Author: Mauro Perez
Yesterday, I went to prison.
I had never been to prison before, but I’d seen the movies. I knew of the cut-throat underworld where the convicts are barely kept in line, and even then, only by the sheer will of armed guards. And eventually, all hell breaks loose. Sometimes a bus carrying convicts would pass me by on my way to work, and I’d shudder thinking of the Con Air escape scene.
So you can imagine just how scared I was. The compound was surrounded by long chain-linked fences covered in way too much barbed wire. I mean, that has to be too much barbed wire, right? As soon as I stepped on the grounds, a guard yelled at me. I asked, what for?, and got no answer. I was wrong and didn’t know why. Reality hit me. The time for judgement had passed. In this place, I couldn’t defend myself.
Upon entry to the facility, I passed through three separate rooms where I was scanned, searched, and frightened ever more. Some of the guards handling me looked young, like in their early twenties maybe. I scanned their belts and couldn’t find a gun. How were these guards going to protect me?
Before leaving one room, I’d worry about what I’d find in the next. Finally, I went through the last door, and entered a large room that was my destination. It was filled with men in blue jumpsuits. Not in line or in handcuffs, but roaming freely. The guard that brought me in left through the same door we entered. One of the men in a blue jumpsuit approached me, a grin stretched across his face, and he said,
“Hi! My name is Waldo. What’s yours?”
That, I didn’t expect. I had to repeat my name after swallowing the lump in my throat. He smiled wider and introduced me to his blue-clad friend, Dante, who would be the host for the event.
The visitor’s room slowly filled with “outsiders”, as people from the street are called on the inside, who came for a Spring graduation at the Dade Correctional Facility. A seemingly ironic ceremony for a class with life sentences.
It was an networking event unlike any I had ever been to. Inmates genially approached outsiders, striking up friendly conversations, filling the air with laughter. The air was also filled with live music performed by the all-inmate band, The Skinny Lizards. After a few minutes, I was more comfortable, and I was also having more meaningful conversations than at any other networking event before.
“Before I got in, I thought it was gonna be like in the movies. Dog eat dog. Every man for himself,” said Luis Araceno, a young-looking inmate. “But it wasn’t at all like that. Yea there are some guys that still try to be slick, but there were a lot of older guys learning and trying to do good, so those were the guys I hung out with.”
Finally, the event got started. The people that had brought the educational program to the prison introduced themselves. Exchange for Change trains inmates to write letters, stories, and even poetry! And that was what the graduation became. A poetry slam by the inmates of Dade Correctional Institution.
For over an hour, the mic echoed…
“There aren’t any bad guys. Only bad choices.”
“Get out of the prison of your mind.”
“It’s me that has to save myself.”
“Take responsibility for your choices.”
“Don’t blame anyone else.”
Over and over, these ideas reappeared, coloring the philosophy of the inmates in the program. Ideas of self improvement, emerging from within the prison. Selfishly I thought, “These guys won’t read a blog called Best Damn Me. They’d write it!”
They also took turns honoring a hero of theirs called Louie Hernandez. Louie is an inmate, published author, spoken word champion, and has been honored by outsiders for his inspiring words the way they would a songwriter. One inmate shared a memory of Louie when his family visited the prison after getting his outside recognition. He didn’t tell Louie’s family that he thought that Louie was one of the most honest and courageous people he knew, like he thought they must know. Louie told him, “You should have. They don’t know me like that because that’s what I became in here.”
Louie wasn’t at the ceremony because he is in the hospital. After fainting in the middle of the lunch line, they discovered that he has cancer. At least one person at the event, a UM professor, wondered whether the facility’s healthcare could use some help, an active question in the sociological field. Louie’s unfinished story brought tears to the eyes of outsiders and inmates alike.
After the poems were shared, outsiders were invited to the mic. One by one, they said…
“There is so much talent in here.”
“There is so much hate out there, and so much hope in here.”
“You’ve inspired me.”
Afterwards, I understood why I was so scared about going to the prison. Like Luis Araceno, I had learned about what prison was like from movies. Mayhem looming just above order, hanging by a thread. I had no idea how wrong I was. Now when I see a bus from the correction facility, I think of the guys I met in prison, and I thank them for teaching me that I can’t judge a book by its cover… and that I shouldn’t believe everything I see on TV.
