Make a Break For it: What Escaping Alcatraz Can Teach us About Business (and Life)

By Leah Hynes & Nazrin Murphie of | @HynesLeah and @nazrin_murphie

We have an endless set of agreements in place in our world.

Some are spoken and obvious, while others are unsaid and assumed.

These agreements are endless…

  • the world is round
  • smoking is bad for you
  • money buys us things
  • our partners, kids, friends, family, and colleagues are just the way they are
  • certain things are simply impossible…

Agreement is an incredible force that dictates what is possible, what is crazy and what is just so – no questions asked.

In fact, agreement is so powerful that it creates the world around us and it takes something immense to shift or change it.

Identity Under Threat

So where does all this agreement come from? Who started it? Who decided that these things, people, and ideas are fixed anyway?

Well…we did.

Why? Because we are defined by them.

Agreement gives us a sense of control over our lives and it means that we all know exactly who we and others are.  It allows for increased comfort and decreased uncertainty.

Have you ever noticed that when you attempt to alter who you are, you experience resistance, fear and naysayers?

Have you ever had that experience of getting excited about a new project, but then quickly lose all your initial momentum, motivation and excitement?

We don’t take risks if there is a threat to our identity because we are defined by our identity. [click to tweet]

What else do we have to hold on to, if not our identity?

And how the hell will others know how to relate to us if we attempt to alter the agreement about who we are?

Altering the Agreement

In 1934, the world watched, frightened and enthralled as the crime world’s ‘most dangerous’ criminals made their new home on Alcatraz Island.

The 22-acre rocky island is only 1.5 miles offshore from the San Francisco Bay and there was wide agreement in the world that Alcatraz was inescapable.

One of the prisoners brought into this agreement was John Paul Scott.

Born in Springfield, Kentucky, John Paul Scott was shipped to Alcatraz Island in 1959 and became #AZ2403. He was convicted of bank robbery and the possession of unregistered firearms. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Prisoners like Scott were sent to Alcatraz because they would not conform to prison standards elsewhere and it was widely accepted that to escape from Alcatraz was impossible. Over the 29 years that it was open, there were just 14 escape attempts.

Beyond getting out of the bars, it is a 1.5 mile swim to the mainland in 55 degree water, filled with sharks and rocks. The current is strong and unpredictable and of all the attempts, only six people managed to escape.

The agreement that escaping Alcatraz was impossible began to take form in the media ahead of its official opening in 1933.

Prison officers were of course sure to spread word among the prisoners that escaping was not even worth considering and they strengthened this agreement by constantly reminding prisoners:

  • the waters of the San Francisco Bay would cause hypothermia
  • if you survive the freezing waters, you then had sharks and razor sharp rocks to contend with
  • the Bay was home to strong and unpredictable currents
  • guard towers were positioned around the perimeters and always watching
  • not one cell house adjoined any perimeter wall and so tunneling out of a cell was impossible
  • no one has ever made it to shore alive.

On 16 December 1962, John Paul Scott altered this agreement.

He became the only inmate of Alcatraz to conclusively reach the San Francisco shoreline.

7 Steps to Escape from Alcatraz

How on earth did he manage to escape Alcatraz?

How did he become the first to achieve this (like Neil Armstrong was the first on the moon, Roger Bannister was the first to break the four minute mile, and the Wright brothers were the first to achieve flight)?

How did he set about changing this agreement, when everything conspired against him?

More importantly, how can we apply the same lessons to our own lives?

The following is a list of 7 steps John Paul Scott took to escape Alcatraz – the same 8 steps we can take to escape our mental prison and create the life we always longed for.

Step 1: Create the Possibility

Creating the possibility is the very first step in altering agreements.

It’s likely that Scott had a thought at some point during his incarceration along the lines of: “I refuse to accept that this is my lot in life. I will escape this place and I will be the first to do so”.

Now of course he couldn’t have known exactly how he might escape, just that he was now living into the possibility of being free.

Have you ever planned a holiday and become really excited in the lead up, despite nothing actually changing in your life?

This is hope: it means living into your excitement, even though it might be months away, and it feels great.

But much like the build-up to the event improves your spirits, the winding-down of the event can lead to despair.

So when your holiday is almost over, you start to think about going back to work, about your ‘real’ life and you start to feel negative and depressed even though you’re actually still on your holiday. You begin to live into this less exciting possibility as though it’s happening now.

For more than ten years I worked in mediocre jobs in public relations and I’d still be there if I hadn’t created the possibility of escaping my cubicle ‘one day’ and finding my passion.

It was exciting.

And even when I was still in my day job, I was excited about making that a reality.

Twelve months after making that commitment, I am now living that possibility.

Simply transitioning from accepting your lot in life to creating the possibility of a new, more fulfilled one, is the first step toward escaping your Alcatraz.

Step 2: Consider Who You Are Being

Creating a new possibility for your life is the beginning of the ripple effect.

The next step is to consider who you need to be in order to fulfill that possibility.

