Supplement to Chapter 6: Risk: Strategies Using Risk’s Many s and Hidden Transformative Powers
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Notes on risk:
How we perceive and process risk is an active field of study across many domains including psychology, sociology, cultural anthropology and even economics, and law. In each of these arenas, risk is defined and measured in different ways. In fact, “risk management” at the organizational level is a specialized field of expertise in many industries where analysts strive to think about, calculate about, and strategize about risk in systematic and rationale ways.
But that is not the way we typically deal with risk in our personal lives. For individual lived experiences, the psychology of personal risk is a very subjective way that we describe and deal with uncertainty. And while we do indeed perform a sort of risk calculus when we are faced with a risk-decision, it is not usually quantifiably measurable and certainly not always rationale. But there are some common and somewhat predictable ways we approach risk.
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On Cognitive Distortions re Risk:
Whether it’s physical risk, emotional risk, intellectual risk, or social risk, the biases and tendencies listed above all affect how we perceive risk in general. They feed into the overall risk calculus that we perform (mostly unconsciously) when we encounter a risk-decision. As we’ve just seen, they can distort objective cost-benefit or risk-reward calculus we might think we are doing for any given risk.
They can also feed into perceived identity threats. That is, if we perceive that any given risk might undermine or invalidate an identity we hold closely (role, social, or personal), we might avoid that risk simply to protect that identity — to save face, to not be embarrassed or humiliated in front of others. In my work, I encounter this most often with corporate employees in the most ordinary of circumstances — team meetings. My team and I have actually created workshops and tools for leaders on how to create team environments where people feel comfortable speaking up. The psychology involved is all about reducing identity threat in the many perceived risks and imagined horrible outcomes of simply speaking up. Going further — it is about the psychology of flipping the script on identity threats so that they become identity growth opportunities.
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So how do we build risk profiles for our experiencers? We ask them. In building my experiencer risk profiles, I begin with risk attitude overall, asking people how they think about and approach risk in general. Next I ask about risk appetites in the different risk categories. Asking about risk hypothetically is a good place to start, but inviting them to tell their stories of risk is more illuminating and can allow you to angle toward personal or professional types of risks:
• What kinds of things come to mind when you think about risks?
• How would you describe your attitude towards different kinds of risky situations?
• What have been some of the best and worst risk experiences you’ve had?
• Describe a time when you experienced too much risk and how you handled it.
• From 1 (low) to 5 (high), how would you rate your risk appetite for physical risks? For emotional risks? For intellectual risks? For social risks?
• Describe a time you have encouraged someone else to take a chance on something? How did you do it? How did it work out?
In my experience designs I’ve used different methods for asking these questions:
• Observation and casual conversation, where I strive to get a feel for a person’s ideas and comfort/discomforts about risks. With practice and attention this becomes easier and more accurate and is a good approach for shorter, less intense experience designs.
• Pre-experience surveys or essay requests. This is a more formal way to go that I’ve used in graduate level classes where we focus on experiential pedagogy.
• Individual interviews: Using many of the same types of questions from surveys but with the added advantage of probing deeper and having follow-ups to gain a better sense of where someone falls on the risk-spectrum.
• Cohort discovery groups: Assembling experiencer cohorts together for a guided discussions of risk is an excellent strategy for both building risk profiles and cohort bonding. As people share and compare their ideas and stories about previous risks, they begin to frame the new experience you’ve designed in terms of positive risk opportunity. I love this the discovery group approach and use it in pre, during, and post experience forums. By doing this, we can see how risk perceptions change over the duration of our designed experience.
If you think of these questions and discussions as data collection on risk perceptions, the next step is to build risk profiles with that data. You can then use these risk profiles in the design and delivery of your experience for particular people. There are three components to my risk profiles: Risk appetites, represented from experiencer self-ratings on a 1-5 scale and shown in the circle wedges below; Risk attitudes, and; Risk tolerances — both interpreted through interviews and presented in the notes section to the right of the circle wedges in the diagrams below. Here are two different examples of Risk Profiles from my own project designs… one is the blank template, the second is a filled-out version:
Finally, we need to recognize that these risk profile descriptors can change over time — over years or even during a single experience as the situation changes. This is another reason why it’s important to build reflection and meaning-making opportunities into your design (Chapter 12), so that such changes are noticed and explored.
