Justice-impacted people can use the Straight-A Guide as a framework to recalibrate through tough times, restoring confidence and strength along the way.
The Straight-A Guide:
The origins of the Straight-A Guide began after a conversation with my friend and mentor, Lee. He frequently visited during the final years I served. While we sat together, I told him about the books that inspired me. After discussing a leadership book that encouraged readers to think about how their decisions would influence their lives in the next ten minutes, ten months, and ten years, Lee tasked me with an assignment.
The author of the book we discussed wrote for CEOs, but anyone could apply the advice to their decision-making process. Lee urged me to develop a similar framework. He recommended that I create a program of my own to build a career around the lessons I learned.
After our visit, I returned to my housing unit, knowing I had a job to complete. By contemplating different ways to deliver the message I wanted to convey, I came up with the Straight-A Guide. I visualized a comprehensive program with workbooks, audio files, and video files that would include ten modules I could expand upon, as follows:
Module One: Use Values to Define Success:
Transformation begins when we identify and articulate the values by which we profess to live. When I started writing, I pledged that I would never ask anyone to do anything that I didn’t do. At the start of my sentence, I defined success simply: I would emerge from prison with my dignity intact and opportunities to prosper as a law-abiding, contributing citizen. I wanted to walk into any room without fear that people would discriminate against me because of the time that I served.
I taught that introductory lesson through the context of my journey. First, I needed to accept responsibility and let the world know that I wanted to become something more than a person serving a lengthy prison term.
Rather than allowing my past bad decisions to define me, I thought about my avatars. By asking Socratic questions about what they would expect of me, I could describe the values by which I professed to live.
My avatars would expect a person in prison to:
- Educate himself,
- Contribute to society, and
- Build a support network.
Those three principles became the values by which I professed to live. Through the lesson plans I created in the first module, I encouraged participants to identify their values and to think about the success they wanted to build.
Module Two: Goals
After working through the first module and identifying values, a participant could work through the second module—setting clear goals that align with how a person defined success.
In my case, I wrote that it didn’t matter how I defined success. I had to think about the people I wanted to influence—my avatars. What would they expect? Answering such questions required the question approach to learning.
- How would my avatars define whether I succeeded in my pursuit of education?
I anticipated that they would measure education by a college degree.
- How would my avatars define whether I contributed to society?
I anticipated that if I were to publish, they would consider that I had worked to make a quantifiable contribution.
- How would my avatars define whether I had built a support network?
I anticipated that if I persuaded ten people to believe and vouch for me, my avatars would find it easier to accept me.
From that question-based approach, I set the following goals to guide my adjustment through the first decade of my sentence:
- I would earn a university degree,
- I would become a published author, and
- I would find ten people to join my support network.
After showing the pattern that worked for me, lessons in the second module encouraged participants to articulate their goals, making them specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic, and time-bound, harmonizing with how they defined success.
Module Three: Attitude
Participants who took the time to identify values and goals could embark upon the Straight-A Guide. In the third module, participants would work to assess whether they had the “right” attitude.
- What defines the right attitude?
In the Straight-A Guide, we identified the right attitude as a 100% commitment to success—as the individual’s values and goals defined success.
Any of us could pursue a self-directed strategy to assess our level of commitment to succeed. Many people talk about wanting to succeed. Those who achieve the highest levels of success, however, know that they must fully commit to their values and goals.
Module Four: Aspiration
In the fourth module, participants learn the importance of aspiring to their highest potential. They develop habits of visualizing themselves as something more than their past bad decisions or their current circumstances. When people project into the future, they develop perseverance—a virtue they can draw upon while climbing through challenging times. Aspirations help people stick with their plans, even when external forces work against them.
People going through complicated prison terms benefit from examples that profile others who built lives of meaning, relevance, and dignity inside and upon release. When we see that others have overcome the challenges of imprisonment and gone on to build lives of significance, we bolster our confidence that we can do the same.
As I wrote that module, I reflected on the lessons I learned from Nelson Mandela. In his book A Long Walk to Freedom, we saw the author’s strength. Despite a corrupt system that required him to endure beatings, forced labor, isolation, starvation, and other indignities, Mandela always felt a higher calling. Rather than worrying about his struggles, he devoted his life to helping all people in South Africa. He aspired to live for something more than his own life, and those visions endowed him with the strength and spirit to overcome the injustices perpetrated against him.
Nelson Mandela and others taught us that when we can see what we’re going to become, we strengthen our resolve to endure the moment’s challenges.
Module Five: Action
The fifth module show participants that nothing great happens without deliberate intentions. Every person who achieves a high level of personal success understands the need to take incremental action steps. There is an old cliché emphasizing that we must crawl before we can walk, and we walk before we can run. While living in challenging times, however, we need reminders of how the seemingly insignificant steps we’re taking today open opportunities that we can create or seize later.
While writing that module, I reflected on the many incremental action steps that influenced my journey through prison. In one of the chapters from Earning Freedom: Conquering a 45-Year Prison Term, one of the accompanying texts that would go with the course, I revealed the example of how I transitioned from a high-security penitentiary to a lower-security prison.
During my initial meeting with the management team, I asked what I could do to transfer to a prison with less volatility. The unit manager told me that since my judge sentenced me to 45 years, I belonged in high security and wouldn’t leave until I finished serving my sentence. Institutions routinely extinguish hope. Fortunately, leaders like Mandela helped me believe I could act in ways to bring incremental changes. To facilitate change:
- I found a job that would lessen my exposure to volatility, and the job helped me to avoid disciplinary infractions.
