After 25 years in prison, I began to explore the streets of San Francisco with my first community pass from the halfway house at 111 Taylor Street.
First Community Pass from Halfway House:
On August 13, 2012, a few days after walking out of prison, I headed to the Department of Motor Vehicles. Spending that time in the car with Carole felt great, as it was the first time I’d been out of prison boundaries since 1987. Yet since we only had a short window before the halfway house expected me, I didn’t fully appreciate the liberty. The pressure of getting to my destination on time blocked me from thoroughly enjoying the experience.
With that pass to leave the halfway house, I felt different. From the moment I pushed open the door and walked onto Taylor Street, I felt amazingly free—but also directionless. I had to navigate through busy streets to the Department of Motor Vehicles on Fell Street in San Francisco. Carole had told me how to use an app on my phone that would, in theory, provide directions. But I didn’t know how to use it. Instead, I called my business partner Justin. He offered the step-by-step guidance I needed to reach my destination.
I looked forward to getting my driver’s license, an essential resource for developing my career. Before getting out, my wife sent me a handbook so I could study for the written portion of the test. I studied it thoroughly and felt confident that I could pass. When it came to the driving part of the test, I wasn’t so sure.
People think that a person who knows how to drive never forgets. Such people did not serve multiple decades in prison. While Carole drove me from the prison to the halfway house, I sensed that I no longer knew how to drive. The cars zipped by in the other lane, making me dizzy as I watched.
While incarcerated, our bodies don’t move any faster than our legs can carry us, and our eyes adjust to the slower pace. Once we get out, we must adapt to the fast pace of the real world. Although I looked forward to taking the written exam, I’d have to practice before scheduling the driving portion of the exam.
After finishing the written exam, I walked back to the halfway house. With money in my pocket, I felt the call of Burger King. For decades, I ate in chow halls with guards watching or alone by the bunk in my cubicle or cell. I savored the thought of biting into an American cheeseburger. I dropped more than $30 in that restaurant, buying Whoppers, French fries, onion rings, milkshakes, and sodas. And I ate everything.
When I returned to the halfway house, showing that I had passed the written exam, Charles permitted me to practice driving with Carole. I didn’t know I forgot how to drive or when I forgot. It may have happened after ten years, maybe after 20. When Carole and I started to practice, it became clear that I lacked confidence behind the wheel.
After a few days of driving with Carole, I felt ready for the exam, and fortunately, I passed. With a license, I felt like I’d crossed off one of the first challenges of returning to society.
Family and Work:
Since I had job prospects waiting, Charles authorized me to shop for clothing I would need for work. Since I didn’t have much time, Carole and my younger sister, Christina, met me at the Westfield Mall in San Francisco on my first weekend at the halfway house. The shopping trip became a mini-family reunion after 25 years. My sister could see how excited I felt to blend in with society, and I told her about the job opportunity.
Several years before my release, I met Lee, a great human being and an extraordinary businessman. The strategy I used to get into school or to overcome other obstacles proved helpful in many ways—including opening mentor relationships. Routinely, I’d write unsolicited letters to people that inspired me. Since Lee had built several remarkable businesses that employed hundreds of people, generating billions in revenue, I knew I could learn much from him.
Over time, Lee became one of my closest friends, mentors, and business partners. He visited me frequently during my final years. When he came, he asked how I intended to earn a living when I got out. I explained the complexities that I had learned from interviewing others. I would need to satisfy specific conditions that included employment. In other words, I needed to show that I had a steady paycheck before authorities would authorize me to go out on my own to build my business.
Lee listened as I made a case on why I could bring value to his company if he would allow me to earn a paycheck.
Lee did more than anyone could ask. He said he would give me a desk and a paycheck when I got out. While I served my final year in the halfway house, one of Lee’s businesses would pay me $10 per hour to satisfy the requirements for the halfway house.
As Lee and I sat in his office, he invited me to start training alongside him. Wanting to impact the lives of other justice-impacted people, I told him that I needed to spend those initial months learning about technology. “I’ll give you a year to build a business,” he said. “If you can’t make something happen within a year, then come work with me, and we’ll build a business together.”
I am lucky to have built a friendship with a leader like Lee. A coalition of influential friends can help anyone emerge from struggle. Many wise men who lived before me have found truth in the saying:
- “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”
Lee embodied all the good characteristics and traits that I aspired to develop. Over time, he proved himself as an innovative and gifted businessman. Further, he contributed to his community, providing opportunities and resources that influenced thousands of lives.
When I contemplated avatars or thought about the type of people I wanted to emulate upon release, I visualized leaders like Lee. Before making strategic decisions, I’d introspect, asking the rhetorical question:
- “What Would Lee Do?”
Leaders always leave us clues on how they became successful.
Because I had a vision of connecting with people like Lee, I had to figure out what Lee and leaders like him would expect of me. He didn’t know me when I began serving my sentence. My conviction showed that I spent the 1980s as a reckless young man who sold cocaine. A judge sentenced me to serve a 45-year sentence. If I didn’t do something to change perceptions, people would always see me as a criminal.
I could create new pathways by focusing on avatars and contemplating what they would expect of me. Masterminds convinced me that by working to educate myself, contributing to society, and building a support network, I could persuade influential and successful people to believe in me. This “mastermind” strategy characterized the life of every successful person I met.
