The book authors among you know first-hand that giddy sense of possibilities and the satisfaction of holding in your hands the product of so many months, even years, of solitude and soul searching. But even non-authors probably have a hunch at how exciting it is that the author copies of my fourth book, YOU ARE WHAT YOU RISK: The New Art and Science of Navigating an Uncertain World, have arrived at last! The rest are making their way to book seller warehouses for release April 6!
As thrilling as it is to see a new book being “born” it’s also a bit terrifying for authors to release our ideas into the world. Will people “get” what we’re talking about? Will they disagree? Will they find an error that went uncaught? Worst of all, will they decide not to pay attention at all? It’s risky to invite readers to embrace and adapt an idea, because they sometimes mean it in ways we’d prefer them not to.
YOU ARE WHAT YOU RISK is a sequel of sorts to THE GRAY RHINO: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore(2016). I’ve been reflecting lately on the journey of the central concept of that book, particularly because it laid the groundwork for the conversation that YOU ARE WHAT YOU RISK is continuing. But I’ve also been thinking about the ways people misconstrued, misattributed, or even tried to hijack the metaphor I created for risks that are obvious, probable, and impactful –and how I responded to those missteps.
Like any risk, releasing your ideas into a public forum involves both good and bad possible outcomes. Both joys and challenges have come from inviting readers to adapt the gray rhino concept and make it their own: to apply the metaphor and five-stage analytical framework to the gray rhinos in their lives, work, and the world that they’d like to do better at taming.
Note that I refer to taming, not some of the more violent verbs people have used and which I will not justify by repeating. This was the first way in which the concept took a direction that did not always make me comfortable. Given the threat humans pose to rhinos, I now often make the point that we are the biggest danger to them, not the other way around –and that rhinos may pose a threat but also the opportunity to harness their strength. And I’ve frequently pleaded with reporters or event participants to stick with “taming” or “wrangling” and avoid the suggestion of doing violence to rhinos.
There are ways for authors to manage the risk of your ideas being used in ways you did not intend. And what author wants to take the opposite risk of nobody using your ideas at all? My strategy has involved engagement with readers, both listening to them and participating in the ongoing conversation. This strategy, by the way, applies to so many situations –not just books, but anything you offer to the world and want people to adopt.
From the time I coined it, I meant for the gray rhino to be a living concept that did not stay confined within the covers of a book. I want people to rise to the challenge gray rhinos present us: We’re more likely to ignore them than most of us would like to think, but –crucially—we are not condemned to do so.
At first, people kept pinging me: Is this a gray rhino? Is THIS a gray rhino? While I appreciated the respect that entailed, I encourage people instead to call out gray rhinos when they see them rather than waiting for me to do so. If you can see it, you don’t need me to call it out. I’ve been happy to see the change as people have moved from asking me if something is a gray rhino to being confident enough to declare that they see a gray rhino. These beasts look different depending on the angle you’re looking from, so the concept is most effective when each reader applies it for themselves. A gray rhino to you may not be one to me. Or disruption may be a gray rhino to a hide-bound company, while a start-up may see the gray rhino as an inability to participate in disruption: same thing, two very different beasts.
Readers have embraced the gray rhino in ways that continue to surprise and delight me. Naturally, the concept and framework have found applications with businesses, central banks, risk and business continuity specialists, financial planners, non-profits, economic policy and national security experts, trade associations and other audiences I could have anticipated given my business, finance and policy experience.
But people also have told me how they applied it to personal issues from relationships to health care to finance to careers to caring for aging parents. In fact, those readers inspired the much more personal approach I take in YOU ARE WHAT YOU RISK.
Last November, I learned that the Korean band, BTS, used the gray rhino as a metaphor for depression in their hit single “Blue & Grey.” At the risk of stating the, well, obvious: BTS is perhaps the biggest musical act in the world right now hitting milestones like the first Korean band nominated for the Grammys and to top the Billboard 100. The way they used the gray rhino to raise awareness about a social issue as important as depression, particularly at a time when it is especially needed, blew me away.
But sometimes people have taken ownership beyond what is appropriate. A twitter user recently tried mansplaining that a particular event was not a black swan or gray rhino because it was foreseen. Clearly he missed the memo that by definition, a gray rhino is something obvious, which includes events that were forecast. It reminded me of several minor twitter brouhahas in which twitizens called out tweeps for mansplaining to famous female authors like JK Rowling and Nora Ephron.
A few cantankerous men (ALWAYS men) have delivered jabs on social media and in amazon reviews using the concept as an I-told-you-so, or even claiming that I intended it to be an I-told-you-so, when that is exactly the opposite of reality.