- I opened opportunities to enroll in a university program, and the studies gave me a reason to persevere.
- I developed friendships with mentors who collaborated with me to help me become a published author.
- Writing further my strategy of bringing more influential people into my support network, and they helped me overcome challenges.
All those little steps worked together. My actions led to an outcome that differed from what most people would project for a person who served a quarter century. Over time, I transitioned to prisons of decreasing security, and in each one, I opened more opportunities that would not have been available had I not taken the little steps. Once I got out, I had the resources I needed to integrate with society easily.
Leaders show us that the little steps we take each day put us on a pathway to higher levels of opportunity in the weeks, months, and years ahead.
Module Six: Accountability
To live as the CEO of our life, we must be intentional about the progress we’re making. Instead of waiting for external forces—like the system—to track our progress, we need to create accountability metrics that help us stay the course. Our accountability tools help us figure out ways to measure incremental progress. Leaders teach us that if we anticipate having to pass through decades before release, we must hold ourselves accountable, adjusting along the way.
In retrospect, I could see similarities between what I read about building a business and building an intentional life. People who build businesses follow a path that only they can see. They identify a problem they want to resolve and engineer the tiny steps they must take along the way. Each stage has a specific timeline and requires limited resources. The leaders may reach their goal within the timeline, using the budgets they set or don’t. Successful leaders don’t make excuses when they fail to achieve their goals. They adjust. To stay on track, they created accountability tools.
Leaders don’t wait for external forces to determine whether they’re succeeding. They define success, and they hold themselves 100% accountable along the way.
In the sixth module of the course, we encourage participants to develop accountability metrics. If we know what we want to achieve in ten years, then we should be able to reverse engineer the incremental progress we should make.
- Where should we be in five years?
- What incremental stage of success should we reach within three years?
- Since we know the level of growth we should make in three years, we know what we must achieve each month of the current year.
Our accountability metrics keep us on track, helping us assess progress through each month, each week, and each day. If obstacles surface, we adjust.
Module Seven: Awareness
Module seven shows participants how to grasp the importance of keeping our heads in the game. We’ve got to stay aware of opportunities. When we focus on opportunities rather than obstacles, we always perceive how we can squeeze the most value from each day.
We’re aware, alert, and ready to put ourselves on the pathway to success.
We build strength when we understand how tiny steps lead to new opportunities. Others become aware of our commitment, making it more likely for them to collaborate or invest in our progress.
We become aware of opportunities. By creating or seizing opportunities, others become aware of us.
In his book Good to Great, the author Jim Collins wrote about the difficulty of getting anything started. Every goal worth achieving requires effort. In the beginning, the endeavor may be exhausting and all-consuming. Over time, however, if we stay the course, our projects develop momentum. To build something great, we must remain alert and aware and constantly invest in development. His book shows that we can reach our highest potential when we apply ourselves with 100% commitment. Although the author wrote about building great companies, those same principles apply to building extraordinary lives. We’ve got to keep our heads in the game.
Module Eight: Authenticity
People with criminal records may face more challenges than those who do not have criminal records. Rather than fooling ourselves into believing those challenges don’t exist, we should develop a response. For that reason, module eight covers the importance of building a record of authenticity.
It isn’t enough to say we want to succeed. We need plans to convert our adversaries into advocates. From other leaders, I learned that we advance our credibility—or authenticity—when we show how intentional we are with our systemic approach to succeed:
- We need to be clear about what we’re striving to resolve,
- We need to identify the plan that we’re going to use,
- We need to put priorities in place,
- We need to build the tools, tactics, and resources that accelerate our path,
- We need to show how we adjust when necessary,
- We need to execute our plan day after day.
People who pursue this path put themselves in a better position to convert adversaries into advocates. Through the course itself, people should see authenticity in action.
Module Nine: Achievement
Since people frequently spend years in custody before the system grants them liberty, we offer suggestions in module nine to show the importance of celebrating incremental achievements.
The books accompanying our Straight-A Guide course show the different ways that celebrating small achievements empowered me, while months turned into years and years turned into decades. Although we cannot control release dates directly, we can always control our behavior and our preparations for success. Every small achievement should influence possibilities for new opportunities.
The Straight-A Guide shows participants that by following this values-based, goal-oriented strategy, we restore confidence and meaning in our life. We create higher levels of liberty and strengthen our mindset, knowing that we’re making daily progress, regardless of external forces or influences.
Module Ten: Appreciation
In our final module of the Straight-A Guide, we show how we can bring more abundance into our life when we live in a state of gratitude. We grow stronger by expressing appreciation for the blessings that come our way. The pains of confinement lessen when we’re working to build a better community for all.
I created a resource by writing the Straight-A Guide during the final months of my imprisonment. I could use the resource to put lessons from Socrates, the Bible, Nelson Mandela, Viktor Frankl, Mahatma Gandhi, and others into a context that would relate to justice-impacted people. They could use it at every stage of the journey. Through the work ahead, I hoped to disseminate the Straight-A Guide to people in jails and prisons across America.
Teaching at San Francisco State University allowed me to influence future leaders of the correctional system. With the ten modules of the Straight-A Guide, I could work to share self-directed strategies with millions of justice-impacted people. Together, we could collaborate in ways to improve outcomes for the system.
- In what ways are you using a step-by-step plan to reach your highest potential?
- How would you create a framework to share ideas with others?
- How can you influence stakeholders on the need to reform our nation’s prison system?