MAY 28, 2021
I HEARD A WILD STORY the other day. Authorities arrested a Michigan restaurant owner on the run. Her crime: She would not close her restaurant.
She had refused to comply with the state’s public health orders and continued with indoor dining when all other establishments closed. She also refused to enforce the mask mandate. She’d been fined, her business license was pulled, and still, she carried on as if COVID-19 didn’t exist. Police issued a warrant for her arrest, and she fled. Some would sympathize, and others would balk at her flagrant disregard for the health and safety of her customers and employees.
The biggest question for me was why she would risk her reputation, her freedom, and her health for this particular stand. Was it worth more than her bottom line?
Michele Wucker’s philosophical assessment of risk in her new book, You Are What You Risk: The New Art and Science of Navigating an Uncertain World, seeks to address such burning questions as, “What risks are appropriate to take? What justifies weighing one risk over another? How do public policies encourage or discourage risk-taking, whether ‘good’ or ‘bad’?” She weaves together basic psychological concepts, socioeconomic topics, anthropological studies, and narratives of choice about chancy decisions.
There’s also a slew of neologistic terms suited to this area of study: risk fingerprint (“the combination of personality traits, experiences, and social context that is a core component of each person’s identity”) or risk appetite (“the amount and type of risk you are willing to take — particularly the loss you are willing to suffer — in exchange for the opportunity to pursue a specified possible gain”) — to name a couple. Her explanations and philosophy aren’t overly technical, which feeds its accessibility. She keeps her explanations simple.
Wucker’s book is timely. This era of COVID-19 has caused division, confusion, and desperation. In 2020, the number of new business applications jumped nearly 27 percent from 2019. As the pandemic has wreaked financial hardships in the United States, people and businesses are widely redefining risk. In the food service industry, restaurants have struggled to maintain staff as workers have used the forced time off to explore other career options. Her book guides those who may need a proper push forward.
The preface, which could have been a chapter on its own at 11 pages, opens with a story of a stubborn family member who needs medical care but just won’t seek it out. In this case, it’s Wucker’s Bobonne (“a Belgian nickname derived from the French bonnemère for grandmother.”) She explains:
[O]nce an abdominal aneurysm grows to five centimeters, doctors believe the risks of operating are lower than those of leaving it in. Bobonne […] didn’t let them operate until it hit 6.3 centimeters. Even then, her adult children had to beg her to agree to the surgery.
She wasn’t crazy. Hospitals have never been welcoming establishments, and they can be viral factories — in the last year, utterly overwhelmed. The morning before my own appointment to be scanned for breast cancer, I considered canceling. There was no rationale behind my decision, just a gut feeling. What makes Bobonne’s case bewildering is that the surgery seems far less dangerous than previous decisions she’d made in World War II when “she delivered messages for the Resistance on her bicycle to keep the German occupation from becoming permanent.”
Wucker reflects “on the way people deal (or don’t) with risk” and that it “has generated a slew of other questions not just about Bobonne but about all of us and the role that our relationships with risk play in the decisions we make.”
She cuts You Are What You Risk into three sections: “Risk Perceptions and Personalities,” “Attitudes, Judgment, and Tolerance,” and “Behaviors.” Wucker scales dizzyingly between the micro and macro level of risk analysis as she transitions through the chapters — moving from risk assessment on a personal level to a professional level (with a heavy leaning toward the latter.) She leaps across anecdotes, conversations, studies, and lessons at a blistering pace.
Chapter One opens with an astonishing tale, asking:
What makes a sixty-three-year-old woman decide to try to become the first person to ride over Niagara Falls? That’s what Annie Edson Taylor did in 1901, traversing the iconic waterfall in a souped-up pickle barrel as part of a dubious get-rich-quick scheme.
But it would not be this ridiculous stunt that caused Taylor’s ruin. Her manager swindled her, and she spent her declining years in poverty, selling memorabilia of her ride to tourists at the falls.