Others apply the concept the way they might use the black swan trope, looking backward only: “Was this a gray rhino or a black swan?” While the past is helpful for illustration –and to counter the way people misuse the black swan as a cop-out– I have always intended the gray rhino to be forward looking. (By contrast, many people have misapplied the black swan, which by definition is unforeseeable, by claiming they can see the next black swan. In reality, what they really are talking about are visible gray rhinos.)
Someone else pulled together a graphic of animals in the “financial zoo” and included the gray rhino. The graphic would have been lovely, except they didn’t put the gray rhino in the “Probable” section. Umm…
Other people have added convoluted elements to the definition: setting a precise time frame, for example, or limiting it to economic issues. One US publication persisted in trying to change the definition to be synonymous with the example it had used of a gray rhino policy issue, then proceeded to wrongly suggest that Chinese state media both coined the term and used it in the way this publication did. Eventually they used it more or less correctly, but persisted in crediting Chinese media and not the American author.
Similarly, reporters often seem to feel the need to identify the author who coined the term “black swan” but not the author of “the gray rhino.”
When necessary, I have followed up with publications when they get it really wrong, or to politely let them know where the gray rhino came from. Do I risk sounding pushy? Sure. But to me the bigger risk is that the term is used or abused, as the black swan certainly has been. Most publications have corrected the errors. One even wrote a whole new story all about the gray rhino.
I’ve also responded by clarifying how I talk about gray rhinos: above all, to make sure that people use it to look at the future, not just to learn lessons about the past. After a year of more than 500 media mentions in 50+ countries and 30+ languages using the gray rhino to talk about the coronavirus pandemic, I’ve started to qualify my response whenever reporters ask me, “Was XXXX a gray rhino or black swan?” Before answering –if I answer at all– I focus attention clearly on the future. Or I talk about the existing gray rhinos that the pandemic intensified.
In another case, I overcorrected for one misinterpretation only to create another and am now trying to correct the overcorrection. When my literary agent first sent THE GRAY RHINO around to editors in 2013, we got a lot of pushback to the effect of “well, of course we need to pay attention to obvious problems, but we don’t need a book to tell us so because if they’re obvious then we are paying attention so this is not counterintuitive.” So I changed the way I talked about gray rhinos to emphasize the fact that we tend to ignore them, and even included “ignored” in the subtitle.
That messaging seems to have finally gotten through, only a little too well.
You may have seen some of the many references in recent weeks to comments from China’s securities regulator that its overheated real estate market is a gray rhino. Many wire reports included “ignored” as part of the definition, which is not what I intended. That puts it too close for comfort to its cousin, the elephant in the room, which normalizes actively ignoring awkward or difficult topics and assumes that the issue will just stand still. By contrast, the gray rhino is dynamic –coming at you though it may be fast or slow—and gives you a choice.
So I’ve updated my nutshell description of the gray rhino again to clarify that while we’re more likely to ignore gray rhinos than we think, but not condemned to do so. And I’ve emailed editors once again when they’ve gotten it wrong.
Are there risks of putting yourself out there? Of course. As Catherine Orenstein of The OpEd Project, where I volunteer as a mentor/editor, often says: “If you say things of consequence, there may be consequences. The alternative is to be inconsequential.”
For me, did the worst possible risk happen: that is, being ignored or inconsequential? Absolutely not. Did a few errors make it into the book past many rounds of editing? Of course. Did people disagree or push back? Of course.
But many, many more people took my message to heart and told me that the gray rhino changed their lives, kept them from losing money and business, and made people more aware of how important it is to take a fresh look at the obvious.
Has the risk been worth it — all the time and effort spent, the decision to step away from my career as a think tank executive? Absolutely. What helped to ensure that it was a good risk were the steps I took to mitigate the downside and maximize the odds of things going right: above all engaging with readers and responding to the directions they took the gray rhino.
As I’ve found in interviewing risk takers for YOU ARE WHAT YOU RISK, sometimes letting go of your fears of dangers may feel risky to start. But by choosing flexibility over the understandable desire for absolute control, by listening not just talking, and by being willing to respond to and adapt, you ultimately reduce the risk of following an uncertain new path.
COMING APRIL 6, 2021: YOU ARE WHAT YOU RISK: The New Art and Science of Navigating an Uncertain World. Pre-order by April 5 and get bonuses including a sneak preview, bookmarks and autographed bookplates, exclusive invitations and more.
This article is part of my LinkedIn newsletter series, “Around My Mind” – a regular walk through the ideas, events, people, and places that kick my synapses into action, sparking sometimes surprising or counter-intuitive connections.
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