"Jump and the net will appear."

kristenolsonBy Kristen Olson


When I was 10 and he was 14, my older brother would follow me around wanting to play Risk. Ten-year-old me would shriek, "NO. It is boring. It takes forever. I never win."

I literally feared Risk, (conveniently brought to you by Hasbro), because I did not want to fail.

On Saturday, May 30, 2009, I went to the Helzel Colloquium, "Risk and Reality" hosted by the John F. Kennedy University museum studies department. Walking in, I expected the day to be filled with cloudy conversations just out of reach, but all about defining risk. I expected us all to be encouraged to take more risks in our professional lives to benefit the field; you know, heady conference-y type stuff that I would put in my back pocket and let gestate until I would need to use it later. Smartly, organizer Susan Spero (with Brianna Cutts and Gail Anderson) pushed past the diffuse toward two goals of the day: understanding and tools. We'd all walk out with a clearer understanding of risk, as well as gain - or just see - new tools to use when confronting or initiating something institutionally (or personally, or field-wide) risky. This was one of those days when I wanted to go right back into the office and get to work. Exciting stuff. I hope to post this entry, then invite others in attendance today to add their two cents.

Though I'm still processing, I've realized how personal risk-taking is. Everyone has different levels of comfort, and as Robert Garfinkle from the Science Museum of Minnesota appropriately posited, almost everyone feels like they take a good amount of risk in their lives. How many would characterize themselves as complete sticks-in-the-mud in all aspects of their life? We all have our own comfort level, and sit in our own specific platform to allow for creative freedom. I, for example, feel very risky writing this blog entry. I fear harsh critique by those in the field more experienced and smarter that I. I am not quite comfortable having my words on unlimited display. I fear future-me, looking back and thinking, "oh geez, you really rambled there, didn't you?" However, the way to make a break from that limiting behavior is to just jump in, I think. The benefits outweigh the detractors. Anyway, enough about me.

Well, not really. Jonathan Katz, CEO of Cinnabar, said this very short sentence early on in the day: "It is not personal." I've heard it before from colleauges, and I'm still trying to wrap my arms around it, mostly because it is a break from how I think about my career. I care and am passionate about museums. I'll venture an easy guess, and say we all are. I take it personally when I hear a harsh critique about the place I spend my days. I wince when I see cell phone commercials that have someone in a gallery...but the person is texting. (I should be happy they are in the gallery, right?) Is that a risk I shouldn't be taking? Should I take myself out of the equation when thinking about taking a professional risk? (Here I go being diffuse.) Like I said, I'm still processing.

Thoughts that are still rolling around in my head and in my notebook:

  1. The disconnect between feeling and cognition. (My gut says yes, my brain says "are you ******* kidding me?")
  2. Risk takes tenacity.
  3. Risk takes patience.
  4. "It is not personal."
  5. Know what you don't know.
  6. Make plain your risk factor: if it is fear of the unknown, be okay with that. Own your risk factors. Be authentic.
  7. Change happens on the fringes; museums used to be on the fringes. Some still are, and have that freedom.
  8. There has to be a strong goal in order for risk to be worth it. (Risk without reason is silly.)

So I ask you, dear readers, what are your risk factors? What nets need to be in place before you jump? When did you take a risk and it failed? How long did it take you to admit it? When did you take a risk and it was a wild success? How long did it take you to admit it?

Kristen Olson is a second year masters student in museum studies at JFKU, and the Academic and Educational Technology Liaison at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University. She is laughing while writing this in the third person. She blogs irregularly at koko500.wordpress.com and rambles more often on twitter.




Great post, Kristen. Thanks for jumping right in!

Some of the real challenge seems to be in finding the balance with strategy, right? Or maybe we best embrace that very challenge? Some strategic manaegment strategies like Internal Corporate Venturing try to work risk into the very operation, and making it a part of the overall strategy, as put forward by Robert A. Burgelman (at your Stanford) and others.

In twitterspeak, "RT @CoryBooker “Criticism is something we can avoid easily by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing” Aristotle"


I think you've done an excellent job of encapsulating the issues that came up during the Risk & Reality symposium.

You're super bright and aware of what's going on in the field, so I don't think you should be fearful of putting yourself out there. You're going to be a leader, so start learning how to lead!

First step: speaking truth to power (judiciously). This is a hard thing to learn--I'm still learning when to keep my mouth shut--but it's worth practicing because when it works, it pays off in spades.

You know my story. . . I was afraid to put myself out there, too. But I learned this: blog and Tweet, and good things will happen. :)

The real lesson to learn isn't how to avoid risk and failure -- it's to accept that you're going to do it. It's not a big deal that you fail, it's what you do to recover from it that's far more important.

