Prison! My 8,344th Day: Straight-A Guide
The face of my Timex Ironman tells me it’s 11:17 a.m.
I finish eating the rice, beans, and tuna, put the bowl on the steel table, grab my water bottle, and walk out of the cubicle. Before resuming my work, I walk into the Spanish TV room to tell David I’ve left the cubicle. He assures me that he will straighten things out before returning to his job assignment.
The quiet room is empty. Intending to make progress on the manuscript for young people who grapple with the criminal justice system, I begin to write. With this project, I’m trying to reach people between 12 and 18. Their sanctions may require them to live apart from family in youth centers, alternative-to-incarceration programs, or juvenile prisons.
I collaborated with Justin Paperny, a friend I met in prison, to launch this project. After his release, Justin took the initiative to establish a nonprofit organization, providing a mechanism to raise resources from sponsors. By raising money, we could create and distribute learning materials for people who live in custody. I share the same strategies leaders taught me in the books and courses. This new manuscript will become part of the coursework that Justin’s foundation will distribute.
Justin graduated from USC in 1997, then built a lucrative career as a stockbroker. However, ten years into his career, he made decisions that violated securities laws, resulting in criminal charges against him. We met and became close friends during the year he served at Taft Camp.
While we were together, I described my hopes of using what I’ve learned through the decades of imprisonment to teach others. Justin offered to work with me. Upon his release, he really came through by assembling the team of professionals necessary to launch the nonprofit foundation.
As an IRS-approved nonprofit, the foundation raised financial resources from corporations, individuals, and philanthropic organizations. We spread this message of self-reliance, personal responsibility, and the need to prepare for success while crossing through fires of adversity.
We’re looking forward to producing and distributing courses to help justice-impacted people prepare for success. All the books and courses I write show people how to empower themselves. They can develop skills while serving time. If a person learns to develop a vocabulary, write coherently, and speak persuasively, that person will open new opportunities.
I’ve used that strategy during my adjustment, and I intend to continue using it when I get out.
People that live in jails and prisons need hope. Despite individual circumstances that put them in the grips of the criminal justice system, they need examples to show that they have the power to make positive changes and bring meaning to their lives.
I anticipate that readers will identify with my story. I began serving a lengthy prison term during my early 20s and opened opportunities while serving decades inside. People find hope in that story.
In the manuscript I’m working on now, I strive to show those readers the strategies I use to empower and enrich my life. I’m calling the manuscript The Straight-A Guide.
Each “A” in the Straight-A Guide represents a word I use to show readers how to prepare for success. I believe in the strategy because it works for me, and I document what I’m doing every day. Participants see that I’m not asking them to do anything that I’m not doing.
At the start of my journey, I didn’t refer to the strategy as the Straight-A Guide. But it’s helped me since 1987 when I was a 23-year-old man facing a sentence of life without parole.
I don’t delude myself with assumptions that I’m breaking new ground by writing the Straight-A Guide. From the start of the written word, leaders have documented the importance of living a values-based, goal-oriented life. I put the lessons into the context of my lengthy prison journey.
Perhaps everyone knows the path to success. Yet it’s one thing to know the way, and it’s another thing to walk the way. Those who achieve what they set out to achieve—wherever they are—abide by the strategy.
In prison, some people choose negative adjustments, some choose positive adjustments, and some meander along—going positive one day and hostile the next. For example, some men put a high emphasis on building reputations as fearless or super-criminals. They act accordingly.
Other people want to impress staff members. They pursue certificates by participating in programs that have minimal meaning beyond prison boundaries, then they fight for space in a television room or cut in lines.
I strive to succeed upon release. Everything I think, say, and do aligns with that commitment. I don’t care about a prison reputation. I’m indifferent to staff perceptions. The pursuit of success upon release drives me in every decision.
Early in my term, a correctional officer passed me a book that changed how I think. The story profiled Socrates, a philosopher that lived during ancient Greek times. While locked in a jail cell, he awaited his execution. Instead of crying about his punishment, Socrates thought about the best way to add value to the lives of others.
In Earning Freedom, I wrote extensively about how the story of Socrates influenced my early adjustment. Socrates taught me how to think differently. The book made all the difference in my life.
Since reading the book about Socrates, I have read about many leaders. I noticed a pattern in the way that they make decisions. They follow a strategy, taking clearly defined steps toward a well-articulated goal. By reading about individuals who achieve—people who become the best in the world at what they do—I’ve become convinced that success isn’t random, and it doesn’t come by accident. People who commit to success make deliberate choices. The level of success they achieve correlates directly to their choices.
Those pursuing success know where they stand and where they want to go. Understanding their strengths and weaknesses, leaders perceive both opportunities and threats. All that knowledge gives direction with the understanding that two points exist: start and finish. Successful people want to cross from one point to another, and they act accordingly, measuring incremental progress along the way.
People who achieve greatness in any domain are deliberate. Bill Gates said that he envisioned a computer on every desktop and home. His pursuit of that goal became the spirit that drove Microsoft. Jack Welch, the former chairman of General Electric, said his business decisions began with the premise that all GE businesses had to be number one or number two in the market, or he would exit the business.
It’s not only business leaders who adhere to this strategy of deliberate purpose. Elite athletes and musicians commit to excellence by practicing their craft every day. If they miss a single day of practice, they can tell the difference. If they miss two days of training, critics can tell the difference. If they miss three days of practice, fans can tell the difference.
From what I’ve read, every person who achieves high levels of success follows a deliberate strategy, and I learn from studying them.
People that live in prison, and others who struggle through adversity, may appreciate a guide from someone who walks the path every day.
