Michele Wucker is the author of the new book You Are What You Risk: The New Art and Science of Navigating an Uncertain World. Her other books include The Gray Rhino. She lives in Chicago.
Q: What inspired you to write You Are What You Risk?
A: You Are What You Risk grew out of my third book, The Gray Rhino, which argues that we need to take a fresh look at the obvious, probable dangers that we’re more likely than we think —but not condemned— to downplay, neglect, or outright ignore.
Readers all around the world kept asking me how to apply gray rhino theory to their personal lives. Some of them just went ahead and applied it on their own: to health, family, career, finances. This organic response was so moving and powerful that I knew I had to respond to it.
But it took a while to figure out how because my professional background is in policy, finance, and business, not personal issues.
I finally figured it out when a friend, the CEO of a private equity firm, pointed out how investors tend to overlook red flags like drunk driving or domestic violence even though bad personal risk decisions can bring down companies.
So I started to look at why each person either faces down or ignores the gray rhinos charging at them. Our innate personalities are part of it, but so are the distinct environments, whether in personal relationships, organizations or cultures and societies.
That’s how I realized that I had an unusual but important perspective on the feedback loop among our personal, business, community, and national risk taking. All depend on creating a better understanding our relationships with risk and what habits and systems we can create to improve them.
And in fact, my policy work was all about making complex global issues more accessible to engage people outside of the insular policy wonk world.
There’s a huge cultural element too, both involving societies and organizations.
The Gray Rhino quickly became very big in China because people were attuned to risks and the need to respond to them, while in the United States I got a lot of pushback from people who insisted that crises were unforeseeable so-called “black swan events” even when many people had foreseen and warned about them.
And certain types of companies attract certain types of risk personalities, for better or for worse.
Q: What would you say are some of the most common perceptions and misconceptions about risk-taking?
A: People often miss an important question about how risky something is: “Compared to what?” Is starting your own business riskier than being bullied by a micro-managing and erratic boss in a job leading to nowhere? Is embarking on a raft journey across shark-infested waters riskier than near-certain death or starvation by staying in a violence-stricken homeland?
Risk involves choice. By some estimates, each of us makes 35,000 choices every single day. That’s a lot of choice and a lot of risk.
Another common misconception about risk involves stereotypes about gender and demographic groups. If I had a dollar for every time I see women or Millennials called “risk-averse,” I’d be very rich, but I’d still prefer that people stop using that term.
Risk-averse means taking the less risky option, all other things being equal. But all is rarely, if ever, equal.
A Millennial choosing between paying down student loan debt, keeping a rainy-day fund, or putting savings into a stock market at record price-earnings ratios is more likely risk-savvy than risk-averse by weighing the first two choices more heavily.
Similarly, women have a lot more experience taking certain kinds of risks than men do because some choices are inherently riskier for women than for men: walking down a dark alley or potentially making a misstep in a job considered to be “a man’s job,” to cite just two examples.
But the research shows that not only are women not more risk-averse by many traditional business measures, they are more likely to succeed as start-up founders. So many investors are taking a big risk by not having more confidence in women investors.
So, next time you find your mind wandering toward calling someone “risk-averse,” check yourself: risk-savvy more likely is the term you’re looking for.
Finally. people need to be a lot more aware of how many factors change the nature of a risk and our response to it.
Professional risk management often is about assessing risks and assigning probabilities to them. But once you get into it you realize just how subjective risk can be.
We may think of an adventurer or daredevil or entrepreneur as a big “risk taker,” but all of them tend to be systematic about reducing risks, so that things that would be extremely risky to someone unprepared are much less so for the professionals.
Q: What impact do you think the pandemic has had on people's willingness to take risks?
A: For many people, the pandemic has changed the calculations of one risk relative to another. In many ways, the looming evidence of our mortality has led people to take chances that they might not have otherwise done.
Just as many people who are diagnosed with cancer and survive change the direction of their lives when they go into remission, many people have responded to the pandemic by seeking to make their lives more meaningful.
Others have become more entrepreneurial because they no longer have the choice between a “regular” job and building their own business.
I also think the pandemic has made everyone more aware of risk and more active in assessing risks of daily activities that we once took for granted.
Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what do you hope readers take away from the book?
A: The title comes from its central premise: that your risk choices identify you just as distinctively as a real fingerprint in a forensic investigation.
By understanding the sometimes surprising reasons behind your risk attitudes and responses, you will gain powerful insights into how to make better decisions and thrive, especially in a world that right now seems very uncertain and risky.
I want people to come away with insights into their own risk decisions and what they can do to be more comfortable with pursuing opportunities and holding back from bad risk decisions.
I also want people to take the time to think about the risk decisions that the people around us make, and what we can do to make them more comfortable or more prudent.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I want You Are What You Risk to be the just the beginning of an important conversation that goes way beyond what’s between the front and back covers, so my work with this book is nowhere near done.
That involves talking with media, speechifying, and giving workshops around the risk skills individuals, organizations, and policy makers need for the future: mindfulness of our own risk fingerprints and relationships, risk empathy, and creating the right risk ecosystems including protective umbrellas that can catalyze innovation, creativity, and productivity.
So in addition to the public education element of my work, I may just add back in some policy work.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: There’s a story behind the risk fingerprint on the cover of the book. It’s hard to illustrate an abstract concept like risk, and I didn’t want to use a cliché like a roulette wheel or pair of dice. No thank you.
The designer had drafted up something using the Symbol of Chaos, which people from the gaming world might recognize: four two-ended arrows that crisscross in eight directions.
My business writer friends “got it” and recognized that the arrows symbolized choices and navigation. But other friends drew a blank and had no idea what it meant. So we went back to the drawing board, trying different maze designs.
One was a round icon, which a friend on Facebook said looked like a fingerprint. That was a facepalm moment, since there was a passage in the manuscript about risk fingerprints, which encompass identity, choices, and uncertainty.
I couldn’t believe that image hadn’t occurred to me already. As I point out often, we don’t always see the obvious as clearly as we might.
Because the book was still being revised, it was a great opportunity to flesh out the risk fingerprint idea more clearly. I am so glad I did because it works so well as a metaphor for our risk choices identifying —even defining— each one of us.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Michele Wucker.