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LESSON: Here’s a truth demonstrated repeatedly through history: when people experience extreme adversity but focus on helping others instead of themselves, the human spirit is energized and begins to heal itself. Serving others is a gift that rebounds to the gift-giver. This practice represents the most potent medicine to avoid despair and self-pity while regaining one’s own strength and self-confidence.


The below lesson is an excerpt from my recently released Amazon #1 Best Seller, When Not If: A CEO's Guide to Overcoming Adversity, Forbes Books. 


Another way I shifted my perspective after losing a billion dollars and staring down 14 years in a violent federal prison was to take the focus off myself, not the easiest task for someone the newspapers continually termed a narcissist and megalomaniac!


As soon as I arrived back at FCI Fort Dix, after weeks of traveling cuffed and shackled through multiple county jails, with stories that would make your toes curl, I tripled my efforts to help other inmates make progress in their own cases. This intense directed energy to help their station in life gave me tremendous positive energy back into my life.


I would periodically lose my temper and rage against inmates who had given up, or even more so against those who mindlessly repeated their court attorneys’ mantra, “You better not upset the judge!”


The inmates quickly tired of me quoting from the 2015 movie Bridge of Spies. It was one of the movies I got to watch stealthily in the prison chapel thanks to the unauthorized import business of our inmate chapel clerk, AJ. The movie inspired me.


Briefly, convicted Russian spy Rudolf Abel tells the following story to his lawyer (played by Tom Hanks): “This one time, I was at the age of your son, our house was overrun by partisan border guards. Dozens of them. My father was beaten, my mother was beaten, and this man, my father’s friend, he was beaten. And I watched this man. Every time they hit him, he stood back up again. So, they hit him harder. Still, he got back to his feet. I think because of this they stopped the beating. They let him live. ‘Stoikiy muzhik’ I remember them saying. Which sort of means like uh, ‘standing man’ . . . ‘standing man.’”


I’ve had a lot of time to think about the movie and the Russian term “stoikiy muzhik.” Although the movie translates the term to mean “standing man,” my research suggests a better translation is “resilient man” or “tough man.” And the takeaway is that inmates who stand their ground in the face of adversity will certainly get abused but if they retain hope and dignity, they will often command some level of grudging respect from their abusers.


It was clear to me that inmates who stood up for themselves actually received better treatment from the guards, counselors, and the courts. On the other hand, I saw precious few inmates advocating for their rights. It was much easier to give up and go along to get along.


This mindset drove me crazy, because prison life was the only environment I had ever experienced where the more you appeased the powers that be, the more you were exploited and degraded. Complicity and cooperation in this bizarre system only brought people less nutrition, fewer opportunities for recreation, more restriction of movement, and, bizarrely, more contempt from the courts.


We achieved a few small victories that shortened sentences or received a favorable ruling. We celebrated every time such a decision allowed an inmate to get back into court after long giving up hope of any positive resolution. Their hope gave me hope, and that’s what kept me going towards my own victory.


Have a great week!

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