The U.S. makes up for 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population. Out of 100,000 people, 734 individuals are behind bars in the U.S. -- far and away the highest number in the world.
The U.S. houses more inmates than the top 35 European countries combined. Four in 10 prisoners return to state prisons within three years of release, according to Pew Center on the States. One in 30 men between ages 20 and 34 is behind bars -- and up to one in 13 in Georgia.
Remember back to the single worst event of your life: Did it defeat you and create a spiral effect of depression and loss? Or did you use it to your advantage, leverage your experience and turn it into the greatest moment that ever happened to you?
When the gavel slammed, the judge spoke and I was sentenced to prison, all I could do was laugh. But this is not a story about prison (don’t worry, the book is coming). This is a story of how I leveraged the single most trying obstacle of my life to come back stronger, refined and more focused than ever before.
My goal is to provide insight to help you with whatever obstacles you’re facing in life. This is how I used prison as the launching pad for my personal success, but it's also about how you can use a potential setback to set up your future.
The decision, the commitment, the vision
Mentally, I knew I had to get strong quickly. I had never been to prison. I’d seen all of the movies and read all of the books you probably have, which helped contribute to my unknown fear of prison. I was in unfamiliar territory, and every corner and decision was a mystery.
I shook off the shock of my sentence. During the first week of prison, I made the conscious decision to make my stay the most productive two to five years of my life, no matter what. I knew I would be getting out, sooner or later, and knew that the only items I’d be leaving with were the ones I entered with: my mind, body and soul. I committed to myself in an endless pursuit of sharpening these assets.
My vision was to come out stronger, smarter, more enlightened. I made the decision, I made the commitment and I focused on the vision day in and day out.
Key takeaway: Figure out what you’ve decided for your life, make your commitment and use your vision to make sure your daily actions are rooted in advancing your vision.
The relentless self war
In this world, where the game is played with loaded dice, a man must have a temper of iron, with armor proof to the blows of fate, and weapons to make his way against men. Life is one long battle; we have to fight at every step; and Voltaire very rightly says that if we succeed, it is at the point of the sword, and that we die with the weapon in our hand. -- Arthur Schopenhauer
Every day, each of us goes into battle, either consciously or subconsciously. I waged a relentless war on myself while in prison. My everyday tactics reflected my vision to relentlessly improve my mind, my body and my soul. I wrote. I researched. I learned. I trained. I practiced. I developed. I became stronger, smarter and more enlightened through the commitment of my daily actions. Nothing derailed me from my decision, commitment and vision.
Key takeaway: Declare war on yourself everyday. Be relentless.
The desire, the hunger, the ambition
Business is my passion. It’s what I believe I’ve been put on this planet to do. Getting thrown in prison tore me away from the ability to build and create businesses.
When you're unable to do what you love, something inside you grows. My desire, hunger and ambition were even stronger when I was released, and have helped me to overcome obstacles that had the power to derail less driven people.
Key takeaway: Each person has invented him or herself, through whatever he or she has lived through, through vision, dreams, experiences and circumstances. Figure out who you want to be, and what you want in life, and use your drive, hunger and ambition to overcome your obstacles.
The need for support
Without my family and friends’ support, I would not have been able to accomplish all of my goals. I would not have been able to receive my reading resources, the moral support and commissary packages that contained extra clothes and food. Support is important in every way. There’s no such thing as self-made. There are always people in the background that have contributed in supportive roles.
Key takeaway: Put your pride and ego aside and ask for support.
Inmates live and die by what they call their “routine.” A routine is simply a daily list of activities they follow each day down to the minute. The mundane, repetitive cycle of daily prison life can drive a mentally weak person to the brink of insanity.
Think about it: you wake up every day at the same time, you eat the same food, you wear the same clothes, you see the same people, the same guards. Everything you see is gray and dark, you have no physical freedom and every day is the exact same. Ironically, this repetitive daily program is what actually makes time go by faster.
The days when something is different is the day that stands out in your mind, that then becomes the benchmark of how you measure other events. I learned how to use this prison routine to my advantage by relentlessly scheduling every minute of my days.
Key takeaway: You will never find time for anything. If you want time, you must make it.
Prison alone has very few resources. I realized that the day I entered. I realized the most valuable resources I could receive would be from literature, newspapers, magazines and books. These would be the resources to help me accomplish my vision.
Over the course of two years I read 197 books on different topics ranging from business to physics, from nonfiction to fiction and made every second of my days productive.
Key takeaway: Resources are a key component to success. Figuring out how to get the necessary resources can be the difference between someone who achieves their goals and someone who doesn’t.
The conditioning of the mind
We have billions of neurons in our brains, and trillions of synapses that connect these neurons. Research has shown that we can train and develop our brains just like we can with our muscles. Our minds are the starting point for all habits and accomplishments. A mind that is easily rooted in the past or future, instead of the present, cannot see the opportunities with clarity and urgency. Every day I pushed out negative thoughts and replaced them with positive ones.
