Science Says: Risk and Creativity Go Together

Hear "The Art of Risk" author speak in Music City.

This week acclaimed science journalist and author Kayt Sukel will be speaking at the equally acclaimed Parnassus Books to discuss her book, The Art Of Risk: The New Science of Courage (National Geographic Books). Sukel's no ordinary science writer. For her last book, Dirty Minds/This Is Your Brain on Sex: The Science Behind the Search for Love (Simon & Schuster) she famously recorded her orgasm while in an MRI machine.

So, we couldn't resist taking a few minutes to ask Sukel about risk as it related to the lives of Nashvillians.

Q: Nashville is full of people who take risks. They quit their day jobs to move here with a guitar on their backs. What's the connection between risk and success in creativity.

A: People want to attribute success, especially in music and the arts, to luck and talent. And certainly, those two factors play an important role. But the connection between risk and success is preparation and hard work. The folks who find success, however they define success, work for it. And they work hard. They hone their craft and skills through practice—and that allows their brain to deploy their cognitive resources in different ways. They have the experience to know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em, so to speak—whether they are writing music or negotiating payment for a gig.

That kind of work and preparation means they aren’t distracted by the little things when it comes time to seize an opportunity. They are focused and can find ways to make any uncertainty work in their favor. And this isn’t limited to just creative pursuits. The same is true in any endeavor.

Q: What can those who are not artists learn from the ways in which artists and musicians use risk to further their creativity and success?

A: I think we can learn a lot from their passion. They love what they do--so they are really motivated to engage in all that work. It’s the thing that will allow them to fall down seven times, get up eight–and find ways to learn from their mistakes and move forward towards their long-term goals as artists.

Q: Does that mean we should all be risk takers? Or is it an issue of calculated/managed risk?

A: We often talk about risk-taking like it’s a personality trait. He’s a risk-taker because he’s an artist. She’s a risk-taker because she’s a BASE jumper. But the truth is, risk-taking is not a trait. It’s a decision making process. It’s just the process of dealing with uncertainty, which, when you think about it, is something each and every one of us engages in each and every day. And that’s whether we’re deciding to write a new song or just have that third cup of coffee in the morning. And it’s a process that helps us learn, grow, and build our skill sets.

So, in reality, we are all risk-takers. But, that said, success does come down managing risk in the right ways. And again, it comes down to being thoughtful, prepared, and understanding how the brain deals with uncertainty.

Q: Your book is called The Art of Risk. Interesting choice of words, given this discussion. Is it really an art? In what ways?

A: The book looks at the science of risk-taking—so the choice of title was a bit tongue-in-cheek. But, as there is no tried and true risk-taking formula for success, using the word art actually fits pretty well. To successfully harness risk requires some knowledge, some adaptation, and, yes, some creativity. It became clear to me, as I researched the book, is it really is as much of an art as it is a science. 

Q: What wisdom can people expect to learn when they risk Green Hills traffic to meet you on Thursday, May 5 at 6:30 p.m. at Parnassus Books

A: They can learn more about the ways scientists are studying risk—and how it can work both for and against smart decision-making. They can learn what some of my favorite successful risk-takers—people like renowned BASE jumper Steph Davis, two-time World Series of Poker champion Andy Frankenberger, and an Army Special Forces Operator, among others—have to say about that science and how they make risk work in their own lives. And we’ll also touch on that intersection of risk, creativity, and success—in writing, in art, and any other endeavor.