"I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul." - William Earnest Henley


Not fear, or anxiety, or even the familiar uneasiness that accompanies the feeling of being out of place. No, it’s definitely uncertainty. This is the numbing feeling running through my veins as I walk the steps up the 1,800+ capacity North Jersey prison toward my classroom. Today is my first day teaching prisoners and all previous expectations I had coming in are about to be shattered…

I look inside to see an empty classroom slightly bigger than a walk-in closet that will supposedly occupy 27 grown men. As I enter and approach the podium to wait for my new students to arrive, I convince myself that through my education, teaching experience, and especially my years of internal self-development, the roles will be clear: I teach, they learn. Well, as usual when I have to convince myself that an experience is going to be one way, it turns out to be something far beyond that.

What I quickly recognize is that aside from being the teacher of communication and certain philosophical concepts, I too am a student. Not a student of academia, but a student of purpose.

Unlike the typical college classroom where the majority of students are reluctant to be there outside of their core requirements, these 27 students, most likely influenced by the desire to reshape the values that led them here, have been struck with intrinsic motivation. They have bought into the process of rebuilding themselves. However, where my teacher-oriented paradigm shifts to student-oriented is highlighted by an encounter with a select few:

This group is known as the “lifers”.

Reformation doesn’t apply to them. Their reason for being in this classroom cannot be to satisfy a punitive requirement so it will look good on a release form. No. They will never step foot outside of this building again… Then what the hell is the point of being in this classroom?

Take a moment to consider that possibility for yourself: You are locked in a building – any building – and can never leave for the rest of your life. Would you still be driven by your life ambitions and goals? Probably not. Yet, this is the very reason I find myself in the student perspective. I question my core motivations to be a better person and try to understand how being physically confined to four walls for the remainder of my existence might impact my desire for personal growth. It seems like a futile task, because – well – what is the point? Yet, not only is this a reality for the lifers, but these are the students who are MOST determined to grow.

To gain a better understanding of why this is, lets not focus on the wrong thing here. Instead of magnifying the differences between living inside those walls and outside of them, there is one main similarity: living with themselves. No matter your living environment, at the end of the day the person who determines your personal growth and can tell you if you are on the right path or not is you.

Therefore, it is because of their living circumstances that the lifers are most driven toward bettering themselves. They are free to learn on their own terms. There is no end game, they will always be here – but they grow for the purpose of growing.

This is what I see as unconditional growth.

The difference between the type of personal growth that I and 99% of the people I know are accustomed to and the growth that has materialized in this classroom is the ‘unconditional’ part. We aspire to grow to get a better job, or work on our relationships, or to be the best at a sport. Although these examples are admirable, especially if they make you happier, this kind of growth, however, is a means to an end. It is conditional growth.

Unconditional growth, on the other hand, recognizes no end nor does it serve a purpose. This is the type of growth that drives your very existence. It lives deep within your uncompromisable core. It is simply personal growth for the sole purpose of personal growth. This is very special, very rare, and very very meaningful.

Seeing this rare value in an unexpected source instantly compelled me to question my own motivations and my own freedom… “Freedom” – which is the most striking revelation of all! Considering the context, the one person who actually is allowed to leave this building at the end of the day should be the last person questioning freedom. Yet, we are only as free as we allow ourselves to be. If the way I live and learn and love and act is contingent on something outside of those experiences, if I do those things as a means to an end, then my own freedom should be exactly the thing I question.

This story is an introduction to a series on learning. In my next few posts, I will discuss many expected and unexpected teachers that we encounter daily and how to learn from them. We often limit ourselves to knowledge because we attribute wisdom to only a select few sources. But I say there is wisdom to be acquired from everyone around you even if you don’t expect it. After all, the goal of learning itself is moving from uncertainty to certainty.