Prisons extinguish hope. Although numerous stories describe the difficulty and failure that awaits people upon release, scant literature shows examples of success after prison. I have not found much information on preparing for success from prison.
Too many men who surrender years or decades to the system live with misperceptions that they’re only serving time, and there isn’t anything they can do about it. I’m writing The Straight-A Guide to show the possibilities that open for people that make deliberate choices. We live with an institutional mantra that pounds people with reverberating negative messages. “You’ve got nothin’ comin’.”
I intend to produce coursework to undermine that message.
A deliberate adjustment strategy made all the difference in my life, despite the 22 years, ten months, and four days I’ve been in prison thus far. I’ll continue following The Straight-A Guide for the final three-plus years I’m scheduled to serve. Since I believe in the power of making deliberate decisions, I will stick with the strategy for the rest of my life.
Writing a self-help manuscript doesn’t come easily to me. None of my writing skills have come easily. My writing skills were poor when I began serving my term. Despite the two degrees I earned, I never had the privilege of studying writing in a classroom with a professor and other writing students around me.
But many mentors have helped me through correspondence.
The Straight-A Guide begins with two prerequisites, which I’ve written about extensively. First, a person must define success. Given the situation at hand, what is the best possible outcome? If a person can respond to that question, he can advance to the next lesson in the Straight-A Guide: set clear goals to bridge the gap from struggle to success.
Early in my journey, I defined success clearly. Regardless of how long I served, I didn’t want the prison term to represent my life. I intended to live with my dignity intact, confident that I would succeed in society. If I succeeded, I would be able to walk into any room, and no one would know that I served a day in prison unless I told them. I wanted to create an income stream around my journey rather than live with shame because of my prison term.
Since I could define success clearly, I could advance to the second prerequisite of the Straight-A Guide. I could set clear goals. Those goals would require me to earn a university degree, become a published author, and build a robust support network. If I could execute those three goals, I believed that I would have a far better chance of success upon release.
I could embark upon the Straight-A Guide with those two prerequisites. I looked forward to writing the remainder of the course’s lessons.
During my late-morning and early afternoon writing session yesterday, I wrote about attitude. Attitude represents the first “A” of The Straight-A Guide. In writing about attitude, I try to show my readers why all success begins with an attitude of success. Anyone can say he wants to succeed, and in my experience, every person in prison does say that he wants to succeed. But statistics show that seven of every ten people who leave prison fail.
Those who succeed make different decisions from those who never get beyond saying they want to succeed. People who succeed have an attitude of self-reliance. It doesn’t mean they don’t have help along the way, but they always work to help themselves. They recognize that they can’t count on outside forces to usher in success. External forces may present obstacles. A person with the right attitude can still make the right decisions that advance them incrementally toward the goals they want to achieve.
Today I’m writing about the second “A” of The Straight-A Guide: Aspire. Those striving to succeed aspire to something meaningful. They have clear ideas of what they want, and they can envision themselves achieving those aspirations.
Aspirations provide the reasons for all their commitments, the work they create, and the pursuit that brings meaning to their lives. People who succeed do not set vague aspirations. Instead, they know exactly what they’re after because clearly-defined aspirations give them the purpose.
People who achieve don’t simply say they will be very successful. That vague statement has no meaning, and it’s typical of people who “say” but never “do.” Those who achieve clearly define their aspirations.
Bill Gates, for example, didn’t aspire to build a successful computer company. He said that he would put a computer on every desk and house. Jack Welch aspired to hold the number one or number two positions in the marketplace for every GE company. He didn’t aspire to ensure all GE businesses were successful.
Success requires more than vague statements that no one can measure.
To further illustrate my interpretation of what it means to aspire, I am writing about the aspirations that guided my decisions throughout my term. I aspired to succeed upon release, but such a vague aspiration wouldn’t sustain my focus through a quarter-century of prison. What did success mean?
I had to define it. Success meant positioning myself to ensure I would have the skills, resources, support network, and fitness to emerge as a contributing citizen.
Still not specific enough. What did skills, resources, support network, and fitness mean? I had to define each.
Skills: Skills meant I had to earn academic credentials that people in society would respect. I had a clearly-defined aspiration to earn an undergraduate degree and a graduate degree during my first decade of imprisonment.
Resources: I aspired to ensure that I would have enough money in the bank to meet all my expenses during my first year of liberty when I concluded my term.
Support network: I aspired to earn respect, trust, and support from at least ten law-abiding citizens who would support my transition into society when I concluded my sentence.
Fitness level: I aspired to keep my weight within a ten-pound range throughout my prison term, within five pounds higher or lower than my high school graduation weight of 172.
In pursuing those clearly-defined aspirations, I built meaning in my life—a reason for every decision I made and a guide I could consult to make the right decisions. All decisions would work together to advance me incrementally toward my aspirations. Achieving those aspirations, I believed, would put me in a much stronger position to succeed once I got out, as I defined success.
When I finish writing the section on aspiration, I will write about the third “A” of The Straight-A Guide: Act. That section describes how aspirations lead to actions. Following actions, I will write about awareness, accountability, authenticity, achievement, and finally, appreciation.
I began this manuscript intending to write 25 pages every week. By adhering to that schedule, my outline suggests that I can complete the manuscript of about 30,000 words well before the end of August. That schedule pushes me to write at least four pages every day, but I’m not going to reach that goal today.
This strategy of tackling big projects in bite-size pieces has helped me throughout the journey. It’s continuing to help me now. I am confident that my habits as a prisoner will translate into success upon release.
- How are you defining success in your life?
- What goals will bridge your gap from adversity to prosperity?
- In what ways are you measuring progress toward your goal