The event was truly transformational. Never have I seen or heard of the outside community connecting with prisoners like this before, and I was lucky to be a part of it. I was ready to go back outside, and share my amazing experience with everyone.
Robert Pirsig is best known for his best-selling book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It voiced the anti-establishment sentiment of the generation of hippies, asked their unasked questions, and went on a journey to find an answer.
Robert Pirsig died yesterday, April 24th 2017, at the age of 88. His book inspired millions of readers, myself included. This previous post on gumption is inspired by his book. So here is my personal recommendation of his famous book.
To whom do I recommend this book and why?
To anyone who grew up in the modern Western world where success is the life goal but isn’t adequately defined in non financial terms. If you ever say things like, “This sucks, but it’ll be fine after…” If you reject the default way of life, materialism, consumerism, and the common life plan whose steps are, “go to school, get a job, get married, have kids, retire, and die. Oh and stay out of trouble.” If you reject all this, but still seek an alternate way of life.
Without spoiling anything, the story digs deep into the question, “How do you live a good life?” by asking another, “What is good?” Robert explores answers to this question starting from the modern technological age and far back to the ancient Greeks. He won’t say how one should or shouldn’t live their life, a refreshing difference from typical how-to books. Instead, he tells a story, based on his own, and along the way, he brings up ideas and questions that the reader can use for themselves on their own journey.
The tale is winding and scenic, just like a cross country motorcycle trip. It doesn’t rush from one action/drama-packed scene to the next. Instead it gives the reader time to digest to an idea before travelling to the next. Therefore, it may be well-enjoyed if it’s not hurriedly read in search of answers. Afterall, the answers will come from the reader. Instead the book sets the context with ideas and questions that may help one find answers, and it may be reused in pursuit of answers across other areas of life.
Robert addresses many of the feelings and questions we may have in face of our society’s glaring contradictions. How can we stand for individuality if our institutions inhibit individual reasoning and expression? How can we try to make things better without first improving ourselves? It’s his unique exploration and response to these feelings and questions that makes the book so fascinating.
I highly recommend the audiobook. I listened to it slowed down to 85% while on my own road trips for a really worthwhile experience. Let me know if you try it, too!
This is for anyone that wonders, “What’s wrong with me?” Maybe you feel stuck or inadequate. You try to force yourself to do things you should do, or be how you should be, but you can’t. So does it mean you’re just lazy, stupid, stubborn, or all of the above? I don’t think so.
On Name Calling
If you work a lot on some things and not others, then you’re not lazy. So don’t believe it. Also, you’re not stupid if you’re capable of learning, and surely there is much you’ve already learned in life. These names are confusing and frustrating. They are a weak attempt to explain our experience by blaming ourselves.
“I have been called a lot of names in my life. Some positive, and some far less than positive, and I can never recall learning anything valuable by somebody telling me what I am.” -Marshall Rosenberg
Here’s a simple idea. When we call ourselves names, we feel bad. When we feel bad, we get stuck, or we avoid things. To get unstuck, we call ourselves names and hope it pushes us out of the hole, but it’s just a vicious cycle.
Ultimately we reduce ourselves to a label, and we then focus so much on that label that we forget we were trying to understand something bigger than ourselves in the first place. Resist the tendency. Dare to go further to find understanding. There may be an explanation that doesn’t depend on our supposed inabilities and that better explains what’s happening.
What you’re feeling is not senseless. It is for a reason. Your subconscious is hijacking your conscious mind hoping you’ll shut up and listen to what’s within. What is it saying?
Maybe that you’re bored, and you seek cultivation over grooming. Maybe that you sense a conflict of interests, and you have a need for consistency. Maybe that the task seems meaningless, and you desire to live a meaningful life. Behind every negative feeling, there’s a fear, and behind every fear there’s a sweet intention. Connect with the intention instead of the fear.
Why do I pretend to know this?
This has been my experience. For two decades, I taunted myself, “What’s wrong with you? Don’t fuck up!” I had learned these words from others that would see me stuck, and wanted to push me. While probably well-intended, in the end it was crippling.
So much I taunted myself, that I began to taunt others in the same way. Eventually I saw them using the same words to taunt others still. What I didn’t see was whether in-between they had learned to taunt themselves, too. It’s a vicious cycle that spans generations.