Anyone serving time in prison could begin sowing seeds to develop support from leaders like Lee. Opportunities that opened for me throughout my journey were available to everyone around me. When I started serving my sentence, I didn’t have any financial resources. Nor did I have an education.
Reading Socrates gave me the advantage of hope. Hope for a better future led me to seek wisdom. I found the recipe for that wisdom from masterminds, first Socrates, then many others. They taught me the art of question-based learning. By contemplating the best possible outcome and questioning what my avatars would expect, I crafted a strategy that would lead to success.
Steal Ideas from Masterminds:
As Steve Jobs, another mastermind, said, “Good artists copy ideas, but great artists steal ideas.” To prepare for success, I copied ideas from the most successful masterminds I could find, whether they lived thousands of years ago or whether they served time alongside me in federal prison. As I saw it, masterminds were all around us.
Regardless of our status today, we all have masterminds around us. When communicating with people in prison, I challenge them to question their actions and choices. How will those actions and choices influence masterminds? If they perceive a person as worthy of their time, they willingly help and invest. I cannot recall how many people invested time, energy, and resources in my success, even though I did not know them before my imprisonment. They saw me as being authentic, and they wanted to help.
I found that I could “will” avatars into my life who would invest in my future. And if I could do that while serving 26 years, then just think what you can do!
Some people who invested in me along the way include the following:
- Prison staff members who allowed me to maneuver my way into the right type of job—a job that would allow me to make progress toward the independent goals I set.
- Lawyers who came into my life and volunteered their time to advance my release date—although I served every day of my sentence, I appreciated their efforts.
- Mentors and educators who visited me at their own expense, regardless of my location.
- Publishers who opened a platform for me to bring books to market.
- Other people in prison who became friends throughout the journey.
- Investors who provided financial resources that would allow me to advance my goals.
- Business owners who agreed to open introductions for me upon release.
- Carole, who became my wife and life partner.
Whether I served time in jail, a high-security penitentiary, a medium-security prison, a low-security prison, or a minimum-security camp, I always found masterminds. They expressed interest and wanted to help. If this strategy only succeeded for me in a single minimum-security camp, then people could say I was lucky. My earlier books showed that many people came into my life and helped advance my prospects for success.
All people can invite the same types of support into their life.
- First, people must begin asking the types of Socratic questions that allowed me to find mentors.
- Then, they needed to create a plan.
- Finally, they needed to execute the plan as the days turned into weeks, the weeks turned into months, the months turned into years, and for some, the years turned into decades.
My job with Lee’s company satisfied Charles, my case manager. Since I had a place to work, he authorized me to leave the halfway house each morning at 6:00 a.m. I didn’t return to the halfway house until around 8:00 in the evening. I provided Charles with a copy of my check stub and a money order for 25% of my gross wages on payday. So long as I complied with his terms, he lived up to his word and allowed me all the liberty I needed to begin building my career.
With a driver’s license, a job, and a paycheck, I had to begin building a banking relationship. After I received my first paycheck, I went to Bank of America and opened an account. Since Charles had told me that I could not apply for credit until after I completed my obligation to the Bureau of Prisons, I opened a checking account and a savings account.
When the banker ran a credit report, we learned I had a 0-0-0 credit score. He asked how a person my age could proceed through life without accumulating a credit score—good or bad. The banker listened with interest as I told him I’d just concluded 25 years in custody and that I was living in a halfway house. That conversation opened another opportunity for me to tell the story of my journey, another opportunity to influence a potential source of support.
Many people emerge from prison and try to hide their past. I don’t judge how much information an individual should reveal. In my case, I’ve found that total transparency always served me best. By being completely honest about my past, I’ve always found that people were willing to listen. With the record I built while inside, even bankers willingly welcomed me home and encouraged me. When rules would allow me to apply for credit, he assured me that Bank of America would be ready to help.
Over the next several weeks, many of the seeds I’d planted while incarcerated began to bear fruit. As mentioned in my other books, I wrote articles routinely while I served my sentence. The articles I wrote related to the prison system or overcoming struggles and helped me build interest or a brand. I became somewhat of a subject-matter authority. As a strategy to broaden awareness of my work, I asked my wife to hire a web developer to build a website where I could publish the articles I wrote. We had our strategy: I would write by hand and send the articles home. Carole would type the articles and publish them on my website or other media sites she maintained on my behalf.
While in the halfway house, I received an email from Vlae Kershner, a news director at the San Francisco Chronicle. Vlae told me that he had been following the work I published on the web for years and asked whether I’d be interested in the newspaper writing a profile about my return to society after a quarter century. That conversation led to an interview and a front-page story in one of the most highly visible newspapers in the world. The San Francisco newspaper published the article on Thanksgiving weekend, about 100 days after I transitioned to the halfway house in 2012.
Instead of focusing on my crime or the decades I served in prison, it profiled my efforts to improve outcomes for justice-impacted people and the system. The article brought publicity that validated my work. A person couldn’t buy that type of coverage, and I intended to leverage the article in ways that would open new opportunities. With the newspaper story, people would judge me for how I responded to my lengthy prison sentence rather than for the bad decisions I began making at 20.
Those who choose to live transparently and authentically may also find that this strategy would advance their prospects for success. People are more receptive to extending “second chances” or opportunities to people who acknowledge their past bad decisions, express remorse, and show that they’re determined to work toward redemption.
- Who are your avatars, and how do they relate to the success you want to build?
- What would they expect of you?
- In what ways are the decisions you’re making today leading you closer to earning support tomorrow?