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Pittsburgh’s Mike Schiller on Mount Denali.



















Is the thrill of victory just as sweet without the adrenaline rush of some risk? Just ask some genuine risk takers—and then check out the upcoming Risk exhibit at Carnegie Science Center.

When entrepreneur Mike Schiller speaks of pitfalls and hidden costs, climbing towards a goal, and finally reaching a peak, there’s more to it than just the rhetoric of business-speak.

As the co-founder of the Pittsburgh-based internet company Confluence Technologies, the founder of the adventure-travel company Venture Outdoors, and now the business partner in a new Carnegie Mellon-spawned startup, Schiller has navigated the cracks and crevices of industry in some of its most volatile sectors. And in his free time, he’s worried about, among other things, falling short of his goal.

“Every step could be your last,” says Schiller. “There are so many crevices covered over with snow. But you manage that risk, take the right precautions, so that even if the unexpected happens, you can work it out.”

That’s Mike Schiller discussing life and death climbing Mount Denali, North America’s highest mountain peak. Schiller has also scaled Mount Rainier, Pico de Orizaba, and next year plans to attempt Mount Everest with long-time climbing partner Bob Lowry.

Yet whether speaking about his climbing adventures or his business forays, he speaks about the risks involved in pretty much the same way. “You’d never try to climb Everest or Denali as your first mountain,” Schiller notes. “Even Mt. Hood was really scary for me the first time out. And it’s the same in the business world – the more prepared a person is, the less risky it seems.”

The consummate explorer in both the business and natural worlds, Schiller’s thought process is one that we all more or less develop: the challenge of balancing risks versus their potential rewards.

In Risk, a new exhibit curated by the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History and coming to Carnegie Science Center this October, visitors will take a moment to look at the world that surrounds them as a series of such decisions. And learn that the simple task of considering the chances that one thing will happen as opposed to another puts us all in some interesting company.

When to Hold and When to Fold

“I’ve always loved odds and probability,” says Stu Braun, after having just completed the day’s poker play. “What I have now is a greater scientific knowledge of the game—what hands to play, how to redirect other people. I’m patient, which is important. And ruthless—at least at the table—which is important, too.”

On the phone from outside a suburban Chicago casino, it’s safe to assume Stu Braun wasn’t thinking about 17th-century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal as he played his last hand of the game. But in a roundabout way, Pittsburgher Braun owes about half of his annual income to Pascal—the half he makes as a semi-professional poker player.

In 1654, in conversations with his colleague Pierre de Fermat, Pascal discovered the answer to a century-old mathematical question known as “The problem of points.” The question: If two players engaging in a game of chance are interrupted midway through the game, with one player ahead, how would they fairly split the stakes? It’s a question Braun pours over in his head dozens of times a day.

“You have to factor in what return on your bet you’re getting,” Braun says of this mid-poker-game decision making. “If the return on your bet is more than three-to-one, then it’s worth your time if the odds of your hand winning appear to be three-to-one.” In other words, know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em.

Says Braun: “It’s not rocket science; it’s simple mathematics.”

Rocket science, no. But before Pascal, it might as well have been. Probability, as a mathematical fact or a scientific theory, was all but non-existent in the 17th century. Not so today. In the Risk exhibit at the Science Center, visitors will have the opportunity to solve Pascal and Fermat’s “problem of points” themselves—and see that it’s not as obvious as it may seem.

After Pascal, the idea of “risk” changed from something uncontrollable—like the weather—to the concept that people might actually be able to manage the unmanageable. And it’s that kind of management that allows the likes of Braun the luxury of knowing that, over time, he can usually win out over players with a lesser understanding of the game. Before Pascal, most people may have fit Braun’s description of a “bad gambler.”

“Bad gamblers don’t think analytically about their actions on the table,” Braun says. “It’s unbelievable to me how many people pay $150 to enter a casino, and then chase hands that have little chance of hitting—like that fourth or fifth diamond—when it’s not worth the risk. Then they complain they ‘didn’t get any decent cards.’”

Risk: Let’s Count the Ways

Even if Stu Braun is a gambler at the table, he says he doesn’t consider himself a risk-taker in day-to-day life. “I’ve done some adventurous things, but I’ve never put myself in a situation where I didn’t have a warm place to stay or a nice meal coming,” he says. “And those are the only real risks.”

