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What Prisoner Stories Taught Me About Making Big Changes

The ability to change is something that remains constant for all human beings. And, with so many people making life and career changes during the Great Resignation, Michelle Ensuque, a UK-based Behavioural Coach, dives into the fundamental elements of what’s behind the ability to make meaningful changes in our lives using two incredible true stories as examples.

Lessons From True Stories

I happened to watch and listen to two completely different things recently and found them inextricably linked, not only to each other but also with the work I do around neuro-linguistic programming (“NLP”).

The first was the film Papillon (the 2017 version). It’s a movie based on true events which tells the story of French convict Henri Charrière, nicknamed Papillon (butterfly) who was imprisoned in 1933 in the notorious Devils Island penal colony for a crime he didn’t commit.

He escaped in 1941 with the help of another convict, counterfeiter, Louis Dega.

It’s a remarkable story to me because of Papillon’s ability and strength of mind to overcome the most perilous situations. He was twice sentenced to solitary confinement, once for two years and then again for five years on meagre rations. It’s emotional as we watch him take every chance he can to escape, only to be thwarted each time.

But he never gives up. It struck me that he had a sense of determination and no matter what happened to him, he just kept going.

After being released from 5yrs of confinement the prison warden simply asked him, “what kept you alive?”

The second story that caught my attention was a podcast between Dr Chatterjee and John McAvoy. It was a delight to listen to McAvoy as he explained his early years, his role models, his beliefs and why he committed serious criminal offences like armed robbery. He had every intention of playing the system to get out of jail and continue the life of crime outside, but a traumatic event changed all that.

What strikes me about both of these stories is triumph over adversity and the determination to survive. They are incredible lessons in how role models can impact our choices, how our motivations provide a catalyst for change and how our support network can impact our ability to sustain those changes.

Your Role Models vs Your Perception

So, what makes one person more determined than another?

Is there some pre-determined genetic streak that we are born with?

When we are born, there is an innate sense of needing to survive, although quite how the human race has managed it, considering our fragilities and the need to be nurtured for 18 years, is beyond me! But during that time, we are exposed to experiences and behaviours from those around us which tends to shape the way we see the world. If you like, we ‘filter’ the world through the lens of our past. If someone is surrounded by people who commits crimes or takes/deals with drugs, that is their perception of reality.

There are always exceptions where people do make the choice to do something different, and manage to sustain it, but I wonder if we examined this, whether we would see them looking up to or receiving support from someone that gives them the opportunity to make different choices. I am, of course, talking about role models here.

In the podcast, John explains that his role model was his stepfather (his own father died just before he was born) and his stepfather came onto the scene when he was about nine years old. He was taken out for meals and social events amongst a network of criminals and was, essentially, groomed for a life of crime. John was taught how to avoid getting caught, such as not talking in the house or on the phone in case he was bugged or to avoid pillow talk with women because, when they divorced or left you, they would have loose tongues and ‘grass you up’.

John grew up inspired by this group of men who were well dressed and wealthy. He wanted the same things. Later, it was professional athletes that gave him different insights and other role models on which to project his future wishes.

Role models are pretty fundamental, whether accidental or not and, we saw with John McAvoy’s story, they can have positive or negative effects. And so everybody’s anchor for inspiration is different.

My own perception of personal relationships was a mix of what we were made to believe from Disney movies and my own male role models that were the complete opposite of that. It was confusing and, as much as I tried to attain the ‘happy ever after’, it eluded me as I was stuck in a negative loop. Only when I changed my reality did I find someone different.

Papillon lived in the same crime environment surrounded by successful thieves and was able to make more money in a week than most people made in a year. For him too, the material trappings, the lifestyle, the learnings from others, catapulted him into a life of crime and ultimately deprivation in one of the most harrowing prison stories I’ve seen.

The Ingredients For Change

What about then, when we want to change our own lives? How do we suddenly decide to do something different?

If we desire to change and find it difficult, often what is lacking is real motivation and unfortunately, it tends to be a traumatic or difficult event that catapults us into changing course. The motivation for Papillon to escape was always present most probably in response to being falsely imprisoned. The motivation for John McAvoy was very clear cut and immediate: his best friend died whilst committing an armed robbery and, in the moments following hearing about his friend’s death, he decided he no longer wanted to be part of this world he had belonged to. He wanted something different.

But when motivation is missing change becomes more difficult to achieve. I see, and often comment on social media posts, where the motivation for people to make changes only comes once they experience personal trauma such as a heart attack or other physical/mental issue, and normally when it’s too late. We don’t tend to see the need to change unless we are actually experiencing the pain associated with the state in which we are in.

Sometimes support in sustaining that change can also be fundamental.

Just like someone who becomes our running buddy or a friend who quietly nurtures us in the background or a PT instructor who holds us to account to push ourselves. It doesn’t really matter.

The fact is we are social beings, human beings, who thrive on community, socialness and feeling supported. The other areas of support can come from someone such as a therapist or medical practitioner. They can provide expertise in areas where we are not knowledgeable and can add a different dimension, enabling us to see through different eyes.

In Dr Chaterjee’s podcast, John McAvoy relates his experience with a prison guard who worked in a gym in his spare time. He recognised John's talents and began to spend time with him, giving him information on professional athletes’ times for record-breaking events. His words to him were profound: ‘If you end up back in prison, it will be one of the worst travesties I have witnessed’. It’s clear that the guard’s support had a profound effect on John and his future outside prison.

Your own support network may or may not also provide some kind of role model on which you can base future experiences. The main action you need to take is to look around you, because support can come in many guises; family, friends, experts, and even therapists. My simple advice is to seek out your supporter(s) because there will always be someone who can help you, either to make the change or sustain it.

But, before you go ahead and start actively looking for your role model(s) I ask you to consider one thing:

How much do really do you want it?

Because if you were to score less than 6/10 on motivation, I’d question how much you want it at all. Is it really you that wants to make the change, or do you believe you have to because others tell you that you should?

Don’t Hold Yourself Back From Changing

The last point I’ll make is whether we believe we have to be special in some way to do the things we want to do. Well, what is special to you is not special to me and vice-versa. We don’t all need to be performing superheroic feats. Each of us has a uniqueness and are fully capable of changing if we want to.

Sometimes what holds us back is fear and a lack of self-belief. What Papillon and John had in common was their absolute belief that they could do the things they wanted, that they could escape, or be a triathlete or top sportsperson and that belief kept them utterly focused and determined to achieve what they wanted.

I always wanted to be a CEO of a company and I guess you could say I am, although it’s not in the capacity I imagined. I wondered why it had proved elusive to me when I always got such good feedback from people I worked with and for.

When I look at it now though, I realise that I had the ability, but I didn’t truly believe it was within my grasp or gift to have. I felt that CEO’s were special, gifted somehow; that they had skills I didn’t, and that lack of self-belief kept me working for others.

The other thing I realised I did was that I subconsciously labelled CEO’s as psychopaths. Really, type ‘Are CEO’s psychopaths?’ into Google and see for yourself! In my head, I didn’t want to be labelled as a psychopath, as I saw myself as a fundamentally caring person, so I sought a different path.

So, you see, change is not simple to achieve:

In order to seek change, we have to really want it.

In order to make the change we have to believe we can do it

And in order to sustain the change we need to find the right support and role models.

Michelle Ensuque is a behavioural coach whose project management and consultant career has spanned 30 years across public and private sectors.

Read more about Michelle's work or check out her interview with us here.

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