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.
Make the escape
The third step to freedom is to make the escape. Dreams without action remain dreams. In order to make the escape, you need to start taking steps that reduce the distance between where you are and where you desire to be.
People that want to break out of their prisons, but fail to do so, often think about change as something that occurs in some distant future. The problem with us is that it doesn’t prompt you to act, and change can start to feel like it’s beyond your reach. It’s tomorrow, next month, next year.
To make your escape, you must get specific about what you want to change. Specific change is not wanting to lose weight, but wanting to lose 5 kilos. Having the general idea that you want to write a book, will not get you to put pen to paper. Having the specific goal to write 500 words on Thursday just might.
The research shows that having vague goals makes it hard to start and easy to give up. Specific goals mean that you can’t fool yourself into thinking you have done enough.
Many people in prison talk about what they will do when they are released, how they will take better care of their kids, how they will lead better lives. But life and change are about what you do right now.
Time is a different commodity when you’re serving a long period of imprisonment. To survive psychologically, you need to forget about the outside world, accept this is your new life, and to focus on the present.
Focusing on the present was key for making my escape. I didn’t worry about what I was, or wasn’t going to do in some uncertain future. I just focused on what I could do today. On what I could do right now.
Research shows that this ability to seize the moment makes you 3 times more likely to achieve your goals. So, I stopped smoking weed, which allowed me to complete my undergraduate degree. It also massively reduced the amount of time I spent in solitary confinement.
For me, the specific and related goals, were to become drug free, and to complete my degree. The cost of making my escape was sacrificing being emotionally numbed. But making my escape didn’t come without a struggle.
Fight for your freedom.
The fourth step to freedom is to fight for your freedom. Fighting for your freedom requires grit and tenacity. To achieve your goals, you must overcome any obstacles you encounter. Giving up drugs was not a straightforward process, there were certainly relapses. And studying within prison had its own set of obstacles, such as getting permission to access course related materials. Yet overcoming such obstacles, is exactly what fighting for your freedom is about. In fact, it is through overcoming such obstacles, that we develop our capacity for change, and the will-power required to make it happen.
Many people think that willpower and self-discipline are things that you either have or you don’t have. But the research shows that these are characteristics developed through practice and application.
By the time I completed my undergraduate degree, I had developed enough tenacity to fight for entry into a postgraduate program in psychology. I then fought to have my honors research project upgraded to a Master’s Thesis.
This left me with a number of papers that needed to be completed and that required attending classes. I was still securely absent from classes at this point. But I was able to complete these papers because those teaching them allowed me to enroll as a special distance student, in addition to their normal workloads.
At various stages in my journey, I encountered obstacles that required persistence and commitment to overcome. Yet my dreams increased in proportion to my successes. Once I had completed my Masters, a Doctorate seemed like the next logical step. This time the barrier was even bigger. I was told it would be impossible to start a Doctorate, without regular face-to-face meetings with my supervisors.
So, my supervisors traveled hours out of their way to visit me in prison. Fighting for your freedom is crucial to successful change and growth. Yet the fights best won are those with allies.
If I didn’t have a father who was prepared to visit me every weekend for 10 years, if I didn’t have mentors, such as John Barlow and Doctor Paul Englert who were prepared to challenge me, and to encourage me to dream bigger, if I didn’t have the support of Massey University through which I studied, if I didn’t have doctoral supervisors who were prepared to travel for hours out of their way to visit me, if upon my release, I hadn’t been given the chance by OPRA Consulting Group to help other people grow and develop, I wouldn’t be standing here today.
I was the first person that entered the New Zealand prison system as a High School dropout, and to progress through undergraduate and Master’s degrees. I was the first person to then start a doctorate. Yet none of these things would have been possible without the support of others who were willing to fight beside me.
The fifth and final step to freedom concerns living free.
Freedom is a journey, not an event. It is a condition that requires effort to maintain. Self-help books and programs often fail because they do not acknowledge the reality of living free, and the ongoing commitment it requires. Real, sustained, positive change and growth is not something that you achieve, cross off your list of things to do, and then walk away from.
The price of freedom is ongoing effort. To live in freedom, we must be mindful of the architecture of our personal prisons. Recognize and avoid seemingly innocent choices, and learn ways to respond when obstacles are encountered.
Here in New Zealand, we’re all familiar with the expression, “Keeping it real.”
Well, living in freedom is what keeping it real is all about. Living free requires us to acknowledge that sometimes we are weak. We will not always progress towards our goals in a straightforward manner. Sometimes we will slip back into old habits. Sometimes we will fall short of our ideals. Yet such failures are the opportunities for us to grow. They provide us with a chance to reflect and identify the chinks in our armor. We fall so that we can learn to pick ourselves up again.
We all have this capacity to come back from bad choices and situations. At 18, I made choices that have negatively impacted on many people, and that I will live with for the rest of my life. I’d then spent over 10 years in a negative environment where all the wrong values were espoused, and all the wrong behaviors were rewarded.
Yet these choices and associated experiences are not what define me today. The man I am today is defined by how I choose to live my life now, by how I choose to behave today. And we all have this ability to step away from our pasts, to embrace our aspirational selves, and to rewrite the narratives of our world.
To live in such freedom, we must recognize we were born free. We must choose to break out of our prisons. We must make the escape. We must fight for our freedom, and we must keep it real about what living in freedom means.
I am now privileged to spend my time helping other people break out of their personal prisons, identify their sense of purpose, and experience greater motivation, satisfaction, success, and well-being.
While my story reflects my own journey of change, the five steps to freedom reflect the journey of change for us all.
So, what’s your prison?