Poker, while it involves risks and seems to be the act of a risk-taker to many, is little more than a simple fact of life for Braun. His father, after all, began teaching him the game at 5 years old. But it’s a risk that mountain-climbing, risk-seeking Mike Schiller—who recalls a 24-hour stay in Las Vegas without so much as a pull of the nickel slots—discounts entirely. Schiller is what’s called a natural risk-taker. From always eating at a different restaurant to never wanting to climb the same mountain twice.

But while Schiller and Braun’s personalities are vastly different, each might rank similarly on psychiatrist Marvin Zuckerman’s sensation-seeking scale. Risk gives participants a chance to rate their risk-taking comfort level using a variation on the Zuckerman test.

According to Dr. Rolf Jacob, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh, the likes of Schiller and Braun may be very different, but they’re still quite similar as far as sensation-seeking goes. “Professional gamblers—just like firemen or a mountain rescue team member—are probably people high in sensation-seeking,” says Dr. Rolf Jacob. “It’s not that they’re stupid. In fact, they’re not taking any unnecessary risks. But if they slip up, they can lose big.

“We tend to think of people as being consistent in these situations. But there’s also something called person-by-situation interaction,” he explains. “People behave differently in different situations, and adjust to situations. So, for example, a risk-taker who goes into a church wouldn’t scream out profanities in church. Oftentimes one risky activity—gambling, mountain climbing—satisfies all of an individual’s sensation-seeking needs.”

Coasting Past the Odds

Some people don’t have to climb mountains or stake their savings to satisfy that appetite for risk.

Bill Linkenheimer is the Western Pennsylvania regional representative for American Coaster Enthusiasts (ACE), the national organization of roller-coaster fanatics dedicated to coaster education, preservation, promotion, and enjoyment. Linkenheimer is quick to point out that the hardcore coaster enthusiasts within his organization are largely immune to even the perception of risk in roller-coaster riding. But to the general public, he says, that kind of “safety-first” risk-taking makes the ride.

“People ride roller coasters because they like the fear, they like the risk,” says Linkenheimer. “Deep down inside, they know there really is none, but that doesn’t stop them from screaming at the top of their lungs. But for [ACE club members], it’s a hobby—the adrenaline rush, the speed, the thrill is there for some, but most of [our members] have gone past even that sense of risk”—sort of a false sense of risk.

Notes Linkenheimer, somewhat proudly: “Ride a coaster with a train full of real coaster enthusiasts, and it’ll be eerily silent.”

To Dr. Jacob, roller coasters are a good example of the way risk provides its own rewards for some. “The brain provides two kinds of reward systems,” he notes. “One that’s related to the satisfaction of appetite, and one that is relief from fear. And each is wired differently in [different peoples’] brains—so people with less fear prone-ness are more likely to take risks. Risks, that is, meaning doing things to satisfy an appetite.

“What sensation seekers seek is high arousal, therefore a person high in that might take high risks. But fear response is a close relative to courage response. If a person is courageous, they’ll likely see risks in a positive light, whereas a fearful person sees risks in negative light. The issue is how much arousal the situation creates. The social phobic person gets maybe more arousal out of, say, public speaking than a parachute jumper gets from jumping. So that arousal could be aversive, or it could be sought-after. The reason people like a roller coaster ride is that they know that it will end.”

For those who, like the coaster rider, want to feel the adrenaline rush of risk without personally jumping out of an airplane or off of a bridge, Carnegie Science Center is also offering the IMAX film Adrenaline Rush: The Science of Risk. Adrenaline Rush, which looks at the role that risk plays in human achievement—from the global, such as Alfred Nobel’s dynamite fortune at work, and da Vinci’s parachute—to the personal, such as a schoolboy’s daring affection.

Danger Zone = Comfort Zone

For the risk-taker, whether it’s riding a roller coaster, starting a business or climbing Everest, managing the danger is part of the excitement. It’s likely that Mike Schiller won’t climb mountains forever. After Everest, what could come next, anyway? But it’s also obvious that he won’t be sitting around watching TV, either.

“The risk is a big part of the enjoyment; that’s what makes it special,” Schiller says. “There are lots of ways to spend one’s time in life, but it’s the riskiness that makes it particularly interesting, enjoyable, thrilling. I don’t think about it so immediately every day in business, but the thrill of creating something out of nothing, and even being the underdog—that’s energizing.”

Just as energizing as reaching the peak of a world-famous mountain? Well, maybe not exactly, Schiller confesses.

“On a mountain, you get that little adrenaline rush every morning you wake up in your tent, put your crampons on, and it’s, ‘Wow, I get another day in a place very few people get to go, and I get another day where I’ve got to be on top of my game to make sure that I’m warm and toasty in that tent again tonight.’”

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