It’s true what they say. To love another, we must first love ourselves. Put another way, if we think it’s OK to hurt ourselves, then it’ll be OK to hurt others.
Why do I say this to you?
I want to break that cycle. Compassion, like courage, isn’t a trophy, earned once and forever sits on your shelf. It’s a commitment to an idea, that pain should be met with care, and it is only alive while in practice.
It took someone that I trust to tell me, “you’re being too hard on yourself,” to interrupt that cycle. My shoulders got a bit lighter, and my stomach went into freefall. That’s how I knew it was significant. Since then I’ve practiced that mindset, but it’s not easy to let go of an old habit. Not without a new one to hold onto.
So here’s an alternative. Next time you call yourself a name, instead name the fear. Then seek the sweet intention, and ask yourself how else you may support it.
Try the alternative
Maybe you avoid trying something because you’re afraid of failing. If you fear failing, then it might be because you care a lot about the thing you’re avoiding. If so, try asking yourself, “What’s the worst that can happen?” Or, “How can I make it easier to succeed?”
Maybe you taunt others because you worry about them and so you’re trying to push them to be better. How else can you help them to be better? Maybe you can ask them what they need.
Whatever the case, try the alternative…
- Don’t name yourself. Name the fear.
- Find the sweet intention behind the fear.
- Try another way to support the intention.
Sometimes it seems all too easy to lose gumption and get into a bad mood and too hard to get out of it. Over time I’ve worked on being more aware of an imminent bad mood and the slippery slope that takes me there. Below, I’ll share a system that helps me avoid and recover from bad moods.
What is Gumption?
You might call gumption your energy level, mood, ability to focus, good or bad perspective, or all of it. When you have gumption, you are ready and willing to take on the challenges and opportunities that you face. Instead, feeling down, bored, upset, tired, etc. are all signs of low gumption. The word came back into style thanks to Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
“A person filled with gumption doesn’t sit around dissipating and stewing about things. He’s at the front of the train of his own awareness, watching to see what’s up the track and meeting it when it comes. That’s gumption.”
Robert Pirsig – Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
I’ve tracked when my gumption drops over time using the Best Damn Me Tracker, and I noticed that my gumption is predictably low at certain times of the day, like when I’m tired before or after sleeping, or when I’m drained at the end of a work day. Realizing this has helped me better prepare in advance to avoid getting down.
Signs of low gumption
We all have our tells that our gumption is drained. When I’m bored or nervous, I’ll crave snack food. If I’m frustrated, I’ll complain about every little thing. Often times, I won’t realize that I have low gumption until I catch myself reaching for cookies or complaining out loud. The best is when I catch myself having negative thoughts since that is one of the first signs for me.
When I lack gumption it’s much easier to think negative thoughts and notice the fault in everything. I may think that everything sucks, and then notice things that suck, which reinforces the idea that everything sucks. Thus a feedback loop is created causing my mood to worsen with each passing experience. Which brings me to the next point.
Get out of your head
I try to remember to not take every thought that passes through my head too literally. Many times a regret, or even a suicidal thought, may just be a bad mood speaking up. If I engage with the negative thoughts, I drive myself into a worse mood. In Eleanor Longden’s Ted Talk, she shares her story of when she became schizophrenic and over time learned to used the voices in her head. Despite their forceful commands, she learned to take them as cues of how she’s feeling and act on those cues instead. You can find the link to her talk below.
Now, low gumption doesn’t mean that you’re in a bad mood, but you are more susceptible. So if you mind your gumption and do something to recharge when it’s low, you can save yourself from an oncoming bad mood.
Listening to music helps me to block negative thoughts. Easy activities like washing dishes or walking the dog lets me focus on something else that also gives me a small accomplishment. I can then build on that small win with another easy success to get enough momentum to get out of a bad mood.
Drink a potion
Sometimes I like to imagine that I’m a character in a video game and that when my gumption is low, I need to take a potion to recharge. So I’ve asked myself, “What are my potions?” And I’ve got a simple list of potions that help me recharge, including…
- Taking a nap
- Dancing or singing to a favorite playlist
- Laughing with a friend
- Getting something small done for a pet project
- Listen to a podcast or audiobook
You can try making your own list of recharge potions so you know exactly what you can do if you catch your gumption slipping.
