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“Unshackled Ambition: GRIT in Federal Prison”

The ultimate challenge in life is finding a career doing something you love. Here I am at 48, just finishing 11 months in Federal prison at Leavenworth, Kansas, and I have found something I love doing.  What is that? It’s helping people who went through the same exact experience that I did, helping them navigate this challenging journey of incarceration. Now, let me put things in perspective; I’m not to say I haven’t had great jobs in my life. I have. I’ve been very fortunate in my job choices…I certainly liked them, but I didn’t love them.

I think jobs can be great in many ways, but a good job comes to you in one of two ways. You either love what you do or you love the people you work with. I’m in a situation now where not only do I think the people are amazing, but I love the actual work I’m doing—and that is rare.

So now that I’m doing something I love, the biggest question I must ask myself is: How can I step up my game and find ways to really help people in this terrible stage of their lives? How can I help them go through what I went through? When I think about prison and what made the biggest impact for me, it’s, first and foremost, the people. I met some amazing people in prison.  Second, it’s the actual experience. Like going to prison changes your life. I’m not going to give credit to the BOP/prison because they certainly don’t deserve any.  But the act of going to prison, having that event happen, my life facing such an intense event…. that deserves a huge amount of credit.

So, I can’t introduce you to everyone who made my life better in prison, nor can I give you a guided tour of the Leavenworth federal prison camp. So, I need to introduce you to something that impacted me and is accessible to you. 

I love reading. Lots of people love reading. When you’re in prison, if you like reading, you read. There isn’t much entertainment. 

The best book I read in prison, hands down, was “Grit” by Angela Duckworth.

Let me describe my setting because I think it makes everything clearer. I live in California, so I was 1,696 miles away from home. I was detoxing hard off pain medications, experiencing the worst time in my life. I could barely move, couldn’t sleep, and was in bed all day with only books for company. My mind was so trashed that I couldn’t even read difficult things; I had to read basic fiction. So, I read Bosch books, Reacher books, and Game of Thrones books—great books, but not the next-level books I wanted to read while I was in prison.

While reading these books, I was establishing a plan. All the guys in the room with me were in RDAP (residential drug alcohol program) section, which is the Residential Drug and Alcohol Program. They were all seeing this terrible version of Scotty Carper.

In my mind, I was on overdrive, preparing for when my body would be ready to cooperate. I was giving myself a human pep talk every day, telling myself I needed to be tough, to outwork everyone, but I couldn’t do it. I was living grit without even reading “Grit” yet.

If you’re basing things off a title, you can sum up what “GRIT,” is about: toughness, perseverance, resilience. At the worst moment in my life, I was preparing myself for my own personal boot camp. I wish I had read “Grit” at the beginning of my journey when everything was brutal, but I read it at a time when I needed it most, in the middle of my sentence. “Grit” gave me a framework to legitimize and expand on the work I was doing.  It helped me step up my game. 

I imagine you sitting there, listening to this podcast, probably about to go to prison. I can relate to that. Prison is the most surreal experience of your life.

 Here’s the thing most people get wrong, and I cringe when I say it: If you pull away all the feelings built around feeling sorry for yourself and the destruction you’re doing to your family and your life, which is brutal, you actually have an unbelievable opportunity. I won’t undersell that. 

Prison is the only time in your life when you’re away from everything that matters to you, so you can focus like never before.For me, I had 11 months to focus on everything that was going wrong in my life and work on every problem I had. “Grit” was important to me because it reminded me of what I was capable of. 

Talent is wonderful, but talent only gets you so far. Hard work, in my opinion, truly determines long-term success. True success requires resilience. The real key to achievement is not what you’re born with, but how much you’re willing to do with that God-given ability.

Throughout my life, I’ve had to work on being a better athlete, and although I was a gifted student, I struggled with math and simple things like directions. If you know me, you’re laughing because how could I do so well in other subjects but struggle so hard in these? I worked my ass off to be good at sports and in the subjects, I was bad at. 

So, let’s get back to this whole prison thing. When I got to prison, I was lazy and entitled, and my confidence was beyond shot. I knew I needed to make massive changes.

I had to beat the laziness out of me because I had become the epitome of laziness. So how did I do that? I made myself completely uncomfortable. I pushed myself in every way, starting with getting a job that would push me.

If you know me, the last thing you would think I would do is work in the kitchen. So that is exactly the job I got. I worked the earliest shift that nobody wanted. I could have easily gotten a job pushing paper, but I said no, give me a job that is pure grit. And that was cleaning tables. I cleaned over 75,000 tables while working in that kitchen, serving food to people, getting screamed at because the food was terrible. But that was what I wanted—to test myself.

“Grit” is made up of five key concepts: passion, growth mindset, deliberate practice, resilience, and purpose.

Let’s breakdown these five concepts:

Passion: Grit is not just about talent or intelligence but sustained effort and dedication over time. Finding your passion is great, but it needs effort behind it. Can you be passionate for days, weeks, months, and keep it up?

In prison, I had to get my work ethic back. Working in the kitchen, cleaning tables, and never missing a day, even when I had COVID—that passion guided me.  I didn’t like the job, but I loved the feeling of working hard. I loved the feeling of proving to myself that I wasn’t lazy and that I could work hard no matter the circumstances.