For John Paul Scott, making it to shore required something extraordinary within. He had to decide who he needed to be to achieve that. Of course, John probably did this unknowingly. He had to leave behind old notions of himself as well as the agreements about who he was in the world (for others and himself).

Who do you think John would have had to be in order to make it to shore? Unstoppable? Courageous? Powerful? Determined?

What do you think his chances of success would have been if he saw himself as a weak, cowardly criminal?

That person would not have made it to shore…

Nor can you ‘make it to shore’ if you accept a disempowering conception of yourself.

Step 3: Put a Stake in the Ground

It’s one thing to decide what your possibility is and who you need to be to fulfill it, but what happens to those ideas and concepts when they stay in your head?

They die a slow & painful death. They are never realized.

For Scott, he put a stake in the ground by telling a fellow inmate his idea.  From the moment he spoke it, it went from an ephemeral wish to a tangible concept. It came into existence.

Have you ever told someone about your wildest dreams or the vision you have for your ideal life? No matter what the response, tell at least one person about your new possibility and who you are going to be to fulfill on it.

Put a stake in the ground – see how you will start to live into your words.

If you choose to keep them in your head, you are simply giving your dreams a death sentence.

Step 4: Change the Occurring

Whenever you think about something challenging, from what place or perspective do you consider it?

How does it occur to you?

Do you think things like:

  • That’s never going to happen
  • That’s too hard and difficult
  • No-one will ever support me
  • The world is just not set up for this

The only place you need to look for evidence of why you should change the occurring of something is in the results you are getting.

How do you think the possibility of escaping occurred to Scott?

It occurred to him as just a matter of time.

Changing the occurrence of something is the next step toward manifesting its existence.

Step 5: Create a Plan with Measurable Steps

John and a fellow inmate enacted their escape on December 16, 1962.

They were on kitchen duty that day and Scott used banjo strings and a makeshift saw to cut through the bars on the window. The escape plan was quickly thrown into uncertainty when they realized the prison guards and their families were having a party nearby.

They did not give up, but went back into the kitchen, created a makeshift rope and scaled the prison room. Next, they hooked up a 50-foot extension cord to slide down to an unfenced area. Finally, they inflated surgical gloves, stuffed them into jacket sleeves and tied them around their waist before plunging into the water.

Because John had created a plan with measurable steps and actions, he was able to fulfill his commitment, even when things didn’t go as anticipated.

Step 6: Take Action at the Cost of Comfort

Do you think John would have physically escaped Alcatraz just by thinking about it really, really hard?

This might sound unnecessary to say, but you have to take action to have anything happen in life. It’s simple cause and effect.

For many years, I spent time thinking about this amazing life I wanted, even planning it. But it took me a very, very long time to actually dive into the icy waters of my life and start swimming like my life depended on it.

When life is comfortable, we get sucked into planning our escape and waiting until conditions are just right. We get lulled into a false sense of security and we never actually make that final saw cut through the prison bars. We never swim like crazy for the shore. We plan and we watch the years of a lackluster life tick by.

John Paul Scott had a mighty good reason for planning, but he also knew that he would dive into that icy water and that his life depended on it.

He was willing to get very uncomfortable.

Step 7: Connect To What’s At Stake

You will never stay the course unless you have something massive at stake.

For John, freedom was at stake. This is what kept him going until he reached the shore.

Despite being hammered by the bays strong currents, John made it to Fort Point – a beach located beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. He was near death due to exhaustion, shock, and hypothermia, but he made it against all odds.

John was connected to what was at stake.

Conversely, his fellow escapee abandoned the swim part way to shore.  He was discovered on a small alcove of rocks known as ‘Little Alcatraz’ and was shortly returned to Alcatraz.

This man wasn’t connected to what it would mean to have freedom and he was not willing to get seriously uncomfortable for it.

What in your life is worth fighting for?

Play to Win

John proved Alcatraz was escapable.

John’s spectacular swim destroyed the myth that an inmate could not swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco and survive.

Unfortunately for John, he was discovered unconscious on the shoreline, collected by authorities and shipped back to prison. His escape from Alcatraz was the last to occur before the famous prison permanently closed its doors on March 23, 1963.

Alcatraz was no longer seen as an effective prison once the agreement had been altered.

So what does your prison cell look like? Have you created your own agreement (or myth) that escaping is impossible? And how many more years are you willing to serve in those four walls?

John Paul Scott had zero say on his sentence.

You have complete say.

You are your own judge and jury.

You can jump into uncertain waters and swim for shore at any time. The cell is not even locked.  There are no guards except the ones you imagine.

Remember – nothing in this world is off limits if you’re willing to take the steps necessary to create the life you want.

What will you choose?

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Leah and NazrineLeah Hynes & Nazrin Murphie are co-founders of RYPL, an organization created to support BIG dreamers create their ripple-effect on the world. As mothers of young children and with a combined 20 years’ experience in the corporate world, these two Australian women have found their purpose: to create a world where people are empowered to fulfill their potential and live an extraordinary life helping others.