The negative thought of “You’ll never be able to accomplish anything stuck in prison” was replaced with “Actually, I can. I have the resources, the focus and the time.”
Key takeaway: Figure out what you’re saying about yourself. Learn to capture your negative thoughts and replace them with positive thoughts.
You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. What you'll discover will be wonderful. What you'll discover will be yourself. -- Alan Alda
When you’re alone with your thoughts, you realize what your thoughts actually are. For some, this is a scary place. For me, it was electric. I dreamed huge and let my imagination run wild in prison.
Key takeaway: Spend time alone. Learn to be comfortable with your thoughts. Learn your thoughts, and you will have a better grasp on life.
The disconnection and focus
Here’s an exercise to practice:
Sit down and figure out what your biggest goal in life is.
Disconnect from the Internet.
Get rid of cable and your phone.
Sell your furniture, except for your bed.
Don’t leave the house for 30 days.
Make that goal the only thing you focus on.
I was able to accomplish great things while in prison, including writing my first book, learning Korean and getting in the best shape of my life. The disconnection from the real world helped me to stay rooted in the present, which led to a laser-like focus on my goals.
Key takeaway: Disconnecting will provide you a new sense of focus and peace. This connected world creates too many distractions. Every day I disconnect in the morning with the Wim Hof Method, in the afternoon by taking my dog on walks and at night by training rigorously at the gym.
I woke up at 5 a.m. and did 200 burpees. My stomach felt like I was about to give a public speech, while in the same breath I knew I could walk on water if I tried. The confidence knowing that I conquered prison was and is incomparable.
Key takeaway: Use your victories to compound your confidence. Write them down. Every night I write down my daily accomplishments in a notebook. It gives me confidence and helps me realize how much I accomplished each day. Every week I review and continue to compound these key victories.
The positive habits
During my “vacation,” I established strong positive habits. Every day, I focused on strengthening my mind, body and soul. These habits became the foundation of my life back in the free world.
Key takeaway: “Habits” run our daily lives. Everyone must figure out what habits are running theirs.
The entrepreneurial grind
I left prison with $200 to my name, a fancy pair of Wrangler jeans and a whole lot of ambition. Obviously, I was unemployable, and whether I liked it or not, I was forced into entrepreneurship again. I had been building businesses before I went away. Being an entrepreneur has empowered me to accomplish my professional goals faster.
Key takeaway: Without having the courage to create a business and pursue my goals, I'd probably be stuck working in some dead-end nine-to-five position. If you want to become an entrepreneur, don't let fear stop you. Have a plan and pursue your vision.
The power of story
Neil Patel, Scott Duffy, Noah Kagan, Chris Redlitz and Tucker Max all taught me how to use my story for good. I am forever grateful and indebted for the insight and advice. I used to be afraid to speak about my experience, in fear that people would judge me on my past actions. My team of friends and mentors gave me insight and advice, that empowered me to leverage my story positively.
Every time I write about my experience I get hundreds of people and entrepreneurs emailing me, thanking me for my insights.
Key takeaway: Figure out your “story” and share it with others. You’d be surprised how many people you’ll touch.
The power of love
I have the most supportive and loving wife on the planet. I’ve been in relationships that are draining and toxic, and looking back see how negatively they affected my goals and dreams. Her unconditional love and support has been a major factor for my success.
Key takeaway: Take an honest assessment of the relationships in your life. Are they healthy, supportive and loving? If not, remove the people from your life that aren’t contributing positively because they’re doing more damage than you realize.
The writer's mind
While in prison, writing letters was the only way to get my voice heard in the “outside world.” For my personal success, writing has led to endless opportunity.
Key takeaway: Learn to write. This is the digital age. Content still reigns. Writing will enable you to be a more effective communicator, and you may touch more people than you ever dreamed of.
The nothing-to-lose mentality
I had lost all my comfort. My life, my businesses, relationships, whatever. Everything that we (society), holds of importance and value. I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. This mentality helped me to take risks and push myself in ways I would’ve not felt comfortable doing previously.
Key takeaway: Whatever mindset you have, figure out how to use it to your advantage. Nothing to lose is still my key mantra, as I have many more visions to accomplish in life. Plus, having lost everything has provided a new shift in priorities.
The appetite for risk
The nothing-to-lose mentality has increased my appetite for risk. My increased exposure to risk has enabled me larger than average returns. It’s this simple risk-to-reward ratio that I’ve been following that has helped contribute to my success.
Key takeaway: Figure out what type of person you are. Do you prefer high risk for high reward, or low risk for low reward? How can you improve your appetite for healthy risk to help you accomplish more faster?
Prison is a national problem we all need to face. I know I’m the exception, and it is the reason I’m working on a project to help inmates get employment. I volunteer with The Last Mile (and designed their website!), which is a program that teaches inmates how to code.
The point of this column is that we all have major life obstacles that we face, and having the right mindset will empower you to leverage these obstacles to your advantage.