Sensation Seekers: An untapped workforce with limitless potential... if they are paid a fair wage

Kaeleigh Reynolds

Kaeleigh Reynolds

Climate Planning Technician

We are a community of sensation seekers – and that’s a good thing. Here’s why: 

First off, who are sensation seekers?

Defined in 1979 by psychologist Marvin Zuckerman, “sensation seeking is a trait defined by the need for varied, novel, and complex sensations and experiences and the willingness to take physical and social risks for the sake of such experience…The high-sensation seeker is sensitive to his or her internal sensations and chooses external stimuli that maximize them”. 

There are four sub-categories of sensation seekers: 

  1. Thrill and Adventure Seeking: Engaging in risky sports or dangerous activities that give a sensation of speed or defying gravity, like rock climbing or base jumping. 
  2. Experience Seeking: New experiences that are seen as nonconforming in regards to art, food, or travel, like taking a solo trip into the Okavango Delta or eating fried crickets.  
  3. Disinhibition: Risky social activities like heavy drinking, experimental drug use, and risky sexual behavior. 
  4. Boredom Susceptibility: An inability to tolerate any kind of repetitive experience, including routine work and boring people.

Being a sensation seeker means identifying with any one of the subcategories – but in the case of many Sierra locals, they embody all four. The quintessential Sierra lifestyle prioritizes life’s adventures over the mundane. It’s a way of life that leads to extreme risk taking, excellent powder turns in untouched terrain, summit beers, and alpine starts. These folks hold the title of ‘ski bum’ in high regard.

Skier going off a small jump, illuminated by sun in the background
Photo by and courtesy of Emily Tidwell / Instagram: @emily_tidwell_photo / Skier: Gabe Young

While sensation seekers prioritize adventure, they have been pivotal in creating and maintaining successful Sierra mountain towns. The people who throw bombs for avalanche control after epic Sierra storms? Sensation seekers. The people who drive city snow plows, work in gear shops, maintain mountain bike trails, volunteer for search and rescue… all sensation seekers. Without this crucial population who thrive in mountain living, our mountain towns would not exist with the ease tourists and locals have come to expect. 

As a community of sensation seekers, we should have a high potential for novel and complex solutions to the many issues plaguing our towns. So what is happening?

There has been a recent hold-up in fire management in the Sierra – this year saw an unprecedented investment in forest management, but we don’t have the human power to implement it. These roles could be filled with sensation seekers, which we have in abundance and who are under-utilized. But the Forest Service pays $13 an hour for starting positions as “forestry technicians”. Sensation seekers may be looking for novel experiences, but in most cases, that doesn’t involve being housing-burdened where the median home in the state sells for $800,000. They are looking for adrenaline rushes, not sufferable living conditions.

Shasta Lake Hotshots looking at a map and making a plan
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license / Shasta Lake Hotshots, North Complex Fire, Forest Service photo by Kai Funk

Whereas it is easy to think of sensation seekers as uniquely fit for physically intense or dangerous jobs, fearlessness is not the only skill set they possess. Many of the sensation seekers in the Sierra have high boredom susceptibility – meaning they have a strong dislike for repetition and become restless with inescapable tedium. This trait, combined with an aptitude for risk, means sensation seekers eagerly try new solutions – even if there is societal resistance. Jobs in climate adaptation, social work, and rural economics would be best served by people willing to challenge the status quo. 

So why don’t we have high employment opportunities for sensation seekers in these positions? Because even in mountain towns, there is an expectation that conformity, and an ability to sit at a desk on a powder day, are required for success. Resultantly, there is a large population of untapped potential working in low-wage, and/or seasonal jobs. Add in the high cost and limited availability of housing to quickly understand why young, talented people find life in the Sierra daunting. The recreation opportunities are unparalleled, but building a life here is near impossible. 

It is clear that the Sierra has been slow to change and develop new ways of doing things, for example many city planners have overanalyzed and have decision fatigue over policies that would mitigate STRs or transition to new energy sources. But sensation seekers charge into unknown scenarios willingly, and they trust themselves to make quick, strong decisions. Some studies show that sensation seekers experience less stress (literally, they produce less cortisol in their bodies!) and may be more resilient and calm in the face of danger (source). Of course, this is necessary when solo-ing El Cap, but it is just as necessary when making decisions about resort wages, subsidized rents, and preparing infrastructure for climate change – in both situations, human lives are on the line. 

We have the human capital in the Sierra – sensation seekers are here to stay, it’s about time we harness their competencies in our leadership.

Shasta lake hotshots posing for a group photo with tools
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license / Shasta Lake Hotshots, North Complex Fire, Forest Service photo by Kai Funk

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