Examples abound of individuals overcoming incredible hardship, failure, and mistakes on their way to success. We love to read these, to bear witness to underdogs and victims who triumph in the face of adversity. One reason we love these stories is that we believe the individuals deserve so much more. We believe the underdog deserves to win at least once, that the victim deserves to triumph.
But what happens when the character in the story isn’t a victim or an underdog? What happens when the hardship, pain, and misery isn’t something that has been inflicted on them, but rather something they’ve inflicted on others?
The following stories demonstrate that no matter how terrible the things you’ve done in life, there’s always room to make yours a life worth living. Your ability to create value tomorrow doesn’t have to be prohibited by your vices yesterday. No matter your station in life or previous choices, the only time you truly fail is when you stop trying to do better…to be better.
He looks at the defendant from his bench and hands down a ruling, $1500 in fines and a written apology, every move captured by a film crew. He has been sitting as a judge handing down rulings for over 18 years, his law career starting a decade earlier.
After graduating with a law degree in 1987, his license to practice law was denied for several years due to his criminal history. You see, Judge Mathis, a popular court show judge, first became involved with the law as a teenage gang member in Detroit.
During one incarceration, a then 17-year-old Greg Mathis learned that his mother had colon cancer. He was being granted an early release because of this. The terms of the release and his probation meant he would hold down a job, which for young Judge Mathis meant McDonald’s.
With the help of a family friend, he also enrolled in college and eventually completed degrees in public administration and a J.D. While his license to practice law was initially denied because of his criminal record, it was eventually awarded.
This led to a notable career in politics and law, becoming most well-known as Judge Mathis on the court show program. While his early life may have presented challenges to a career in law, he persevered and not only succeeded but also set the stage to help countless others avoid the pitfalls he fell into as a youth.
Driven to Succeed
You might not expect a teen to be a skilled driver, but not only was Georgia Durante good at driving; she was a go-to getaway driver for the mob. It started while she was working a popular mob hangout called Sundowners.
Attracted to the intrigue, Durante started working at Sundowners as a teen. One night a patron pulled out a gun and shot the man sitting next to him while Durante witnessed the whole thing. Before she could process what had happened, the owner threw her some keys and said, “Georgie-girl, go get the car, and bring it up”.
She made it to the hospital with the injured man in record time, which set off a series of events that led to her being an in-demand getaway driver for the mob. Not ever really knowing what was going on, she performed drop-offs, pickups and, eventually, getaways from robberies.
After a while, though, she knew she had to get out. So, as soon as the opportunity arose, she took her daughter and fled. It was only days before she ran out of money. Needing cash and still avoiding notice, she realized that drivers on TV were rarely on camera. It took a lot of persistence, but she finally got a chance to drive for a director. Her career as a stunt driver took off from there and she has never looked back since then.
Georgia Durante turned from crime to commercials and eventually started her own driving school. She became so popular that she had to turn down work left her former life in the rearview mirror. The way she acquired the skills may not have been above-board, but learning to apply those skills in different ways made Georgia Durante the true success she is today.
Having starred in two different reality shows – one on Food Network TV – running a successful catering company and working as head chef at Café Bellagio in Las Vegas, you might never guess that Chef Jeff Henderson began his career in prison.
In 1988 at the age of 24, Jeff was sent to prison for conspiracy with the intent to distribute drugs. During his nearly 10-year stint in the Terminal Island Federal Prison in Los Angeles, he became a kitchen cook.
It was this seemingly small opportunity that changed the course of Chef Henderson’s life. He discovered that he was not only good at cooking but that he enjoyed the compliments and satisfaction his efforts resulted in. To make it even more appealing, he knew it was something he could legally make money with.
After his release, he was determined to right some of the wrongs of his former life. Eventually, he starred in a Food Network TV reality show that took six at-risk youth and documented their experiences working in his catering company, Posh Urban Cuisine. He has continued to use his acquired skills and determination to make a positive impact.
We often associate white-collar crime with high-level male executives, but Kerry Tucker doesn’t fit that description. On one fateful night, the authorities caught up with Kerry, a suburban mother of two and what had been building for years finally ended.
For years, she had been stealing money from her employer, a local logging mill, to the sum of nearly $2M. On that night she went from Kerry Tucker, a respected married professional mother of two, to inmate number 171435. The local community and those closest to her were shocked.
While she readily admits to the agony and remorse she still feels, she also says she wouldn’t take the experience back. The seven years she spent in an Australian maximum-security prison dramatically changed her life and the lives of many she influenced. In fact, Brenda Money, former head of many women’s prisons said of Kerry, “She used her time in prison so effectively she not only changed her life but left a legacy that has changed the lives of many other women since.”
Kerry spent her years behind bars learning and encouraging others to learn. She became the first Australian prisoner to hold a graduation ceremony when she completed her Master’s degree.
Years after her release, her learning continued as she pursued a Ph.D. She became an advocate for prisoner education, believing that, “When a woman leaves prison, she should be the best she can possibly be so she’s ready to face the world.” This advocacy and her insights into educating prisoners have taken her around the globe as an author, speaker, and advocate.
Psychology of Murder
Perhaps the most powerful story is that of Dr. Paul Wood. The same hands that extend over the audience as he shares profound psychological insights once grasped a baseball bat used to violently kill a man.
Paul Wood makes it a point to be as brutally honest about his past as possible. He doesn’t want people to perceive him as a victim that made a bad choice because of his situation. In his own words he says:
“I never want my story to be distorted by my personal achievements. I come from a loving family. I was provided for. There were interventions and attempts to save me from the hell I was creating for myself. I was as much a perpetrator as a victim in my criminal past. The emotion and mental anguish I experienced is a nightmare that I tried to dull and escape by doing the things that led me to lie, steal, abuse myself and subsequently violently take the life of someone else.”
On New Year’s Eve in 1995, Paul’s drug dealer made an advance at him that led to a scuffle and soon to the death of the drug dealer. He was sentenced to life in prison with 10 years without parole.
In the 11 years Paul spent in prison, he completed a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree and had started his Ph.D. when he was released, which he went on to complete in psychology in 2012.
It wasn’t an immediate turnaround for Paul. Within two years he had been moved to maximum security for non-compliance and continued drug use. He perceived himself as a victim; it took education and knowledge to help him realize who the real victims were.
From his experiences in prison, he became fascinated with how people thought, noticing many prisoners suffered from mental health issues. This interest drove his study in psychology. His work now involves running a personal coaching and consulting business and advocacy for educating inmates.
One of the most poignant statements for this piece came from Jeff Henderson. In a 2016 interview with Derrick Lane, he said, “I lived the so-called American Dream at the expense of my community, which I am by no means proud of”.
Each of these individuals spent a portion of their lives taking value from others; they even developed capabilities that enabled them to do that effectively or efficiently. However, one of the greatest lessons we can learn from these individuals is not just that it’s never too late to make your life worth living, but that however you’ve used your skills in the past, they can be used to create value for both yourself and others in the future.
A life worth living is about creating value. We can learn from each of these examples. Whatever our experiences or choices in life, we can discover how to create value in new and unique ways. So, regardless of where you are today, at this very moment, ask yourself: how have my experiences and choices positioned me to create unique value?