In fact, if you are leading groups of children or teens, recognize that their cortical development is not yet complete, thus further distorting their perceptions of risk. Adolescents in particular are poor judges of risk and prone to make unwarranted risk decisions without regard for the consequences. Here, designers have a tremendous opportunity to help them, through incremental risk opportunities, to develop better risk-decision skills. Additionally, through powerful experiences like those we are designing for, teens develop stronger neural connections, which promotes more complex thinking, better judgement, and easier social interactions.
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Emergence in Risk
What I Learned from Two Brave Women and A Horse Named Chance
Emergence is when undesigned elements spring forth from your experience design. Emergence related to risk is all about risks in an experience that you did not see, could not see, and did not intend. There are implications from this kind of emergence regarding risk-decisions, failure, and safety — but also the possibility for experiencers to gain much more from your designed than you know.
Make no mistake, to present a risk invitation in your designs opens a door for experiencers to encounter danger of some kind — whether physical, emotional, intellectual, or social. Risk is an opportunity to fail, but also an opportunity to succeed. At its heart, a risk invitation is a call-to-adventure. As responsible designers, we must know what those dangers are, consider the safety of our experiencers, and see around the corners where designed risks intersect with undesigned ones. To this point,
there is an irreducible degree of unpredictability. In the business of Experience Design Leadership, designed risks often beget undesigned risks and we must expect the element of chance.
Chance was a Hancock quarter horse. His actual name was Sir Chance-a-Lot. Really. Melissa is a champion rodeo trick-rider friend of mine. She has won numerous stunt-riding awards, appeared on TV and movies, and toured internationally for her skill and daring with horses. It’s almost as if she has a horsewhispering telepathy with them. When she rides, horse and rider are one. I once asked Melissa to lead a session on horse-human interactions for a 3-day conference on transformative experiences I was hosting. She leapt at the opportunity to share her passion with others and felt it was very low-risk in the controlled and comfortable setting of her family ranch and given her tremendous expertise. So did I. However, I had encouraged my conference participants — educators, corporate leaders, and researchers — to select sessions which represented a discomfort zone for them. The people who chose Melissa’s horse session viewed it as risky is some way. After all — a horse is a large 1000 pound animal.
Some were downright scared.
Mary was a librarian in her early 30’s. She had always held a secret fear of horses. On the day of the Melissa’s session, it rained record amounts, soaking the stable grounds with a 4-inch layer of very soft and slick mud. With everyone watching, Mary stepped up as the first nervous volunteer to ride Chance. Under Melissa’s gentle guidance, she walked up to the horse to greet him and stroke his neck. Then she attempted to mount the horse with Melissa holding the reigns and helping to set her foot into the stirrup. But the horse shifted and then slipped in the wet mud, falling over right on top of Mary. Only the soft depth of the mud kept her leg from breaking as she was pressed down into it. Amid tears of panic, the horse whinnying, and both of them nearly hyperventilating, Mary managed to slide out with Melissa’s help — human and horse unharmed.
The fear factor for Mary and the entire group shot through the roof after the accident. If that could happen to the very first rider even with the guidance of the horse expert, it could happen to anyone! No one else would even attempt to ride, and Melissa thought it best as well due to the merciless downpour. They decided to focus on horse husbandry in the barn for the rest of the day, and people were still cautious about getting close to the horses. And then something else unexpected happened…
A bit later, unnoticed by everyone, Mary stepped away from the group and returned to Chance, perceiving he was still as shaken up as she was. She took a soft-bristled body brush from the tack kit (which she had just learned to use) and began to stroke the dried mud from the horse’s neck while she talked softly — calming them both — as Melissa had taught. Within a few minutes, Mary was sitting in the saddle atop the horse. When the group saw this, their spirits soared. They immediately understood the tremendous fear she’d been determined to confront and what it meant to her — and all of them — to have faced it.