Hers is one of the many lessons that Wucker tries to impart to the reader: whether we choose to take a risk or not, we cannot always control the outcome. The story of Taylor drew up the memory of master illusionist Harry Houdini’s untimely death. Houdini, who beguiled and bewildered audiences worldwide, perished as a result of a ruptured appendix at 52. He had once claimed that he could withstand hard punches to the abdomen, and a man decided to test this theory without warning Houdini. He challenged mortality at every turn, performing death-defying stunts, yet his demise would come while sitting on a couch.
Wucker writes, too, of Angelenos pursuing an acting career, whose choices may read as crazy — a pipe dream — “depending on our relationship to them and our biases and assumptions.” If the actor’s effort “goes tremendously wrong, we may condemn them.” And, if they make it, we celebrate them. “With the benefit of hindsight, we judge based on whether risk-takers succeed or not.”
The negative connotation surrounding the word risk creates our snap judgments about decision-making, something she attempts to change for good:
Throughout this book I will use the term “risk” as a value-neutral concept: one that can be good or bad. For “negative” risks — things to be avoided, which people are likely to perceive as having more of a potential downside than an upside, like continuing to eat cheeseburgers when your doctor says you are showing signs of heart disease, or standing in the middle of a golf course in a thunderstorm — I’ll use the term danger. For “positive” risks — those seen as having more of an upside, like taking a promotion or starting a business — I’ll say opportunity. But in both cases, it’s important to remember that both involve uncertainty: Failure or success is not a given.
Would Taylor have still died penniless if she didn’t take a trip over the falls? The risk-averse may lean toward “no,” while the risk-prone may say “she had to take the chance.” Either way, it’s impossible to know. Wucker argues that “there is no ‘ideal’ risk type” — risk is risk no matter who’s taking action. For Taylor, it was an opportunity. She did not act on a whim; she did the research, tested her plan, and went in confident that she would succeed. As Wucker writes,
Don’t let your preconceptions about what someone is willing to risk get in the way. If you have doubts about what someone thinks about a risk, ask; don’t assume. Do not underestimate the value of an open and frank conversation about how you think about risk. Know the difference between risk aversion and risk savvy — and why it matters.
She also touches on the #MeToo movement, however briefly, and how it “demonstrates the connection between poor personal risk decisions and business outcomes — not just the consequences when offenders are caught but also the impact on the victims.” She goes on:
A friend shared the difficult choice that she faced after someone she met at a conference drugged her and sexually assaulted her, leaving her alone and bleeding in a foreign country. The trauma turned into a personal crisis that she could see would affect her professionally if she did not deal with it. Back at work, she was standing in front of an audience of two hundred people, giving a presentation while hiding the trauma she felt, and realized that she had to take a leave from work to heal emotionally. “If I had stayed at work, I would have brought my whole team down with me,” she said.
But considering how prevalent this movement is, she doesn’t linger on it for long.
The book’s main quarry is what Wucker calls the “gray rhino,” a probable, high-impact threat, yet one we all too often look past. It’s a callback to her earlier book, The Gray Rhino: How to Recognize and Act On the Obvious Dangers We Ignore, but you do not need to read the former to understand this one. Here, she acknowledges her own tensions:
I was uncomfortable when interviewers asked me for examples of my own personal gray rhinos. Sharing my own vulnerabilities was too much of a risk for my taste! Most of the time, I stuck to the story […] about how I finally learned to go to the dentist regularly after needing gum surgery. But as I interviewed people for this book, I felt that it was only fair to delve deeper into my own relationship with risk, to the issues I wrangled or ignored, how those changed over time, and how my personal and professional gray rhinos intersected.
Wucker tends to view the individual as part of a greater whole — something the average citizen struggles to do. On this point, she quotes Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, and Thierry Malleret of Monthly Barometer: “When considered in isolation, individual risks — whether economic, geopolitical, societal, or environmental in character — give the false impression that they can be contained or mitigated.” Be it global warming, preparation for the next pandemic, or police reform, the individual believes they lack the ability to effect change, not realizing the insidiousness of collective inaction. “In an interdependent world, risks amplify each other and, in so doing, have cascading effects,” write Schwab and Malleret. Wucker warns that inaction is also a risk. Or, in her terms, a danger.
