Full text of personal growth expert Peter Sage’s talk: How to Become Your Best When Life Gives You Its Worst at TEDx Klagenfurt conference. In this talk, Peter shares his story along with how you can deal with the toughest situations and become your best when life gives you its worst.
Listen to the MP3 audio here:
Peter Sage – Personal growth expert and author
At 2:00 PM on January the 20th, 2017, I was walking down the stairs of the high court in London, wearing handcuffs on my way to one of the most violent prisons in England.
Having never been arrested, accused, charged, or convicted of a crime. In fact, not even the police knew that I was going to prison.
A week before, I was running a successful company with over 50 staff, helping thousands of people. And a week later, I was down to virtually no staff and faced with losing everything I had, including my home.
And so began the most incredible adventure I’ve ever had the privilege of living.
How I got there isn’t quite as interesting. I was arguing a years old business deal in court with a major multinational and one that had far deeper pockets to flex far bigger legal muscles than I did. And when they threw a contempt of court application at me, I didn’t give it much credibility.
I remember an old long-time friend and business mentor Dan Peña once told me that when it comes to business, litigation and civil actions are nothing more than a tool. And I thought this was a chess move to try to pressure me into an early settlement. And I didn’t really take it that serious.
That was a mistake.
I learned a lot about how the court system works, shall we say? And when I was sitting in the hearing, my fiancé turned around to me and said, this isn’t going the way we thought it was going to go. You know what happens? You know, you could even go away here.
And I’m like, I don’t know why this is happening, honey, but here’s what I do know. I’ve been very blessed, very privileged over the last 20 plus years to have millions of people around the world, benefit from my work. I said but maybe the people that could benefit the most, never really get to hear it because they’re in somewhere like jail. If the universe or whatever you want to call it wants to send me in to hold a light, let me go do my work.
And I was reminded by a quote by Tony Robbins, who I had the privilege of working alongside as an experienced trainer for over 15 years. And he said something profound. He said, “The strongest force in the human personality is the need to remain consistent with how you define yourself.” In other words, your identity.
For example, why do vegetarians not eat meat? It’s not because they have different teeth or a different digestive system. It’s because their identity is, I am a vegetarian.
Now, the reason they may choose that identity is personal and varied for either health or moral reasons. But once you adopt that identity, it governs what you order off the menu.
So I had a choice walking down the stairs as to which identity I wanted to adopt. I could either adopt the identity of a prisoner and a victim and complaining about the courtroom shenanigans, or I could choose something more empowering, someone who is going in on a mission as a secret agent of change.
I remember getting to the prison and I had my medical. They gave me my clothes and I sat with a doctor for a while before they gave me a cell. And he leaned over. He says, “Can I ask you a question?”
I said “Sure” he said “Are you undercover?”
And I smile. I say, “Why do you ask?”
He said, “Well, in my entire career, I’ve never seen anybody so happy on their first ever day in prison.”
I took that to be a good sign, but not even I was prepared for what was about to happen.
Let me set the scene for you. Pentonville is a 200 year old Victorian prison. That’s never really been modernized. It was built to house over 900 inmates. And when I got there, there was over 1,300, including murderers, terrorists, drug lords, armed robbers, to name a few.
By the government’s own statistic, over 1 in 5 people in the prison population there are on anti-psychotic medication with many more on antidepressants. Violence is epidemic; drugs are to order, and many of the cells have their own pets in the form of cockroaches and rats.
Let’s just say that if it was a hotel, it wouldn’t do very well on TripAdvisor.
In fact, I remember walking into the showers a couple of weeks after I arrived, and this is my first shower in four days. And my cellmate walked into one set of showers. I walked into another and three guys followed him in and closed the door behind and one, pulled out a weapon. It was a toothbrush that had been sharpened to a spike on the concrete wall, and with razorblades glued into the other side, crude, but very effective. And they didn’t waste time.
Now, luckily, they weren’t after my cellmate, but somebody that had just walked in ahead of him. And while I didn’t witness the attack personally, like he did, the blood coming from under the doors in the shower was like something out of a horror movie.
In fact, this is what it looks like inside. And this was taken from an article in the paper of somebody else that was murdered just before I got there: welcome to Pentonville.
Now I’m also a great believer that one of the greatest days in a human being’s life on the journey of emotional maturity is the day that we realize that life is not a comfort centric experience, but a growth centric experience.
I believe that we’re in Earth school. And for me, this was a practical exam: was I able to actually walk the talk that I’ve been teaching for so many years in a real environment with no cameras, no second takes, and obviously learn my own lessons that I needed to learn, also about my own ego and some of the things that happened in court.