Growth Mindset: How do you view challenges? Most people fear challenges, seeing them as obstacles. But we need to view setbacks as opportunities for growth. In prison, I leaned into challenges and embraced them. 

In RDAP, we were constantly challenged—public speaking and putting together presentations. That’s a huge part of the program. Lots of people are afraid of taking RDAP for that very reason. 

At the end of every RDAP morning meeting is something called the “upbeat ritual.” The purpose of it is to end the meeting in an upbeat way & get everyone involved. Most of the time, it was something simple, like shooting free throws or playing corn-hole .  But the DTS staff (drug treatment staff) hated repetition.  So, they would think of off-the-wall activities.  So, things like dancing or lip-syncing (picture air bands).  Now stop and think about that….70/80 grown men dancing in front of one another.  Terrifying…. absolutely embarrassing.  We had to dance or sing in front of each other….IN PRISON.  One day, the staff challenged us to have a “name that tune singing contest.”  Now, you can hide and try to avoid participating, but that’s the thing about RDAP… At some point, you will need to step up.  Staff will ensure it or you will have problems in the program.  I remember I was walking away from the mic when the instructions were announced… there was no way I was singing.  That is something I would NEVER DO.  So, what did I do I turned around, found the mic, and sang “Beautiful Day” by U2.  It was the only song that popped into my head at that moment (I was terrified).  It was embarrassing, but I did it because it was a challenge I needed to face. 

Deliberate Practice: Practice isn’t just for simple skills but everything in life. To get good at something, you need to practice. 

Most people think practice applies to things like working on your golf swing or shooting baskets.  

No, we need practice in everything. Public speaking, small talk, resume building—practice them. In prison, we were encouraged to practice public speaking. RDAP participants were terrified of the public speaking component, but we practiced and got better. That skill is useful for so many things (interviews, presentations, even daily conversation). 

I challenged myself daily, walking the track and studying RDAP terms. So when it came time for tests or quizzes I was ready, and I aced them.  People would say, “he’s brilliant.”  It wasn’t brilliance…it was hard work.  I worked my ass off.  Personally, I believe Hard work is more impressive than talent because it shows dedication and effort.

Resilience: Things will go wrong. The ability to bounce back from adversity is crucial. 

In prison, I can guarantee that things will not go your way at some point. A guard, staff member, or inmate will do something to fire you up. You will be frustrated and upset. But the real test is how you handle it. In prison, there is ONE OVERALL UNIVERSAL GOAL….and that’s to get home to your friends and family. Every decision you make should be weighed against that goal.  

Being resilient is what will help you shake things off and focus on getting home. In RDAP, the staff PURPOSELY pushed our buttons, trying to get us to lose our cool.  I’m not kidding, it’s literally part of the program.  They want to see what you will do under stress.  My class started with 33 people and graduated 22—33% didn’t make it. Over 9 months, EVERYONE has a day when things are overwhelming; they try their best to push you on that day.  I saw plenty of RDAP participants in that moment, and for some, it was their last day in the program.  Resilience is key to surviving and thriving in prison.  Resilience is key to making it through that moment & remembering nothing is more important than going home. 

Purpose: Gritty individuals are driven by a clear sense of purpose, which fuels passion. I discovered my purpose in prison, a very strange place to find it. Maybe I wasn’t ready, or it took the extreme circumstances of being behind bars to put things in perspective.  

When I got to prison, my plan was to begin studying to go to law school. My whole life, I was groomed to become an Attorney. My father is an Attorney. My closest friends and family are an entire family of attorneys. My role models are full of attorneys or important legal figures. My BA from UCSB is in Law.

I took a full-year Blackstone legal course (to get certified as a paralegal).  I finished this year class in just under 5 months.  People used to come into the cafeteria and ask for legal advice.  I became that guy (jailhouse attorney).  I loved it.  I worked on motions, wills, divorce cases, and custody hearings. I even helped someone win a case for lack of healthcare (that was at the halfway house).  Through this work & my weekly newsletter my efforts made it to a University of Oklahoma alum who worked to get me a potential scholarship to go to law school.  

But that’s when I realized something. I didn’t love the law (although I like it)…..I loved helping people, and I loved the challenge of helping other people.  

Prison is boring, but helping people gave me purpose and made a difference in their lives.

Prison is the perfect time to rebuild and change your mindset. You need to do something.  You can’t take away the fact that you went to prison & people are going to have thoughts on that one way or the other. I think it’s better to come home having accomplished something.  

Also, you need to show BOP staff (case managers/ counselors) that you have made the most of your time in prison (I promise if you play cards and watch TV all day, the staff will notice, and they will be in no hurry to send you home). You need to convince decision-makers that you’re a different person and deserve to get out. 

“Grit” is a book that fuels you for what will come. 

“Talent is fantastic, but hard work outlasts talent when talent doesn’t work hard “(that’s a quote from Angela Duckworth).

Learn to rely on the fact that you can always outwork people. Trust in the things you CAN control.  

To read the book, go here.


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