Shaun Attwood walks on stage with a shy, meek look. He’s obviously nervous. He’s smart looking, dressed in a shiny suit, with a story to tell. He’s in the right place, where better to tell your story than a TedX stage.
His talk entitled “What Facing 200 Prison Year Taught Me About Happiness” isn’t a story you often hear and with 1.6M views, it seems a lot of people like what Shaun has to say.
Who Is Shaun Attwood?
As a kid, Shaun had ambitions of being a stock trader. He was money hungry. He saw the money to be made in the stock market by teachings from his economics teacher and decided to pursue trading as a career. He had big dreams. Dreams of becoming a millionaire and so he told everyone that was where he’d end up.
He moved to Arizona and after 6 years he was netting $500,000 per year. He had a strong team. He was the guy to beat. In many respects, he was on the path to fulfilling all he’d ever wanted. But then that thing happens.
You start to see you are in reaching distance of your dreams and now your focus starts to shift. It’s no longer a lofty ambition, this seems like it might come true, in which case, it’s not ambitious anymore.
As ever, when things start going well, we can fall victim to forgetting who we are and what we stand for. We find that the things we once pined for are barely entertaining us any longer so we reach out for something else.
In Shawn’s case that was drugs.
After dabbling in drugs himself, he ended up becoming a drug lord and selling Ecstasy on a huge scale. At his peak, he had 200 people working for him. People smuggling drugs across the border. Now $250,000 per month. He was making what he used to make in a year in 2 months.
Needless to say, he quickly left his trading job.
Once a pipe dream, Shawn was now firmly a millionaire, even if it wasn’t the way he thought he’d be making his money.
He talks candidly about his time as a drug lord and how he ran the business as a corporation. He divulges his profit margin per pill, how he would sell them down the food chain, how he treated people, the culture.
It’s all pretty fascinating but of course highly illegal.
Long story short, he got caught.
He ended up in Arizona’s deadliest prison, this place sounds the pits. A concrete sauna, it’s so hot that the inmates walk around in their boxers to get out of the heat.
Which would be fine if the place wasn’t infested with cockroaches.
The problem is so bad that the inmates would race cockroaches for fun. Shawn recollects on the time he woke up to cockroaches crawling all over him, it was that or sweat profusely beneath a smoothing sheet.
He chose to let the cockroaches crawl.
The heat was so bad that the top layer of his skin became permanently wet. Every time he went to scratch an itch, chunks of skin would peel away and burrow under his nails.
On top of that (as if it could get much worse) the food didn’t leave much to the imagination. Mouldy bread and a mixture of meat slop for dinner. Meat slop that showed evidence of being infiltrated by rats.
The prison boss used to boast that it cost more to feed the prison guard dogs than it did the prisoners.
Fighting, bullying, a near suicide attempt later Shawn was now on stage telling his story. He, amazingly, had lessons he wanted to share with the world through this experience. Amazingly he tells them with a smile.
1. Happiness is in Your Head
No matter where you are or what you have there is a choice to be happy and you make that choice every day. He told the story of a book he read whilst in prison, the book “One Day in the Life” of Ivan Denisovich.
The book that tells the of the story of labour-camp inmate Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, who was subject to some of the worst conditions known to mankind.
These inmates were forced to work in the most gruelling of conditions to which some were worked to death. Those that refused to work were thrown off cliffs or dragged to death by horse and cart.
They didn’t worry about mouldy bread, they’d fight over a fish-eye ball.
When Shawn talks of his life you can barely believe it’s true. Stories of mafias, affairs, violence. It’s all pretty incredible to believe this stuff goes on in the world.
However, Shawn realised that the life he pursued so fearlessly was for all the wrong reasons. Now, locked up, why would it matter the size of your mansion, the car you drive, the watch you wear when you’re stuck inside these prison walls.
All of that material stuff just falls by the waist side into nothingness.
Happiness exists in your head regardless of your situation.
2. Treat Your Life Like a Work of Art
What would your life look like if you treated it like a piece of art?
Shawn implores us all to look at life as if it was a piece of art and to think about how much work goes into works of art.
Think of the hours spent, the accuracy of the brush strokes, the painstaking thought process behind creating a piece that means something.
We often treat our lives like a slapdash attempt at creating something but then we got too bored with the process so we quickly divert our attention to something else. We don’t put the time in to create something of real value and at the end of the day, we can’t call anything we create art.
At best it’s a half-hearted attempt.
That mindset can run true in any line of work. Writing, creating content, your day job. Creating a work of art is the equivalent to checking your articles 5 times, making sure the sentence structure works, analysing your title, thinking about the right picture.
In a work sense, it’s reading an email before you send it, it’s taking the time to ask questions about someone’s life before diving in to ask for something you want, it’s setting the scene in a meeting.
Life is a work of art. You should treat it as such.
3. The Road is of Life is Like Waves on the Promenade— Be the Promenade
Sometimes bad things happen in life, at some point we will all face loss and sorrow. It’s just part of life.
Shawn says we should think about life as if those are the waves and we are the promenade. Stay strong, let them wash over us and don’t move, don’t change just find stillness in the waves.
There will always be a rhythm of bad things going on in life, equally, there will be a rhythm of good. Some days, the waves come beating in, higher and more aggressive than they ever have. Those days are the darkest we face.
On those days, don’t move. Stay strong and let the waves wash over you like they have every other day.
This story feels like total fiction, it’s the storyline to a good book. It’s pretty inconceivable that Shawn could find any level of happiness after the experiences he’d had.
Mafia, gang violence, prison, horrendous conditions, death.
Yet there are lessons to be learnt here, even if Attwood did learn them the hard way.
We all chase money, the fancy things in life yet happiness, true happiness is found in the most obvious of places. Not in a fancy car, in the relationships you hold, the life you live. We should remember that life is long, we should put the effort into creating things of value, things we are proud of, art. And finally, bad things will happen, those are the waves, you are the promenade.