A life lesson learned the hard way and what it taught me

Extreme situations don’t happen by accident. Decisions are made beforehand that determine a specific outcome. We call those decisions “preparation” — or a lack thereof.

There I was, sliding down the side of Mount St. Helens in a t-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops. One of my friends had already slipped past me in the snow. I tackled my second friend to stop him and tell him something very important.

We were lost.

Extreme situations like this generally don’t happen by accident. Decisions are made beforehand that determine a specific outcome. We call those decisions “preparation” — or a lack thereof.

While we all managed to make it down the mountain alive that day, I learned some pretty harsh lessons about preparation along the way.

Many people think there’s no glory in preparation

We often don’t prepare properly because no one gives us credit for it. We’re only evaluated on the outcome.

Sometimes, people don’t even want to hear about your preparation, because it takes away the allure of the flawless, charismatic performer. No one wants to know about the grunt work that takes place behind the scenes.

When my friends and I decided to climb Mount St. Helens, I didn’t take the preparation seriously.

I’m a runner, and I’ve always been fit in comparison to my friends and colleagues. So, while other people in my group prepared extensively for the experience, I decided to just show up.

In a t-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops.

Right away, there were signs I had not prepared as well as I should have. I noticed that the other hikers looked like they’d been on a shopping spree at REI. They had all kinds of gear I didn’t, including ice tools and crampons. We were making the trek in June, and the heat and humidity were pretty intense at the base of the mountain.

It had never occurred to me that there would be ice at the top.

But I’d traveled 2,000 miles to climb this mountain. I wasn’t going to leave without the glory of making it to the top in my limited gear. Ultimately, that need for glory was part of my downfall.

Lack of preparation serves as an excuse for failing

Some people will announce they’re “just winging it” when they begin a project or a task. They do that because it sets expectations very low. If they fail, well, they were just winging it. If they succeed, then they’ve exceeded expectations.

I did end up “succeeding.” Despite my only equipment being a soccer ball I brought along in my backpack, I did make it to the summit along with two of my friends.

At one point, I was trudging through snow while wearing my day-at-the-beach outfit. But I persevered and made it to the top.

Success, right?

I used to have this mentality about preparation, but I view it a little differently today.

Preparation pays off, especially as you take bigger risks.

If I had done research before climbing the mountain, I would have found out there’s a very specific technique for getting down.

The other hikers at the summit had brought along rolled up tarps. They unrolled them, sat down, and used them as sleds to travel down the mountain.

We didn’t have any tarps.

Which brings me to why I was sliding down the mountain in shorts, worrying about frostbite on my rear end. At some point in that long, cold slide, I began to get the sense that we weren’t going in the right direction. I managed to stop one of my friends, even as the other went flying past.

By then, the sun was going down — and we had nothing to make it through the night. I knew we had to get off the mountain as soon as possible and get help for our friend who had slid out of view.

For the first time in my life, I felt truly frightened about the situation I was in. That terror only lasted for about half an hour — until we got our bearings — but it was intense.

I had taken a big risk without preparing, and it backfired.

Experts know the value of preparation

Some people spend a lot of time showing you how much energy and work they’re putting into preparation.

But experts and professionals tend to operate behind closed doors. They work backwards, clearly defining the outcome they want, and then figuring out exactly how much preparation they need to achieve it.

I didn’t work backwards for my Mount St. Helens trip. I simply decided whatever I’d already done would be enough. It wasn’t.

That’s why when we finally got down the mountain, I was bleeding from both my legs and one arm. I couldn’t even feel it because I was so cold. Our third friend had been picked up by the Rangers after finding a different route — one that included nearly falling down a ravine.

As you might imagine, something clicked for me after that experience. I gained a new level of appreciation for what goes on behind the scenes. Now, I haven’t stopped taking risky and memorable trips with my friends. In fact, the risk has increased year after year.

I just prepare for them better.

Praveen Tipirneni is president and CEO of Morphic Therapeutic Inc.

This column first appeared at Quora.