Allow for spontaneity
The other day I was driving with my partner when she started talking about wanting to move to China. By now, I know that for her “I want to move to China” really means “I’m feeling bad”. On the drive we saw a Greek festival that was happening, and so we took it up as a random adventure. It saved the day. In the end, she didn’t even remember why she was upset.
When I notice that I’m starting to feel bad, I remember that it might just be low gumption and that I can do something quick to restore it. I’ve found being on the lookout for a spontaneous adventure is one of the best tricks. The surprise of it all so fully captures my attention that I may quickly and totally forget why I was upset to begin with!
Many times I get down for silly reasons, like getting bored at work. If the reason is indeed silly, then the previously mentioned techniques could work very well. But if there’s something wrong that is important to me, then the bad mood may keep coming back.
No amount of potions can truly fix a chronic problem. In fact, continuously using recharge potions to feel better instead of facing a true problem will render them useless due to diminishing returns. In fact, one may start abusing them and mistakenly start believing that they need that potion to feel better. That’s called learned helplessness, and it may end up being a harder problem to solve than whatever the original issue was.
In my video game life, facing important issues are what I imagine to be boss battles. You usually can’t get past a level without beating the boss of that level, just like you can’t get over a chronic bad mood without facing the real issue behind it all. I’ve got a list of steps for boss battles, too. It includes…
- Journaling / Talking to a close friend
- Making a strategy on how to face the boss
- Putting the strategy into practice
- Reflecting on that practice to either change the strategy and try again, or celebrate a success.
Try making your own list so you know just what to do when it’s time to get serious!
Before you go…
Do you have your own ways to keep your gumption up? Please share you story in the comments below 🙂
If we want to change our response in a given circumstance, it’s not enough to say what we won’t do. We have to say what we will do instead.
I first learned about this idea while learning how to train my dog. The trainer said that when you want to correct a dog’s behavior, you have to not only catch them in the act and say “No!”, but you have to offer them an alternative behavior, like sitting. This makes sense, I thought, and when I tried it, it worked!
Now, I’m not saying anyone should train themselves like a dog. In fact, avoid it if you can! Or at least avoid admitting it because it’s hard to live down the ridicule from family and friends 😕
Instead here is another credible source that echoes the same idea. Marshall Rosenberg, creator of Nonviolent Communication, and the main reason why my family and I don’t fight anymore, describes “positive action language” as follows (watching for 1 minute is enough to get the point).
Here he describes how to make clear actionable requests of others, like I would to my dog, but it also works when applied to oneself. In his book Nonviolent Communication, he says (and I paraphrase),
“I was asked to debate the Vietnam war issue with a man with a different opinion than mine on a recorded program. When I saw the tape I was disturbed by how I was communicating. After watching the tape, I made clear three things I didn’t want to do again. ‘I won’t get defensive. I won’t…’ Two weeks later, I was invited back to continue the debate. All the way to the studio, I repeated the 3 things to myself. When the show started, he came at me the same way he did before, and I didn’t do what I said I wouldn’t do… for about 10 seconds until I finally opened my mouth and then I did it all even worse than before!”
It can be relieving to know that even a master nonviolent communicator can make the same mistake 😌
Theory in Action
Here’s an example of how it works for me. As pointed out to me in my last job performance review, I have a tendency to stop listening to others when I want to make a point. So I remembered the last time I did this to a coworker in a meeting, and I noticed three signs that I was getting worked up and subsequently stopped listening. I would either stand up during the seated meeting, talk faster or louder, or pay more attention to my own thoughts than my coworker’s words. So I made clear my own three things I wanted to do instead. They were…
- If I stand up during the meeting, I will sit back down instead.
- If I start talking faster or louder, I will slow down or lower my voice instead.
- If I notice I’m paying most of my attention to my own thoughts, I will block them out and pay attention to other person instead.
Soon I had another meeting to practice in. I caught myself on all three counts and swiftly implemented my alternate strategies. After the meeting my boss told me, “I noticed you’re listening more!” That feedback is the final piece of the puzzle. Getting feedback, whether from someone else or by reflecting on an experience ourselves, is how we know whether our strategy worked or if we need to revisit the drawing board.
If you give this method a try, or have your own way of adapting your behavior, please share below! We love to get feedback how our posts help you 🙂