We later debriefed the experience with the entire group using the ELVIS Framework. For Mary, the experience was transformative precisely because of the shift from her extreme low agency for being around horses to a new sense of higher agency. For Melissa, who had high agency with horses going in, she experienced a surprising new sense of risk for teaching others, especially in the rain storm. But she also realized that Mary could not have had the transformative experience that she did without first having that scary moment of falling under the horse. Although one would never intentionally design a horse falling on someone into an experience (let us hope), that undesigned event amplified the risk factors involved. It made real Mary’s worst case scenario in her risk calculus. She later remarked that since the failure she feared most had already happened, she decided to use that experience to move forward. She did not want to leave there being even MORE afraid of horses. Conquering her fear through a quiet act of kindness and caring represented a different way of approaching her fear — a different way of facing the risk. It also demonstrated the tremendous importance of risk-decisions to everyone. In fact, many people from that session told me that even just witnessing the events of that day were inspiring for them.
This story demonstrates very clearly that we must be thorough in our assessments of the risks we include in our designs, have safety measures in place for both the designed risks and the potential undesigned ones that emerge, and also be prepared to support experiencers when they risk and fail — which is our last topic for the chapter on Risk.
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Fine Art of Failure
We come by this tendency of psychological splitting and this view of failure honestly enough. It is, after all, constantly reinforced in our culture through absolute obsession with winning. The legendary NASA catchphrase “Failure is not an option,” of famed Apollo-era flight director Gene Kranz has long since become a cultural meme. I used to see T-shirts emblazoned with it in the gift-shop when I worked for NASA, but I don’t know if Gene ever actually said it!
Nevertheless, this attitude is woven into the fabric of our cultural worldview, and echoed in the directives and slogans we indoctrinate our children with, lead our teams with, govern our corporations with, and what many people judge themselves by. Have you ever heard these little gems of “wisdom” before?
“Give me victory or give me death”
“Go big or go home,”
“There’s no prize for second place,”
“There’s gold and there’s losing,”
“Winning isn’t everything… it’s the only thing.”
Also, consider who we celebrate in our society and why. In everything from sports to business to politics to academics, successful people are those who win. We’ve conflated winning and success, without questioning whether they are indeed the same thing. We take it for granted, for example, that awards are won by winners. How could it be otherwise? That is simply what awards are. Think again of Michael Phelps — the most celebrated Olympian in all of history. He’s revered for the gold medals he won for swimming fast, not for his tremendous spiritual growth during his struggles with depression that led to his personal transformation into a healthier, stronger person. Growth is not considered an achievement and therefore has no such awards.
Proponents of this life philosophy will argue that this is simply the way of things; “survival of the fittest.” It’s a competitive world and you need to be a competitor in order to succeed. The primary ethos for leaders, parents, educators, coaches — or mentors of any stripes — is that we should always set our protégés up to win. It may not always work out perfectly, but at the very least we shouldn’t set them up for failure! Or should we?
The big problem with this obsessive and over-simplified view on winning is that it’s just not true. When we focus on winners in any domain, and specifically on their achievements alone, we fail to recognize the importance of the many failures that led up to those moments. In her groundbreaking work, Mindset, psychologist Carol Dweck nicely explores this phenomenon as she describes a continuum from a “fixed mindset” to a “growth mindset.” A fixed mindset sees people in binary and static ways where their intelligence, talent, abilities and other basic qualities are fixed and unalterable traits that come naturally. “You either got it or you don’t.” In this view, talent is born not learned and failure is something to be avoided at all costs. By contrast, a “growth mindset” views people as works-in-progress and that their basic qualities and abilities can grow and be developed through effort, good strategies, and help from others. This view emphasizes “the power of not yet,” and sees failure is an important and necessary learning opportunity that more powerfully leads to sustained success than does winning right away. That is, we can learn more from our failures than our successes, provided we adopt a learning stance.
