Thoughts from Dr. Joe: Preparation is planning for the worst

I’ve often written in this space that life’s a dance and you learn as you go. The simple act of paying attention enables one to learn; the greatest schoolmasters are the daily serendipitous occurrences that befall us.

Sgt. Winston taught me a valuable lesson when I was an officer candidate in the Marines trying to survive the brutal reality of what it takes to lead men in combat. He taught me that success in any endeavor requires more than praying the rosary. It requires preparation. His lesson is reminiscent of the old Bedouin saying, “Trust in God, but tie your camel.”

Winston believed that preparation is an equalizer. Success within the nuances of the Corps takes more than physicality and metal clarity. There is a causal relationship between preparation and success; the best preparation for tomorrow is doing your best today.

He taught an unconventional methodology: He said the way to prepare is to think negatively. Consequently, when faced with a decision to make, I often think of the worst-case scenario. What is the most terrible thing that can happen? Having a contingency plan for when all hell breaks loose makes confidence possible. Thus there are many things I don’t worry about because I have a plan in place if they do.

By the time you read these words, I’ll be heading to Montana with 12 students to follow the footsteps of explorers Lewis and Clark. We’ll canoe the Upper Missouri River. This is my 31st year teaching western history, Native American mythology, wilderness philosophy and how to survive on the land.

It’s the consummate adventure! However, preparation must be done bit by bit. That means nothing happens quickly. Drawing back a bow and sending an arrow straight into a target takes only a split second, but it is a skill many years in the making.

In 1860 Sir Richard Burton, a famed British explorer, departed for Africa to discover the source of the Nile. In his biography, “The Collector of Worlds,” Burton speaks to the unimaginable discoveries and experiences that he had garnered through exploration. However he proposes that without meticulous preparation, such wonders would not have materialized.

Hannibal crossed the Alps. Marco Polo left for China. Magellan sailed west. Amundsen raced for the South Pole while Perry went north. Successful expeditions have one thing in common: preparation.

I worship at the altar of ritual and before each adventure, I undertake a specific methodology. I begin with myself, preparing both physically and mentally. I study the saga of Earnest Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition, Lewis and Clark’s journey, and my account of leadership principles learned in Vietnam. I am convinced that the success of any journey is predicated upon a prepared, spirited, committed and competent team. It’s teamwork! We leave our individuality in La Cañada.

I test the ropes, the knots, the stoves, the tarps, the first-aid supplies, and then I test them again. And after that, I test them a third time. It is a meticulous attention to detail that enables us to walk the razor’s edge of an adventurous pursuit. I don’t want to be caught on the Missouri River frantically searching for a lifeline that wasn’t tied properly.

They say no land remains to be discovered. But the whole world is out there, waiting, just waiting for me. “I expect to make great discoveries,” said Meriwether Lewis. I feel similarly, since my confidence is aligned with my preparation. If all goes as I predict, next week I’ll tell you about the Grandfather Spirit in the Upper Missouri River in northern Montana.

Muhammad Ali once said, “I run on the road long before I dance under the lights.”

JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a retired professor of education and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at Visit his website at

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