But I believe that we can be empowered by that. If you can understand that Earth school is here for everybody, but how do you handle that environment in Pentonville? Positive thinking just isn’t enough; you need a tool set.
And luckily after three decades, almost in personal growth, I had a decent tool set. And I want to share a few of those with you here today. Not that you need to go to prison to test these. Yeah. Leave that for the idiots like me.
But if your son or daughter comes home from having a tough time at school or not getting the grade they want, or your spouse is suffering through having worked downsizing or whatever, you may be able to use some of what I was using in order to be able to help you. And that’s one of my main purposes here today.
Now one of the first tools I was using is often underrated, and it’s the Power of Acceptance. Most people don’t get to acceptance because they confuse it with apathy or resignation. But if you are complaining about something that has already happened, you are wasting your time.
As soon as I walked in there, I implemented a zero-tolerance policy on my own thinking of any thoughts that started with if only, or what if. Why? Because you can’t go back and change anything, the milk may be spilled, but that’s not going to put it back in the bottle if you sit there and feel sorry for yourself.
But by unhooking the energy of resistance and being coming to terms with where you are, you can then free up that energy to channel into whatever the next best move is to deal with what’s happened.
In fact, one of the first signs that I wrote when I got there and I put over my cell door was taken from the classic Think And Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. In fact, this is the exact sign. It states, “Every adversity carries with it the seed of an equivalent or greater benefit.”
The challenge is for most people is that they’re so busy focused on the adversity they don’t water the seed. And I’m a great believer that many of the gifts in life that come to us are wrapped in a thin layer of problems, probably to stop somebody else from stealing our gift.
One of the other tools I was using was Contrast Frames. Now contrast frames are very powerful and they essentially derive from the fact that most of what we give meaning to is based upon what we compare it to.
For example, if you walk into work on a Monday morning and your boss calls you in and he gives you a surprise 10% pay raise, you walk out feeling pretty good!
And then at lunchtime, you’re chatting with your coworker who essentially does the same job. And you find out that they got called in and got given a 15% pay raise. Now you’re not feeling so good.
See, you had nothing before, but now you only have 10%. See, the trick with contrast frames is to always contrast where you are with something that makes you empowered rather than disempowered.
Many years ago, I ran a tough race, one of the world’s toughest ultra-marathons across the Sahara desert, the Marathon des Sables. And I remember on the day of the double marathon, we were at night preparing to run 84 kilometers the next day. And we’re in our little sleeping bags in the middle of the desert. It was freezing cold. You know, the sand storm was blowing in our face. We’d already ran best part of a hundred miles. Every part of our body either was bleeding or was aching.
And we could feel the camel spiders and the scorpions crawling over our sleeping bag. Man, what I would have given for a prison bed.
I also had lots of books sent in to not only stock the library, which is fairly under-stocked, but also to be able to help prisoners and give them something that I thought would be able to help. And one of the books, and I had many copies sent in was the classic Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl.
And I challenged many of the prisoners that were having a tough time that were open to being helped to read that book and not cry with tears of gratitude for being somewhere like Pentonville, rather than somewhere like Auschwitz.
One of the other things that I was doing to make a big difference there was teaching the prisoners the difference between Liberty and Freedom.
You see, all they’d really done was restrict my Liberty as people who have free will and our decision space had just been made smaller; that was all. I couldn’t choose to go to the shops. I couldn’t choose to go walk my dogs. I couldn’t choose to show up for my wedding that had been planned.
But freedom is a state of mind and nobody can take that away from you. As Gandhi said, “Nobody can do anything to you emotionally without your permission.” Nobody can take your dignity; you can only give it away.
I was freer in my little cell than a lot of the prison officers who were coming in that day that hated their job or were going back to a dysfunctional relationship they didn’t have the tools or the courage to fix. Hmm.
I also wrote letters every two weeks to my senior students and coaching clients, essentially documenting what was happening and teaching them a lot more of the tools that I was using.
And it was part journal, part how-to manual, part you couldn’t make it up, but it was real. And I was also very raw. I shared the times that I cried. I shared the times that I doubted myself. If I wondered if I was actually making a difference, and those letters started to have an impact, not just for my coaching clients who read them and started to transform, but they also shared them online. And it started to transform the lives of most people who read them.
And that started to bolster me. That started giving me conviction that what I was doing, not just in my little private mission inside, but on the outside was also reaching people it could help.
