1 Critical Lesson That Transformed My Life After Prison

Lessons are everywhere if we’re open to seeing them.

We have a new water filter/dispenser. It’s one of those rectangular ones with a spout.

On Friday night, before going to bed, my wife filled it to the brim in preparation for filling numerous water bottles for our day at the beach on Saturday.

I opened the fridge to fill our bottles on Saturday morning, and the dispenser was bone dry.

I was baffled.

Where did all the water go?

Well, it turns out a couple of gallons made their way to the bottom of our refrigerator, creating a mini pool that one of our cats was delighted by.

I thought maybe the dispenser was cracked and leaking, so we refilled it, put it on the counter, and waited.

No leak.

My wife discovered that the shelf on the refrigerator door aligns perfectly with the spout, so when we closed the door, we opened the spout.

Many towels later, and again, much to one of our cats’ delight, the swimming pool was cleaned up.

She felt awful and said,

“That’s totally my fault.”

I replied,

“It’s nobody’s fault. We didn’t know, but now we do – slide the dispenser way back into the fridge.”

To me, this is a prime example of a mistake. It’s also a prime example of shame and guilt entering the picture where it doesn’t belong. There was no intention behind my wife’s actions other than to ensure we had enough cold water for our beach day.

Mistakes happen, and they are a mandatory part of our shared human existence.

When I was incarcerated for defrauding a tech giant, I used to say I made a mistake, and I believed I shouldn’t have been in prison for a mistake.

I pointed fingers, I played the victim, and I experienced shame and guilt, but more because of my circumstances.

My pre-trial supervision officer said it wasn’t that big a deal.

The prosecutor lied at sentencing.

The FBI obscured evidence.

My circumstances made me feel helpless and hopeless, but pointing the finger at others gave me a small sense of relief. It wasn’t my fault; it was a mistake.

But this belief carried a heavy tax; it was the lie I was telling myself.

Of all the lies we tell, the worst are the lies we tell ourselves. No matter how much we pretend to believe ourselves, the truth is unwavering and unrelenting; there will always be a part of us that knows what we’re doing.

We wear masks that obscure the truth, hoping that the truth will never come out, either to ourselves or to others. It’s funny that we can’t see it’s already out; we wouldn’t need the mask if it weren’t.

One day, the burden grew too heavy, the hopelessness and helplessness were crushing me.

I was pointing my finger at anyone but the only one responsible:


I knew what I was doing was wrong; the moment before I hit the “send” button to initiate the fraud, my heart spoke, and it spoke crystally clear,

“Stop, don’t do this; this is not the way.”

It spoke in words, and it spoke physically, in the language of fear as my chest tightened, my stomach grew empty, and my face burned with shame at what I was about to do.

I ignored all of it and hit “send.”

My fraud lasted just under a year and required thousands of choices to maintain it. Each one of those choices was made in the face of my heart pleading,

“Stop, don’t do this; this is not the way.”

I didn’t make a mistake; I made a choice, and I made the same choice thousands of times.

The moment I realized this, a wave of emotions washed over me. Inside prison walls, a weight lifted, and I experienced freedom.

There was no one else to blame.

I knocked the first domino down, and everything that happened after resulted from my choice.

Yes, the prosecutor lied in court, and yes, the FBI obscured evidence, but none of that would have ever happened if I hadn’t made the choices I made.

Our paths would have never crossed without my choice.

I was responsible for where I found myself.

The freedom I felt from accepting extreme responsibility was beautiful and filled with possibilities.

And then the shame evolved and hit differently. It wasn’t shame for my circumstances, it was shame that I created the circumstances by ignoring my heart and behaving the way I did.

It’s been a long journey through that shame and guilt, one I still travel.

Ghosts of the past appear daily, and self-forgiveness, grace, compassion, and growth from my terrible choices are my companions. I cover the journey in detail in my memoir, “Blank Canvas: How I Reinvented My Life After Prison.”

Accepting full and extreme responsibility was one of the most pivotal moments of my life.

A statement and question bubbled to the surface naturally when I understood not only was there no one else to blame, but no one was going to come to rescue me other than myself,

“This is my life now. What am I going to do with what is left of it?”

Understanding the difference between a mistake and choice has been liberating, and two key lessons I work to embrace are this:

1. A mistake lacks intention.

There’s no intention to do wrong, manipulate, control, or deceive.

An action is taken, a cup breaks, sugar is added to eggs instead of salt, or the fridge floods.

Therefore, shame and guilt aren’t deserved, but they show their ugly faces anyway.

Forgiveness, grace, compassion, and a willingness to learn are needed.

2. A choice is loaded with intention.

The intention can be positive (e.g., asking my wife to marry me) or negative (e.g., defrauding a tech giant for my financial gain).

Before making a choice, understanding my intention is critical.

I categorize my choices into two categories to better understand my intention.

Expanding or Diminishing

Will this choice expand or diminish my world?

Expanding choice create extraordinary lives.

Diminishing choices create lives of mundanity and regret.

Both categories involve pain, but understanding that pain is critical to reinventing an extraordinary second half.

Diminishing choices are short-term comfortable and long-term empty and painful.

Expansive choices are short-term painful and long-term meaningful and fulfilling.

Acquiring crystal clear clarity on how I want to experience life one year, three years, and five years from now determines my choices today.

And perhaps the most significant lesson from all of this is the understanding of a choice I have to make every day:

Will I allow my past to define my future?

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