In 1997, I found myself in “Old Folsom,” a violent maximum-security prison in northern California. Even though I’d been a drug dealer and grew up in violent environments, I still had to endure the learning curve of prison.
Being in prison for the first time is like being thrown into a swimming pool that has no shallow end.
You have to constantly watch your surroundings. While you’re watching others, they’re watching you. Many inmates can smell weakness like a shark smells an infinitesimal amount of blood thousands of feet away.
And if the wrong people think you’re weak, you’re in deep shit.
You have to be mindful of everything you say and do.
Bumping into someone without apologizing can get you knocked unconscious. Saying something disrespectful can get you stabbed.
Stabbings, fights, robberies and other violent encounters occur regularly at most maximum-security prisons.
Although prison was arguably the most hellish experience of my life, it was the wake-up call I needed.
My prison experience undoubtedly taught me the best lessons I’ve ever learned.
1. Use adversity as a growth opportunity.
The worst things that ever happened to us are incredible growth opportunities. They can transform our lives in extraordinary ways — but only if we’re willing to look beyond the pain and find meaning in our suffering.
When I was in prison, I read Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. This incredible book taught me how to overcome my anger, despair and bitterness by finding a deeper meaning in what happened. Here’s a quote from Frankl that really helped me at my lowest point:
“We may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed. When we are no longer able to change a situation…we are challenged to change ourselves.”
I had to change how I saw this situation and the world. Instead of blaming the legal system, the guy who snitched on me, and others—I finally took ownership of the things I had done.
Once I admitted that I was responsible for manufacturing illegal drugs and ending up in prison, my deep anger at the world and other people began to disappear.
Then I began to look at the positive aspects of my situation.
Prison was one of the best things that happened to me. If I didn’t go to prison, I could’ve later been arrested for more serious drug crimes. I could’ve ended up dead, like some of my fellow drug dealers and friends.
I was exactly where I needed to be.
When you find yourself in a terrible situation, first figure out what you can change and what you can’t change. When change is possible, make positive changes.
When change isn’t possible, determine the best ways to adapt to the situation. Ask yourself:
- What do I need to do to get the best outcome here?
- If I keep holding onto these negative, self-defeating emotions, how will my life look?
- What can I accomplish if I can see this bad situation thru a more positive lens?
I couldn’t change the fact that I was in prison. I could change what I did with my time while I was there. I stopped wasting time being negative and wallowing in self-pity. I thought about the purpose of my life for the first time.
I began planning how I was going to rebuild my life when I was released. I began reading more books. I wrote more. I pondered the lessons life was teaching me.
When you go thru something traumatic, ask yourself:
- What is life teaching me in this situation?
- How can I use what I’ve learned from this situation to become a better and stronger person?
2. Re-align your values with who you are.
One of the best things about adversity is that it can help you get in tune with your core values. It will help you figure out what you value the most. It may also help you determine the ways in which this bad situation occurred because you failed to honor some of your top values.
I had to get rid of my toxic values and replace them with positive core values that would allow me to become who I was meant to be.
I found that one of my top core values was growth. When I began using this growth mindset in a healthy (and legal) way, I began to reach higher.
I got a graduate degree. I have a successful career in the technology and life/business coaching sectors. I’m constantly learning, growing and living at the outer edge of my comfort zone.
When you’re in a bad situation:
- Identify any toxic values that contributed to that situation. Remove those values from your life.
- Replace any negative values with positive ones that will allow you to live an authentic life that’s aligned with who you really are.
- Identify which of your values you weren’t honoring and how not living up to them created this terrible situation. Were you failing to love yourself? Did you give up your integrity? Did you lose your authenticity by doing things you really didn’t agree with? Did you sacrifice your physical health?
3. Realize you are the only person who can save you.
In prison, you quickly learn that you’re on your own. Even if you join a gang or are part of a bigger racial group, you can still be manipulated, hurt or killed.