I have had the immense good fortune to have a mentor, although she probably does not consider herself such, from my first volunteer / intern experience at the Egyptian Museum in San Jose. Cyndi had me do a bit of everything - writing articles for the member newsletter, developing gallery guides, restringing beaded covers for a mummy, accessioning objects - heady, curious, amazing stuff for a recent college grad, new to the museum world and especially the world behind the exhibits.

I consider her my mentor for many reasons, but the most important was her guidance that pushed me and her support after I "failed."
She gave me these super clear, super important words-to-grow-by:

Check Your Ego at The Door.

So Kristen, # 4, 5, and 6 of your list mean a lot to me as I comtemplate Risk and Reality, LOL especially reality as a still new Executive Director of a long-standing, well-loved organization like WMA.

(re #4) Even the leaders and thinkers that make our jaws gape when they speak , started at the bottom, made mistakes, tripped over themselves. That's what it takes to grow and become a meaningful part of your community - taking the risk and learning the lesson. Your written work will be edited; your physcial work will be judged; your program work will be changed. "It's Not Personal."

(re #5) As a new ED that came followed the path of public programming and the "dark side" as a consultant for a for-profit museum planning firm, I know that I am darned lucky to have a great relationship with my predecessor here at WMA, a few key members of my board and WMA membership, and especially my staff - Valerie. There is plenty that I might be aware of, but most assuredly stuff I don't know. But most importantly, I need to realize that I do have certain experience and knowledge that makes me the right person for this job. So "Know What You Don't Know" but also Remember What Strengths You Bring to the Table.

(re #6) Strategy. Planning. Risk Management. Oganizational Change. Leadership. It seems to me that those who do these things successfully - by success I mean shore-up and sustain an organization's operations in line with it's mission or develop and grow a professional in line with their goals - have some things in common:

1. A Support System - Colleagues, in and out of the specific organization; an active, responsive network.
2. A Knowledge Set - Specific information, specialized training, unique or varied experiences not all of which are necessarily planned in accordance with your career!
3. Authenticity - As my Mom always said, quoting someone famous I'm sure, "to thine own self be true." I think of one woman who always wears black garments with beautiful Mexican-style silver jewelry; I know another with gorgeous red hair and a genuine laugh that wears bright multicolored blouses; I ponder another with a long blonde brown braid who almost always wears snazzy tights under jumper type dresses. Each of these women (sorry men, I know you are out there but these are the examples that jumped to mind) is a highly respected leaders in her field and The Field. I notice the accoutrements, but they are just indicative of women who I think must have Owned [their] Risks Factors and [are] Authentic.

Like you Kristen, they are passionate for what they do and the field. They inspire me to take risks, to try to keep an open mind, to jump knowing that the net(work) is there. I didn't mean to hijack your blog, but your words especially your doubts, resonated with me and what I am lucky enough to do for a job; you made me realize that WMA helps museum people build their nets. So Thank You.

"The path to wisdom is not being afraid to make mistakes." (Paulo Coelho)

I am really intrigued by this post, because it seems that this idea of "trial and error" as a method within the museum world is beginning to gain greater acceptance, could it even be the norm?! I'd personally love to see it become more so within the conservation world... and in fact there has been some recent discussion on twitter about this, and as was pointed out there have also been some interesting conferences over the years about failure too... I wonder though if they tend towards the negative version. Hopefully that'll change, and a recent interview I did with e-conservation (linked off their front page: http://www.e-conservationline.com/ ) suggests that this desire for a positive vision of 'failure' is wide spread.

I loved the "future me" comment, as I often think it's ourselves who our harshest critics. When I think back to when I started blogging I needed a push, someone else who was already doing it, not to show me how, but, to show me you could! I'm glad I found that person, as taking this small step has led me to begin to try out things I wouldn't normally have thought I could, and has led to a blog that has an almost respectable number of readers, and has helped facilitate discussions within the conservation profession. So in this case... risk was a success.

About the cell phone commercials, I don't watch TV so no idea... but perhaps, it'd be easier if you thought they're surfing the net on the museums free wifi checking out the online data about the collections, a mash up of the online and offline museum! To my mind that'd be great!

Thanks again for an excellent post.

All the best, Dan.

In the two days since the Colloquium, I have been wondering if our institutions are at more risk when we rest on our laurels and do not charge ahead. What is the greater risk: becoming stagnant organizations or failing as a part of the process of innovation?

Like you, Kristen, I appreciated the event culminating in new tools for managing/engaging in risk. Not only did I feel that I walked away with new skills, but also courage to apply them.

