You Are What You Risk: The New Art and Science of Navigating an Uncertain World
April 16, 2021
Michele Wucker's new book on risk ranges from how it defines our personal identity to international policy and diplomacy. Beyond understanding risk on a personal, an academic, and even a geopolitical level, what I think readers will be left with is a better understanding of the topic that Wucker ultimately uncovers—reality.
You Are What You Risk: The New Art and Science of Navigating an Uncertain World by Michele Wucker, Pegasus Books
When a novel coronavirus began spreading around the world and upending everything from our daily routines to the global economy, many described it as a “Black Swan” event—something completely unforeseen, and with an outsized impact. But even the author who coined the term, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, rejected that classification because such an epidemic was in fact very predictable—had, in fact, been predicted by public health experts and others for years.
COVID-19 is, instead, practically the definition of a Gray Rhino—a highly probable event that we should have seen coming and been better prepared for. In its most unfortunate form, it is a threat that is ignored or neglected until it rears its massive head and hooves and tramples us. But, had we heeded the woman who coined this phrase, Michele Wucker, and learned to embrace rather than ignore the looming threat so many saw coming, we could have turned it into an opportunity—to work together and strengthen public health infrastructure perhaps, or maybe to understand that our well-being as a people is not confined within national borders, to enact policies both public and private that would build more resilience and redundancy into everything from our supply chain to our social safety net.
I remember reading Wucker’s book The Gray Rhino in early 2016 and thinking, “there is something different here.” She is from Wisconsin, and there was something about her voice that felt familiar, but her book didn’t fit neatly into any category. It was a topic that traversed the globe but was intensely personal at the same time. If I could describe the topic of that book in one word, it would be reality.
Her new book—about risk—leans even more into reality, exploring it in an equally uncategorizable terrain. It begins with a story about the grandmother’s reluctance to go to the doctor and ends with a call for a new language to discuss and way to address risk on a global scale—and it all makes perfect sense packaged together. If anything, the Gray Rhino that is COVID-19 helps us understand why this approach makes sense. The risks it poses, and the ways we’ve needed (and still need) to address them, are both personal and global in nature. As Wucker writes:
Many people have realized just how bad things can get when governments and citizens fail to recognize obvious dangers and act to prevent or at least minimize the damage.
Risk has always been a part of life, to the point that for most of human existence life was risk. The two were inseparable—everywhere one looked was a hazard. But as we tempered the risk that comes with being alive in the natural world, we have created a world that is more defined by risks caused by human beings. We have built what German sociologist Ulrich Beck called a “Risk Society.”
There is so much going on between the covers of Wucker’s book: from how we define and manage our own personal relationship to risk, to how we relate and adapt to how those around us experience it, to the lens different cultures see risk through and how laws and norms help define their relationship to it, to the need to create a new conversation and new systems for all of it. But one thing she ultimately concludes is that:
The very origin of the clans, tribes, and city-states that eventually evolved into nations were created to pool risks and protect their members—essentially to give groups of people the confidence that they could survive a world of hazards. Though for a long time most people tended to think of citizenship as tied to a single nation-state, and though many still do, that way of thinking is obsolete.
For a world at risk, we need to go a step further. To reduce global risks, we need to consider ourselves as multilayered citizens: of our communities, of our nations, and of our shared planet.
You Are What You Risk begins by looking at the origins of the very word risk, how and when it entered the human lexicon and why. It is that thread, along with the author’s experience, that places this book firmly within the business book category. You’ll learn a lot about the economic, commercial, and financial origins of the word itself and how we understand it in our lives. From a public policy perspective, you’ll learn how:
The risk decisions that governments and policy makers make influence whether businesses and economies are creative, innovative, and thriving—or hidebound, depressed, and decaying.
But it ranges from our personal identity to international policy and diplomacy. Beyond understanding risk on a personal, an academic, and even a geopolitical level, what I think readers will be left with is a better understanding of the topic that Wucker ultimately uncovers—reality. To live in reality is to understand risk, and that it is no longer confined to our daily lives or the life of the communities, countries, and nations we live in. We live in a Risk Society, and the risks caused by human activity span the globe. To address them, we must be able to talk together, and work together. Wucker writes of Ulrich Beck’s vision of the mindset shift we need to get there:
He framed the social structures of the future as David not against but rather plus Goliath.
We can understand risk as a danger, or as an opportunity, but it always exists on a spectrum. The choices we need to make for our future are not really binary in nature—good versus bad, us versus them—so much as they are about how we can begin navigating the reality of a Risk Society. There are no risk-free options, only uncertainty, creativity, and opportunity. Hopefully, we can learn to navigate it together.