January 4, 2016

7 Daily Habits To Succeed in Federal Prison

While waiting an unusually long time for my $6 dollar coffee drink this morning at Starbucks, I heard some men talking about their New Years goals.

Rather than offer them my unsolicited opinion, I decided to write you to share my thoughts.

The reality is New Years resolutions do not work for 90% of people.  Forgive me for not citing the source. The data is accurate.

As a result of the 90% failing to achieve their goals they do not reach their full potential. In my world, that means you might not work openly with your lawyer, or take proactive steps to prepare for each stage of the journey, including your pre sentence investigation and sentencing.

Rather than set immeasurable or unrealistic goals, I suggest working to create new habits. In prison, Michael Santos introduced me to Aesop’s Tortoise and The Hare fable. ,

Much like it is unlikely the guy behind me at Starbucks will lose 40 pounds by his 45th birthday on February 2, it is unlikely that you will have rebuilt your whole reputation, built a new business and convince the prosecutor that you are different than your indictment in the next month.

The key is simply making meaningful, measurable daily progress. It is also key to prepare on days when you do not want to.

I spoke with a client this morning before his surrender. Our prison planning was done, so we focused on some habits he should pursue while in prison. At the end of sharing them, I found them so valuable I also wanted to share them here.

 1- Understand what you can and cannot control: As I wrote in my prison gone bad class, we have to understand what we can and cannot control. You might not be able to control your bunk assignment or job in prison, for example, but you can certainly choose the best activities on your spare time. In my case that was running, reading and writing. Having choices brought meaning to my prison term.

 2- Work each day on doing your own thing: I made a lot of money as a stockbroker but I never really stood out. I just went with the flow and rarely took a stand. Most do the same in prison. Or if they start to create something worthwhile, they are easily swayed by others telling them to stop.  I credit Michael Santos for encouraging me in those early prison days to think differently and be my own man. After all some people thought Michael’s prison routine was insane. Once I saw the life he built from prison, I set a similar goal of having people think I, too, was insane. Now those same people who knocked us, call us looking for work.

 3- Embrace the small wins each day: I think the small wins sustain us on tough days. I never used to enjoy them, however. When I was a young broker at Bear Stearns I cold called and closed a hedge fund worth more than $10 million. Rather than enjoy it, I said, “Big deal, to be successful you need like $1 billion under management. This is nothing.” Now, the small and big wins mean much more to me. Earlier today, I ran two miles. But rather than say, “big deal, just two miles,” I said, “hey two miles adds up to nearly 60 over a whole month.” Slow and steady…

4- Embrace the struggle: A defendant called me and said, “What’s the point of preparing? I mean I am going to prison. Life sucks, you cannot change that.” True, I could not change the government’s 6-year prison recommendation, but I could help him understand how the decisions he makes today will influence the rest of his life. Perhaps, he could understand that his wife is suffering more than him, and that he has an obligation to take action, rather than be resigned to failure and giving up. Learning to embrace the struggle helped me. When I was released from prison I had permission to write Michael. We got used to ending some letters with the phrase, “more to come.” I had learned to endure setbacks and find some meaning through them. And for the person who wrote me last month to tell me that my journey was “easy” because I went to prison and came home wealthy let me correct you. I came home broke, in the worst economy since 1929, with no licenses, a sullied reputation and more. But, I had developed a daily pattern to work hard and develop a system that would get me closer to success, even on those days I would have preferred to throw in some chewing tobacco and go play 36 holes of golf (I was too broke to play golf anyways).

5- Assess your values each day: Sounds cliché, I guess, but I did. Upon my immediate release from prison, I would access at the end of each day whether I was on track. Did I cold call enough lawyers to introduce my work, email enough businesses to try to get a speaking event, make time for my niece, exercise, was I honest in all my dealings, etc? Now, like running, I no longer need discipline to access my values. It is just something I do daily, like brushing my teeth.  For clarity, I am not always faithful to these values (like work life balance or my diet) but I am aware of it and am working on it.

6- Learn from others and embrace feedback, both good and bad: When I drive to a meeting or run, I do not listen to music. I am listening to a podcast (like Michael’s), or learning from others who have succeeded. Rather than get jealous of their success, I get motivated. Take a few minutes each day to learn from someone. If you cannot set aside 30 minutes a day for only you, you are off track.

7- Work on believing it can be done:  When I was in prison a large guard with bad breath stood over me to tell me that my prison term was not long enough to help others prepare. I asked Michael’s opinion. Michael reminded me of the value of people’s unsolicited opinions, and suggested I learn to look past them. Then he recited the famous quotes from Atlas Shrugged: “It’s best not to venture unsolicited advice. That way you can spare yourself the embarrassing value of it’s true value to your listener.” From that point on, rather than focus on any of my shortcomings, I simply said, “Hey, there is a need to help people like me. Let’s work hard and make it happen.” I have done that each day since surrendering to prison on April 28 2008.

These were seven takeaways I shared with my client before his surrender. I hope you found them of value and can implement some in 2016.

Happy New Year.



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