And so I decided that from there I’m going to work harder and double down. And I started working with bigger groups of prisoners. In fact, the secret agent of change job got to be a full-time deal.
And whenever they’d let me out of the cell, I’d have a big crowd of prisoners. And I realized I had to leverage my time more.
So I wrote a short story and the story was called Mud or Stars taken after the old adage that two men sat behind prison bars; one saw mud; the other saw stars. And it was really teaching people that your environment never defines you; it simply gives you the opportunity to define yourself.
But I wrote the story out and I did it in a way that followed a fictional story of a guy coming to prison for the first time, kind of there in the headlights all confused and angry and scared. And he happens to be sitting in the waiting room to be processed and sits next to a wise old prisoner that starts giving him advice.
And I chose that because a lot of the times, if we go to help somebody and we offer unsolicited coaching or we really want to try and help. But if we get kicked back because you don’t know me, you don’t know my story, or even if they want help, the presupposition is that you need fixing. And then that triggers the fear that we all have, which is the fear that we’re not enough. And we put up a defensive wall and discount the advice.
So I wrote this in a way that allowed people to be enrolled because if you sit next to a couple of people that are having a conversation, you’re listening in. And says, Oh wow, that’s really interesting. What they’re saying is actually good. Your defenses are down because it’s not about you, your guard is down. So you’re more susceptible to taking on the input.
So I had this story, I’d written out by hand, but I needed help to get it into the prison. And that’s where the universe stepped in again.
The next day I found myself unsupervised in class. Now this never happens in Pentonville, but the teacher was waiting for supply teacher that didn’t show up. And so she had to go and she locked us in the classroom, which is protocol.
Now I found myself in front of a computer and a printer and I didn’t need an invitation. I started typing up the story out of my pocket and I hit print 50 copies. And by the time she came back, I smuggled them out of the class, under my sweater.
And I went to work over the next two or three days as the mystery mailman, sliding them under cell doors at random, leaving them on desks, pinning them up on notice boards. And it didn’t take long for the magic to work.
Within a few days, you would actually hear some of the most violent or depressed prisoners shouting to each other, across the wings: Mud or Stars to try to cheer themselves up.
And they started to create a movement. In fact, I was so busy with Mud or Stars and doing my other things. I ended up — the long and short is that I managed to get a lot of the people off drugs; I was stopping suicides and really helping work with some of the people that had been let down by the system.
And it created such an impact that I vowed that when I came out, I’d be able to create something that new prisoners could be given. And so I created the New Prisoner Welcome Booklet because when you are faced with uncertainty, you need something to hang on to.
And the challenge is that for many of the systems in the prison, they let prisoners down because they’re following an archaic principle of containing criminals, not trying to rehabilitate them. And if they do try to rehabilitate, it’s always ineffective because what they do is they try to raise their skill set by educating them, not raise their mindset.
Now behavior follows mindset, not skillset. If you educate somebody without raising their level of consciousness, all you’re simply going to do is give them more tools with which to enact the same behavior. So we essentially make them better criminals, which is what most of the statistics will show you in terms of how fast somebody goes and recommit a crime once they’re released.
So this booklet was designed to really help people shift their mindset and raise their level of consciousness to engender hope rather than give them no choice at all. Which for many is all the choice they had.
And I’m very pleased to say, this is now being rolled out and used in several prisons across the UK. I was on the phone with somebody from head of corrections in new South Wales that want to use it in Australia. I’ve been talking with a lot of the prisons and charities in the US.
You can go to my website and download the source files for this, along with all of the image rights, to be able to customize it to your own prison or charity. And I’m very pleased to say is now making a difference to many people every single month.
Now I share that because every single one of us faces adversity. It’s not because we’re unlucky, my friends. It’s by design. We’re here in Earth School to grow and contribute. That’s the two laws of nature. And the strongest trees don’t grow in the best soil; they grow in the strongest winds.
So if you want to become the best version of yourself, start praying for some strong winds and don’t complain when they show up. We only have to go to the physical body to see that if you take it to the gym and push it past your limits, it’s pre-programmed to return with a better version of itself.
What do you think nature is trying to tell us? And so when adversity shows up, as it will, start to try to shift your focus by asking better questions, by looking at what you can learn or who you can become rather than looking what you could lose is the difference between a life of success and a life on the street for many people.
And if we can focus ourselves on being able to see the positive, no matter what to tear the wrapping paper off and search for the gift in the adversity, then we all have the ability to live a life that’s an example, rather than a warning. And in doing so hopefully leave a legacy that transcends not just ourselves, but impacts many more lives.