You have to depend on your intelligence, street smarts, common sense, insight, experience and best judgment to make good decisions every day. If you can’t rely on yourself to make the best decisions, you’ll pay a big price.
Life outside of prison is similar in many ways. We have to rely on ourselves to make good decisions. Doing the wrong things can get us fired, destroy our best relationships, kill a big business deal, put us in bankruptcy or make our lives hell.
When we find ourselves in the worst situations, we have to get ourselves out of them. Family and friends can help and support us, but they can’t save us.
When you’re in a tough situation:
- Take 100% responsibility for any role you played in the situation.
- Be 100% conscious of reality. Don’t distract yourself from the painful and harsh events that are cropping up around you.
- No matter what happened, love and accept yourself.
- Don’t ever rely on some hero to swoop in and save you during your darkest hours. That hero is you.
4. Create strong boundaries.
“You teach people how to treat you by what you allow, what you stop, and what you reinforce.” — Tony Gaskins
If you do anything that shows weakness in prison, people will quickly take advantage of you. You may think you’re being “a better man” by walking away after people have openly disrespected you or even physically assaulted you on the prison yard. You’ll later find that more people will disrespect or assault you.
You may think you’re being generous by giving away half of your food and cosmetic products. You’ll later be shocked to see that there’s a guy at your cell door who’s there to take everything you have.
Just like people in prison will take advantage of you if you show weakness, people in the free world will also take advantage of you if you don’t set strong boundaries.
If you don’t impose your rules on the outside world, the outside world will impose its rules on you.
To set strong boundaries:
- Know exactly what you will and won’t tolerate. When you stand up for yourself, some people will get angry and pushback. Stand your ground.
- Realize you’re responsible for your own happiness.
- Don’t let other people try to manipulate you or lie to you without calling out their bullshit.
- Live your truth. Be who you authentically are — not who you think you need to be to get other peoples’ approval.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want or need.
In prison and the free world, even those who don’t agree with you will secretly respect you when you firmly defend your boundaries.
5. Help other people who are suffering.
I now go back into prisons to help incarcerated men learn the business, personal development and job readiness skills they need to start their own businesses or get good jobs when they’re released.
Neuroscience has shown that helping other people makes us happy by releasing dopamine, the main pleasure-inducing chemical in the brain.
Helping others is also a very important part of growth and healing. Helping people who are in pain is a great way to give your own life more purpose and meaning.
And there are a lot of people in this world who will benefit greatly from the hard-fought lessons that you learned thru adversity.
6. The worst prisons aren’t made out of concrete and steel.
“Your mind can be your prison or your palace. What you make it is yours to decide.” — Bernard Kelvin Clive
This experience later taught me the biggest lesson of all: the worst prisons aren’t made out of concrete and steel. The worst prisons are the ones that we create in our own minds.
I had incarcerated myself in several mental prisons that caused me to make a shit ton of bad decisions, which ultimately landed me in a prison made out of concrete and steel.
All of us are in our own mental prisons, such as hopelessness, anger, negativity, low self-esteem, over-thinking, self-doubt, procrastination, guilt, addiction and many others.
These prisons stop us from reaching our full potential and achieving all of our dreams.
What mental prisons are affecting your life and stopping you from achieving your dreams?
Sometimes our biggest failures lead to our greatest successes. Going to prison was one of my biggest failures, but the lessons I learned from that experience allowed me to later create an exciting, fulfilling and purposeful life.
When you experience extremely traumatic things, your knee-jerk response may be to block out all of those horrific events. Just bury them deep in your unconscious mind so you don’t have to relive the pain.
Don’t do that.
Sift thru the pain, the ugliness, the trauma, the shame and the other uncomfortable feelings, memories and emotions.
When you sift long enough, you’ll find those golden lessons that will transform your life in a very positive way. You’ll find opportunities to replace destructive values with good ones, set stronger boundaries, become more self-reliant and help other people who went thru the same pain you did.
And you’ll realize that the worst prisons aren’t made out of concrete and steel.