Last month I went on my regular visit to two drug treatment units at New Zealand's largest prison. As part of my commitment to giving back to society and acknowledging all the help I received from people over the years, I try to make the time to speak to inmates about what made a difference for me when it comes to changing my life and integrating back into society.
To be honest, I hate these visits. Prison is not an experience I want to relive, and I am gripped by anxiety and fear each time I make my way back. For me, prison is a place of violence and oppression; a dark time in my life I don't like to revisit. But I keep going back. I do this because I believe in doing what matters, and one of the things that matters to me is showing people that they can change and that people can accept you for who you are, despite what you may have done in your past.
What matters in life is different for each person, but doing what matters is the number one thing that will give your life meaning and satisfaction. This is the advice I give to inmates and it is exactly what I suggest to people in the corporate world. You need to make the space in your life to figure out what matters to you. We need to have a clear idea about what "true north" means for us as individuals, for if we don't, we navigate moment by moment without any clear direction in mind, and in so doing we get swept away with the current of life.
Some people may say that making space that is conducive to self-reflection is much easier to do behind bars than on the outside. I disagree. Even though inmates have more time on their hands, to make honest appraisals about yourself, you need to feel safe, and prison is not one of those places. Leading up to my latest prison visit, a popular topic of conversation was a recent YouTube exposé of inmate fight clubs and alcohol and drug use within New Zealand prisons. There is nothing new about this behaviour except that having the footage public made the negative experience of prison very "real" and hard to ignore.
Outside of prison, abusive and toxic relationships create similar environments of fear and mistrust. It is very hard to discover your true self and determine your values if you are constantly trying to be someone you think you should be to avoid negative confrontation. It is just like prison culture where people are not prepared to display vulnerability. This is understandable given prison's volatility, yet it acts as a strong barrier to people being able to try something different, to risk failure, and to experiment with a new approach to life.
To find our way in life, we must first create the space that allows us to be the best we can be. For me, I choose to surround myself with people who believe in positive change and growth; people who believe that this pursuit is fundamental to maximising the human experience. This encourages me to pursue my better self, to be open when I get things wrong and to do what matters despite discomfort and risk. Are you surrounding yourself with people that create the space for you to be the best you can be? Or are you choosing to create your own prison environment?
Here are three ways to help you do what matters and create the space that will help you grow:
Discover your "true north"
Your values reflect the purpose of your life, and living these values will mean that you are doing what matters. One method I like to use is encouraging people to think about what they most want people to say about them at their funeral. This exercise puts focus on the key things we want to be remembered for. Was your time meaningful? Was it worth the while? Another similar exercise is to imagine you are talking to your future self 20 years from now. What advice would your future self give you about what to spend your time on now and how to live your life? Once you discover the values that define you, begin to create the space that reflects this true north. You got to live it to be it.
Surround yourself with the right people
I was very careful of who I associated with when in prison. This wasn't always easy, but was something I still had some degree of choice over. For a time, I shared the same unit as a 6"4, 120kg serial murderer and psychopath who spent all his time in prison doing martial arts training. He'd occasionally come to my cell and start telling me stories about who he had hurt and what he had done, and because of his volatile disposition, I couldn't just ask him to leave. Yet I chose not to expose myself to his negativity by excusing myself to do something else when he'd come to visit (e.g. workout or go to the library). This allowed me to remove myself from his negativity without provoking him. Are you surrounding yourself with people who enhance your life? Or are you maintaining historical relationships with people who sap your energy?
Stage the environment
One of the things we know from research into the psychology of individual differences is that most of us are far more influenced by our environment than we might believe. It's not the vision of an inmate in prison, but I used to listen to a lot of classical music that would provide me with an escape and enrich my senses. I also read a lot of philosophy and literature and put aspirational pictures and quotes on my cell wall. These were small changes that I was able to make within the limitations of where I was. Yet they were changes that helped me get into the kind of headspace I wanted to be in; the kind of headspace where I felt energized to pursue my true north. Think about what you can do in your environment to help you get into the right headspace and feel energized. Maybe it's as simple as tidying up, putting up an aspirational picture or playing music that makes your heart sing.