I had to accept that I could control some things in prison, and I could not control other things. Staff members would determine where I served time. They would order where I slept. Rules would dictate how many contacts I had with society. Other people would determine what, when, and how much I ate.
Despite the external controls of every prison where I served time, I could control my adjustment. I could set values and goals, take incremental actions that would lead me closer to my aspirations. And I could create accountability logs to measure progress. I believed that using those accountability logs wisely would lead me out of the prison labyrinth.
In a previous lesson, I described how I wrote more than 100 letters to schools, hoping to persuade a university to admit me. I wanted a university degree. I had to convince those universities to overlook my crimes and allow me to enroll, even though I didn’t have any financial resources. Although I did not control how a school would respond, I could control how hard I worked to persuade administrators that I was a worthy candidate. With my accountability logs, I could measure progress.
My accountability log would resemble something like the following:
- Value category: Education
- Goal: Earn a university degree
- Purpose: A university degree would persuade my avatars to respect and invest in me.
- Action Plan: Write five letters daily until I sent 100 letters to 100 schools.
- Accountability Metric: Write letters to five different schools each day.
- Timeline: Connect with 100 universities over 20 days.
- Intended Outcome: Persuade at least one university to admit me.
The accountability metric gave me a clear plan. I had to set priorities and execute the plan. The project gave me a deliberate path. I didn’t know whether a school would admit me. But I could measure whether I followed the plan. If I executed the plan, I would increase my chances of getting into school.
The plan worked. Ohio University accepted me. I then began to track my progress through school, measuring the number of lessons I completed and the credits I earned. By May 1992, I met the requirements for my undergraduate degree. Then I followed the same plan to get into graduate school. And in 1995, Hofstra University awarded my graduate degree.
As described in a previous lesson, The Autobiography of Malcolm X influenced me. Reading that story gave me hope. I could increase my value by learning how to communicate better. By building my vocabulary, I could become a better writer and speaker.
I needed a plan and an accountability log. I thought about my avatars. I could learn to communicate like the people I wanted to meet in the future. I could refrain from using language, syntax, or inflections that left others with the impression that I had served decades in prison.
With a more advanced vocabulary as my goal, I chose my words carefully. I would avoid words like “homie” when referring to friends. I would not refer to a woman in my life as my “old lady.” I set a clear path to build my vocabulary:
- Value Category: Education
- Goal: Add 500 words to my vocabulary within 100 days.
- Purpose: Communicate in the language of my avatars.
- Keep a sheet of paper beside me while I read each book.
- Write down each word that I didn’t understand.
- Learn to define each word on my sheet.
- Write and define each word and part of speech (adjective, noun, or verb).
- Create flashcards.
- Write the word on one side of the flashcard; define the word and name part of speech on the other side of the flashcard.
- Carry a stack of flashcards with me at all times.
- While waiting in lines, I would test my knowledge by flipping through flashcards. Make each word a part of my vocabulary.
- Accountability metric: Incorporate an average of at least five new words into my vocabulary each day.
- Timeline: 100 days.
- Intended outcome: Build my vocabulary by more than 500 words within 100 days.
I could measure progress with accountability metrics, and the tools kept me on track. Other people in prison advised me to slow down, saying it didn’t make sense to obsess over making such rapid progress when I served such a long sentence. They ventured unsolicited advice, telling me that progress toward goals would not result in my getting out earlier.
Success requires people to know when to accept advice and when to dismiss what others tell us about what we should or should not do. Instead, we should rely upon our values and goals.
I thought carefully about where I would turn for advice. We get a sad story if we use recidivism rates to define success or failure after release. Statistics tell us that more than half of the people that go into prison fail after release. We cannot ignore that accountability metric.
We should ask whether our adjustment patterns mirror successful people. If they mirror the habits of people who fail, we should change. Choose a deliberate path. Use accountability metrics to make progress toward goals. Leaders teach us the strategy to follow if we want to embrace the mindset of success.
By using accountability logs, I beat timelines that I set at the start:
- Instead of earning one college degree within ten years, I earned two university degrees within eight years.
- Instead of becoming a published author within my first ten years of imprisonment, I published more than 20 articles or book chapters within my first ten years.
- I set a goal of finding ten people to believe in me during my first decade of imprisonment. Yet, the published writings allowed me to bring many mentors into my life during those first ten years. Those people were community leaders who visited me in prison and opened more and more opportunities.
In the next lesson, I’ll reveal how accountability logs led to my building a vast support network before I got out of prison. Then, I’ll show how that support network influenced my liberty and income opportunities from when I transferred to a halfway house in 2012 to the present day.
- The takeaway: every decision we make in prison influences prospects for success upon release.
Take 10 Minutes
How does waiting for calendar pages to turn influence prospects for a triumphant return to society?
How would creating accountability logs and measuring progress influence confidence and self-esteem?