead. It sounds like torture, but it’s how people learn the difficult piano piece, or shave seconds off their run time, or learn a complicated play in sports. It helps your mind assess what risks are involved and the parameters within which success can be achieved.
MY: If you were a bookseller, which shelf would you put your book on?
KS: Perhaps science or business or self-help, but whatever shelf it falls on, I hope that people see it as interesting non-fiction. I think this book is really for anybody who wants to understand more about the way we make decisions or how to make better decisions.
MY: It has elements of a memoir.
MY: Tell us why you thought it important to include your experiences.
KS: The questions I was asking were personal questions, but I don’t think they are limited to just me. They affect everyone, and I wanted to put context of what I have faced, and why I went on the quest to find some answers.
MY: You participated in many activities in different fields to research your book. Was witnessing brain surgery the most interesting?
KS: Yes. It was fascinating. I was able to observe the surgery from a close distance. It’s amazing to see the skull opened on a live human while doctors are cutting into really delicate tissue. The doctor was using his brain—specifically the frontal lobe—to control his actions and mitigate the risk to the patient to successfully repair the brain of the patient.
Mike Yawn directs the Center for Law, Engagement and Politics at Sam Houston State University.