Cheers to the organizers and sponsors!

Oh, and Kristen for continuing the dialog :)

Great post Kristen. I believe that if we don't take risks, then we don't learn. And without learning, life would be very dull indeed.

I liked being with you in our three person group at the beginning of the day; your story about a risk you took on an educational program once -- that ended up succeeding -- encapsulated the day. Robert and Jonathan were both encouraging role models for how to take risks and really put yourself out there in the museum world.

Kristen, you aptly describe many of the thoughts that hummed in the back of my mind as I wrote about authenticity a few weeks ago. Excellent post!

While I can't entirely agree with your optimistic "the net will appear" hope (I've been part of the cnpo world for too long not to have seen some rather spectacular nosedives that ended in awful splats), I wholeheartedly agree that one must learn not if, but how and when to jump, and that takes a lot of practice.

Kudos to the organizers and presenters, all skilled jumpers in their own right!

Earlier this week, I searched my brain for when I didn't take a measured jump beforehand, sans net, and had a hard time coming up with one.

THEN I was in a situation earlier this week socially, and saw a painful nosedive! Totally thought of your comment, and honestly laughed that a real life definition played out before me within days of this conversation.

Measured risk, and figuring out/knowing when you've gone too far seems to be the key. Thanks again for sharing.

Nice thoughts here. My personal philosophy has always been "just do it and apologise later". Life's an adventure and risk is an exciting part of that.

Jason's point "What is the greater risk: becoming stagnant organizations or failing as a part of the process of innovation?" is a critical one. Many of life's most amazing lessons come from failing!

"If You Will It - It Is No Dream" : Theodore Hertzl

I believe we are all pioneers! Taking risks to better understand and contribute to the discourse and development of progressive museum strategic plans and visionary missions.

There are so many good points and threads in this discussion.... As to Jason's point that Lynda Kelly includes in her positive and affirming voice on "risk" in her post, I think that becoming a stagnate organization contributes to failing and that an organization that is visionary, has a firm mission and is able to remain progressive has a stronger opportunity for sustainability. One person's risk can engage a community to offer a legacy to it's future. Agreed, Mentors do come in so many forms...

I wonder if it is better to scrape your chin trying (from falling down)...or to sit on your bottom and just dream about it...! I have always considered that a scabby-scraped up chin heels pretty quickly.

Me again - thank you all for your comments!

I got this one in my inbox a few days ago, and was asked to post it anonymously. (The person feels it is not a good "jump" to publicly post it - we don't want anyone to be dooced.)

"My comfort level of taking a [professional] risk is when it's something "unique" to the organization you're in. While the situation is similar to another, and you're using a model with the tweeks and changes appropriate to your own workplace, I feel more of a buy in because there's no measure for or against it. If it turns out mildly successful, then you can re-examine to see if it's worthy of doing again for even better results and so forth. This can be used to describe a new project, a new organizational/administrative technique for the office; or the development, purchase and carrying of a new product in [a bookshop].

I reign in my [willingness to] risk taking if I'm feeling forced into doing something that has already been tried with little to minimum success (so here we have to define that for each item, a sliding scale of percentages is used to determine that level of success,) and for whatever reason, rather than spend the time to come up with other unique ideas, a total rehash/retry is pushed through.

With so much talk of museum departments needing to work better together and communicate more, then here is where failure is continually common because if one group voices (valid) reasons for why NOT to continue on a coarse of action, and it's over ruled by the person or group in authority, here to me is an example of why museums will continue to fail. We're putting too much effort (time, money, etc.) into something that is doomed to failure. OK, maybe that's strong language. But when, in current circumstances everyone needs to be smarter with the resources they currently have, pushing a previously failed agenda again and again serves no one.

I could of course, go on more. But, I think that sums up my thoughts nicely and without any hard evidence to support my position, I should quit while I'm ahead."

Kristen, you've written something that continues to resonate with me. I keep going back to your blog entry weeks after the colloquium, taking inspiration from it.

One of the most thought-provoking statements of the day -- and one that you point out -- was Jonathan Katz's comment, "It is not personal. " Embracing that idea is critical to my ability to take risk. I am less likely to take a risk if I feel that I will be judged. Sometimes it is difficult to separate myself from my work; I have a lot at stake in what I do, and it does feel personal. I'm not talking about whether people and organizations implement the plans and strategies I have created for them -- that's up to them. I'm talking more about whether I was able to hear their concerns and address them. I want the folks I work with to see the value in my work. For me, that makes it personal.

So, I will continue to think about risk and what it all means, including the "It is not personal" aspect. Thanks for the inspiration!

Add new comment

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
Just want to see if you are a robot.