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From Risk to Fail-Safe Identities
What I Learned from Failing to Make the Olympic Team
Let me show you what I mean about Fail-Safe identities by sharing one of my own important and early failures…
When I was twenty-one years old, I tried out for the U.S. Olympic Tae Kwon Do team. Back in those days, TKD was only a demonstration sport, until the 2000 games in Sydney, Australia, when it finally became a full medal sport. Nevertheless, it was a dream of mine, like that of so many others, to one day compete among the youth of the world in the Olympics.
Having honed my skills for more than a decade at that point, I had a real shot. But alas, it wasn’t to be.
Two weeks before Nationals, my coach paired me with a talented boxer in order for me to spar with an unfamiliar opponent. During that fight, I expertly blocked a very powerful punch with my face. It was an astonishingly bloody event. It took me four months to recover from facial surgery to fix a broken nose and cheekbone (and I still can’t breathe right through one side!). In the end, I missed my Olympic window. My dream was done. I had failed, and failed quite spectacularly.
My coach and some others close to me thought I should “get back on the horse” as soon as possible, “show some grit,” and try again when I had healed. But in those initial weeks of changing bloody drainage bandages every two hours, endlessly cycling through ice-packs from the freezer (an agonizing twenty steps away), and losing over 20 lbs for lack of eating anything -- something in me changed.
At first it was everyone else’s fault -- the boxer, my coach, the silly rule-makers, on and on. But then, I realized that although I was a talented kicker, I couldn’t use my hands worth spit. I wasn’t good enough to make the team — and that was really why my face had been so successfully re-decorated.
Second, I realized that my entire quest for gold -- or even just to make the Olympic team -- had diverted me from my love of the roots of martial arts, which for me was a quest for internal achievement, wisdom and life harmony, and not primarily competition with others. I had somehow, somewhere, lost my love.
Months later, as I could move a bit without bleeding, I took up the patient art of archery. In that calmness and stillness of ‘breathe-pull-release,’ I slowly hatched a plan — I began designing an experience for myself.
I would start from scratch, as a white belt again, a rookie, or as we say in martial arts… I would “empty my cup.” I would learn new martial arts, different ones, explore different ways, cultures, and knowledge -- and learn to use my hands (and my brain) more effectively for once. Then I would seek to integrate what I had learned and forge my own system and school as an instructor. So I did.
It was a journey of transformation – including internal and external obstacles to overcome, determination and self-belief in the face of physical, emotional, and intellectual risks. And there was a fear of failure combined with a simpler fear of just not succeeding. And then a secondary fear of abandoning my journey because of my primary fears!
My friend, motivational psychology expert and celebrated author, Paul Marciano, said it to me this way, “The difference between something and nothing is everything!” This is the idea that you must do SOMETHING, even if it makes only a small change at first. There are small as well as large transformations that combine to change who we are. For me in the end, the biggest risk was not to try in the first place. My initial risk-decision was simply to try, and it was of course the thing that made all the difference.
Four years later, after training in several different styles and unfamiliar arts, I opened up a martial arts academy of my own, and as I mentioned in Chapter 4, I ran it for nearly ten years. It was there, in my own school, that I gained a deep passion for education and cut my teeth on experiential learning. It was there I fell in love with my first wife. It was there I found my own “true north,” and forged an identity that would shape much of what my life has come to be, so far. And it was there I learned the remarkable and surprising value of failure by forging a failsafe identity.
I wish I could find that talented pugilist from so many years ago and thank him for sparking a truly transformative experience with his well-placed punch. For me, it was right on target.
Think back on your path now. What were some of the punches that came your way that you could not see as positive at the time, but that wound up being absolutely critical? What value did they bring into your life? What new trajectories have your “failure” experiences opened for you? What differences did they make in how you see yourself and how you treat failure in your life today?