Dr. Paul Wood, the director of Switch Coaching and Consulting, presents What’s Your Prison? at TEDxAuckland….
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: What’s Your Prison by Paul Wood at TEDxAuckland
Where you end up in life is often the result of a number of seemingly innocent choices, each appearing insignificant at the time, but all leading you in a single direction.
By 18, I had chosen to use drugs to cope with my life, and chosen to associate with people who didn’t care about my well-being or that of others. In doing so, I had chosen to put myself into high-risk situations.
When I was 18, my mother died. Three days later, I chose to meet with a drug dealer. What I didn’t know, when I chose to meet with this guy, was that he had an interest in adolescent boys and sex acts. What he didn’t know, when he chose to meet with me, was that I was someone who was prepared to fight. What neither of us knew, when we made our respective choices, is where they would lead us.
Before the day was out, he would be dead, and I would be spending the first night, of what would be the next 10 years, behind bars.
By 20, I had graduated to New Zealand’s toughest maximum-security prison. It’s here that I learned the theory of how to hide from heat sensors and police helicopters, and the reality of how to make a weapon out of glad wrap and a toothbrush.
What I didn’t realize before I was imprisoned, was that I was already living in a prison of my own making. The prison in my mind. There are many beliefs that imprison us, and stop us experiencing the fullness of life. My prison was my belief that my potential was fixed. My prison was my belief that the measure of a man was his capacity for violence, and that men shouldn’t feel scared, sad, vulnerable, or weak.
It is ironic that I had to be in an actual prison in order to break out of my mental prison. It is also ironic that it wasn’t until I was released that I realized how many other people are trapped in their own personal prisons.
I was able to escape my mental prison through five progressive steps to personal change. I call these “the five steps to freedom“.
The first step to freedom is to recognize that we are born free. As babies, we take our first breaths with a clean slate. But then life kicks in, and in an attempt to cope with our experiences and make sense of our worlds, we acquire self-defeating and distorted beliefs. Over time, these beliefs imprison us. Yet this is not the life we were born to live, the life where we are truly authentic and free.
It took a meeting with one of New Zealand’s most accomplished safe crackers to challenge my idea of my freedom. It was about 2 years into my sentence, and just after I’d finished another period in solitary confinement.
Now this guy was a MENSA member. He was smart, and we used to spend a lot of time in the yard, discussing the intricacies of his trade. The yard is like an empty swimming pool, where every end’s the deep end. I remember as I’d watch a plane fly overhead, how I so would have given anything to be in that plane wherever it was going, to be anywhere but here.
One day the safecracker approached me with a tennis ball and a heavy ashtray and asked me: If he was to drop these at the same time, which would hit the ground first? I couldn’t believe the stupidity of such a question. Watching those two objects hit the ground at the same time, blew my mind.
I had never questioned my understanding of the world. I had always just assumed that the world was the way it appeared to me. Yet this demonstration made me wonder what else I thought I knew that I could be wrong about.
Prior to this, I’d always seen education as something that you did to get a job. Now I started to see education as something that could make the world a more interesting place, and something that could increase the accuracy of my beliefs. And I had always been one of those insufferable people who likes to think they’re right about everything, a tendency that had prompted my Mum to put a note on the fridge suggesting that teenagers should leave home while they still know everything.
Recognizing that we are born free, and that the beliefs that imprison us can be challenged and replaced is the first step to freedom.
Choosing to break out of our prisons
The second step to freedom is choosing to break out of our prisons. Living in a prison is tough, but breaking out of prison is harder. The desire to break out is driven by how likely we think we are to succeed. Many people choose not to break out of their prisons, because they think that change is impossible, and they see disappointment as inevitable.
Breaking out also depends on how much effort we think it will take, and how much value we place on such change. It is much safer to be inside. We do not risk additional failure, and it requires less effort.
Recidivism rates support this point. For many people, it is easier to be in prison. You have so few adult responsibilities on the inside. And as twisted as it sounds, many people find a sense of belonging, status and community within prison that they don’t get in the outside world.
Everyone knows their place in the prison hierarchy, and for some people, that place provides their only sense of worth. Breaking out requires real emotional commitment to change. And to get that commitment, you need to focus on why you would want to change, not why others might think you should change, but why you would want to change for yourself.
I had never considered myself someone who could achieve academically. I’d even been held back a year at school. Yet I enrolled in those first two psychology papers, because I knew that understanding what makes people tick is a useful skill to have in prison. Anywhere from 50% to 80% of people in prison suffer some form of mental health issue, and being attacked due to the mental instability of others was a real concern.
I completed my first assignment in solitary confinement. I printed it all as one paragraph, all in capital letters. I did this because I was ignorant of writing conventions, and I thought capitals looked neater. I completed my exams in a windowless room in a punishment block. Yet I still somehow managed to pass my papers. I was so amazed to pass these exams. It made me wonder if maybe I wasn’t capable of more than I had previously thought possible.
It made me dream. It made me think: “Imagine, imagine if I could get out of here with a degree!”
Going for a degree seemed like such an audacious goal. And a major obstacle to achieving this dream was the amount of marijuana I was smoking.
Smoking weed allowed me to enjoy the moment, and avoid the reality of my situation. I was young and locked up. I was frustrated, I had no sense of direction. If I was going to start the process of really changing my life, I needed to stop doing drugs.
Passing those exams had reinforced my desire to break out of my prison. But wanting change, and turning that change into action, are two very different things.