Yet an optimistic air flows from page to page, especially when she tells stories of risk-taking that overwhelmingly end with positive outcomes. The inspirational factor looms large, and while it is not precisely unwelcome, I craved the moments where Wucker displays uninhibited honesty. “Western democracies, in particular,” she writes in one such passage, “pride themselves on the illusion that their economies are based on free markets when in reality the rules of the game tip the playing field in favor of companies and industries with well-paid lobbyists.” I wanted more of this critique.
Wucker’s ambiguity registers as odd. She’ll open a discussion on politics without being frank about her own stance, though leftist undertones remain. One of the risks that Wucker seems unwilling to take is that the reader disagree with her about structural inequities that challenge the notion of pure risk and pure reward.
You Are What You Risk is ambitious in the vast territory she covers — claustrophobically contained in one book. It projects a lack of direction and focus. I began to wonder about the “you” in You Are What You Risk. Repeated references to the business world had me wondering if this was an all-encompassing philosophical take on risk for a broad audience or a motivational book for budding entrepreneurs. You Are What You Risk promises strategies to help readers thrive in business, life, and the world, but the precise aim seems to be the marketplace, where risk is practically a constitutional factor.
Still, the weakness of this book doubles as its strength. Wucker offers a cultured, societal, gendered, and generational look at risk across the world. Her citation of familiar models we already use to measure risk, the wobbly Myers-Briggs personality inventory, differing national attitudes toward chanciness, and basic psychological concepts (fight or flight, nature versus nurture) tread on pre-paved ground, making it easier for the reader to travel along as she introduces new information.
Across the book, Wucker maintains, “We humans could use more guidance on how to decide what risks are worth it or not: in other words, what we care about most and why we take chances that may not pay out.” We can soothe anxieties in uncertain times by eliminating question marks. But what works even better is a firm understanding of the self and the degree to which inherent risk can be tolerated and perhaps even enjoyed. “The better you understand and evolve your relationship with risk,” she writes, “the more likely you are to succeed in any of these realms.”
But Wucker avoids hand-holding. Instead, she trusts the reader to draw their own conclusions and make their own decisions. She refrains from pressuring the reader to adopt her risk-taking philosophy, imparting a strong sense of agency. This can be frustrating for someone who requires more guidance. She impresses patience onto the reader — a risky act in itself.
As some of us prepare to re-enter a world unfamiliar to us, we are presented with a rare opportunity. Do we go forth with a constrained version of ourselves, or do we open ourselves to possibility?
Wucker asserts that millennials’ logic “too often involves gritting your teeth in a job you’re not crazy about because it’s the expected price of rising up the corporate ladder to better jobs” — that they fear losing a potential stepping-stone toward happiness. But others have a different attitude:
Michael […] got dressed for his first interview for an important consulting job, he put on a clean pair of pants and matching blazer with a T-shirt underneath. It was a clean, fashionable, even trendy T-shirt, with no tears or messages or pictures that people might take the wrong way. But it wasn’t the dress shirt and tie most people would have chosen. And this was in the late 1990s, before the technology boom made business casual — and even casual casual — more common in work environments, and formal business wear could get you laughed out of some interviews.
The man interviewing Michael asked him if he knew he was taking a risk with his wardrobe choice. Michael answered that in his mind, he hadn’t taken a risk because, in his view, “A risk is the possibility of an unwanted outcome.” You see, Michael wanted to work someplace he knew he could be himself. So if the company didn’t take him as he was, he didn’t want the job. They hired him.
For Michael, the risk wasn’t losing the job; it was being stuck in one where he’d be miserable.
Risk changes depending on the point of view. Wucker defines it both pragmatically and poetically as “a possibility or an estimated probability. Risk is a muscle. Risk is a privilege. Risk is what you love or what you fear. What you are willing to risk signals your sense of purpose. Every risk is a choice; every choice is a risk.”