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Playing It Safe Is Dangerous

Being too cautious can lead to the exact opposite of the outcome that you’re hoping for. Sometimes, the safest choice you can make is the aggressive one.

Surviving the Hahnenkamm

The Hahnenkamm downhill slalom is known as the most dangerous race in the world of professional skiing. Taking place every January in the Kitzbühel Alps of Austria, skiers must navigate hairpin turns at speeds of up to eighty miles per hour—and all with limited visibility.

It’s not a course for amateurs, and some professionals even shy away from it. Online descriptions of the race typically include a long list of skiers who’ve experienced broken bones, serious crashes, helicopter evacuations, and even death.

Three things separate the winners from the injured:

1. Raw talent. No question about it, you have to be a really good skier to take on the Hahnenkamm. “Fake it till you make it” is not the way to approach this course. You have to build up skills over a long period of time, gaining experience in lesser conditions, before tackling it.

2. Killer reflexes. As you streak toward the bottom, you have to be able to make a series of micro adjustments extremely quickly. (I’d say it helps if you played a lot of video games when you were a kid, but I’m pretty sure there’s more to it.)

As important as talent and fast reflexes are, however, there’s one more thing required to survive the Hahnenkamm:

3. Decisive action. Talent is what gets you an invitation,  reflexes are how you execute those hairpin turns, but the ability to make clear, bold decisions is also essential.

One of the scariest things about the race is the lack of time a skier has to process information and change course appropriately. The decision-making time is measured in nanoseconds, if it’s measured at all.

Skiers are protected when they act decisively. It’s when they refrain from acting, considering the pros and cons of a particular action even for a brief moment, that they get hurt.

Playing it safe, in other words, can be dangerous.

In the Hahnenkamm, confidence—even calculated aggressiveness, you could argue—is rewarded. Hesitation is punished, sometimes with fatal consequences. He who hesitates is crushed, literally.

“But not everything is like that…”

It would be easy to look at an example of an extreme race and say that it’s not reflective of life in general. But is it truly an outlier—or is it an example of how important decisive action can be?

There are different stages to life—there are even different stages in most adventure sports. Pacing is important. You need to allow for training and recovery. Sometimes you go fast, other times you go slow.

If you’re not an adrenaline junkie, fear not: life is not always an all-out downhill race.

But there are times when you need to react quickly and act boldly. Sometimes the safest decision you can make is to be aggressive.

In these situations, when you vacillate between multiple options without committing to any, that’s when you’re most at risk of remaining stuck, or even getting hurt.

Just as it’s important to consider the need to slow down, sometimes you should ask: how am I living boldly? How am I being decisive?

Playing it safe is not always the best play.