Road Signs for Success – May 21, 2008

By Gerald Daniels 

While driving through south Louisiana on a cool and rainy April afternoon I considered the topic I was going to speak on. The first draft of my notes for a speaking engagement with the men at Angola State Prison was complete. The introduction was light and welcoming, the body refreshing and alive, then the conclusion brought it all home. This topic was going to be well received, I had done my homework, was confident of its content, and in my ability to deliver the goods.

A large part of the weekend at Angola is wrapped around what is touted as the biggest prison rodeo in the United States. The rodeo fans number around ten thousand each day on Saturday and Sunday, the last weekend in April. There are people from every walk of life, from all around our country, and many foreign countries as well. As the day’s festivities began to wind down many of the dignitaries, staff, and guest are invited to the warden’s guest house for refreshments and supper and those with our group were included. If you can imagine perfectly seasoned gumbo, fresh from the oven pecan pie, and sweet tea you can see why Louisiana is known for its food and hospitality. We collected a couple of pecan pies for the road and it was time for my presentation to the inmates.

“You can count the seeds in an apple, but you can’t count the apples in a seed.” That was my opening statement and I let it sink in before continuing. Put yourself in the seat of an inmate in prison hearing that statement. What would go through your mind? What’s this guy going to tell me? It’s too late for me to change. My seed was sown a long time ago. I’m the bad seed. The bad apple.

I know what was going through their minds because I had sat where they were sitting. I had listened to all the speakers who had come to the prison where I was incarcerated who had all the answers for what I needed to do. But the answers were really contained in one sentence — a seed — I had heard in one of those meetings years earlier. It was a seed that had been planted, taken root deep inside of me and started bearing fruit. The sentence — like the seed — was simple: Without a purpose our only motivation is reward and punishment. Most inmates immediately understand the power and truth of that statement. They know, like I knew, the reason they are sitting behind bars is because they thought they had no purpose in life. Their only motivation was reward and punishment. They want to believe they have a purpose in life and they want to know what it is. But many feel it is too late for them to change.

I’ve found people on the “outside” are not unlike those on the “inside” in many ways. If you are going through life motivated primarily by reward and punishment you may not end up in prison but will still be a prisoner in a cell of your own making. Like a prison inmate, you might want to change but feel like it’s too late. It’s not. I know. That’s why I’m out sowing seeds. I want to tell you that when you plant the seed of your purpose in life it will take root and grow. It will bear fruit.

Driving away from the prison that night left me with a sense of accomplishment, yet knowing that I have a lot of work to do. Some speakers use a head count of their audience to determine their level of success. The more accurate measure of success I believe is not the number of heads or of apples in the room but how many seeds are sown. I’m going to plant one with you right now — what’s your purpose in life? If you can’t answer that question, your only motivation is reward and punishment. I don’t care who you are or where you are, it’s never too late to change. It all starts when somebody plants a seed.

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