For international readers, allow me to explain: I am an American but I have lived in China since 2004. My city of Chongqing is a megacity of 30 million people. Often abbreviated as CQ, and pronounced Chong Ching to rhyme with Wrong Ring, Chongqing is located in south-central China on the Yangtze River. I’ve come a long, long way – 13 time zones, to be exact – from my small hometown located in south-central Missouri on the Little Dry Fork Creek. CQ is indisputably one of the world’s largest cities but I am on a quest for a simple life. Thus, even in the middle of a huge metropolis, I publish these observations and admonitions to “simplify, simplify” from my 18th Floor Homestead.
From the blog archives, let me resurrect another piece about the process of becoming a new person with new skills and a new lifestyle. Originally published in August of 2019, this article garnered many positive comments. The world has changed since then but most people are still in their prisons.
It was a dark and stormy night. (All proper thrillers must begin on a dark and stormy night.) Lightning outlined a grim, dismal prison set in a lonely place, far from any comforts of civilization. This was a place where hardened criminals were sent to spend the years of their confinement. It is here that our story begins.
Five prisoners huddled in a dark corner of the prison dining room where they could talk without being overheard. Secrecy was paramount because one of the five had discovered an incomplete escape tunnel that had been dug by other prisoners many years earlier but had never been used. Over time, it had been forgotten. Now, a little exploration had shown that a few hours of work would complete the tunnel. Then, they could escape from this terrible prison and, with the help of some trusted accomplices, hurriedly cross the border to safety and freedom. (Hardened criminals know how to do these things.)
This night, the five prisoners were meeting clandestinely to choose the date for their final effort. Their leader, Prisoner 27355 said, “It’s all set. Our friends are waiting in a small village just a short distance from the prison. As soon as we arrive at the village, they will immediately provide us with new identity papers and drive us across the border. We can reach the village in only a few hours after we break out. All we have to do is finish the tunnel and get out of here. Our new lives are very close. Nothing can go wrong.”
“But,” Prisoner 97986 whispered, “we cannot break out this week. I can’t leave now. I am taking an online course and must prepare for a big exam next Friday. I have no time for digging. We will have to stage our escape for after that day.”
“Also,” added Prisoner 55098 in a whisper. “I feel like I am getting a cold. I don’t want to escape until I feel well.”
Prisoner 11789 glanced over his shoulder to be sure no one was listening. He added, “My grandmother is coming on the next visitor’s day and I don’t want to miss her. We should escape after that.”
Then Prisoner 33778 said furtively, “Plus, it is so rainy this time of year. We should wait until the weather is better before making preparations to break out.”
To all these reasons, the leader, Prisoner 27355, replied, “Well, I am certainly eager to get out of here but I would hate to miss the special dinner we will be served to celebrate the upcoming holiday. Maybe we should wait until after the holiday before we escape.”
So, the secret meeting concluded with a decision to delay the breakout until everyone agreed that conditions were conducive to a proper prison break.
Wait a minute! What kind of story is this? Do I really expect readers to believe that hardened criminals would not break out of their horrible prison when it was so simple – and because of these flimsy excuses? This story is beyond weak and silly; it is unbelievable. This would be unacceptable to readers. Who would write such a stupid story? And who would believe it was about realistic behaviors by real people?
Yet, look around you. Don’t you see many such stories every day? And they are stories about real people. Don’t you see many people leading lives they dislike or even hate? Aren’t they in their own prisons? If you listen to them, they will tell you that they know what would make them happy, would bring them to a healthier, more fulfilling life. They want to break out of their present-life prison. Often, they even have an escape plan but, like the prisoners of this short story, they never take action. Why not? I now present several reasons why people remain in their own prisons of discontent. (Don’t ask how I know.)
As the Eagles sang many years ago in Already Gone,
So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains
And we never even know we have the key.
Yes, we have the key. Indeed, people often know exactly what their ideal life would be. They even know the path to get there. It might be a new job, a new house in a different neighborhood, maybe even moving to a new city. Sometimes, that might mean giving up toxic relationships which are dragging them down when they try to make upward progress. Maybe it is some kind of compulsive personal behavior or addiction that provides temporary, minor comfort but is really a downward spiral.
There is always some reason why they cannot break out of their prison this week – and people always offer them most sincerely. Part of the reason the excuses sound so plausible and reasonable is that the person has had much practice in honing and perfecting their stories. Maybe the person has peddled this excuse so many times that they have begun to believe their own stories. Does any of this sound familiar?
Through their inaction, they are choosing not to break out of their own prison – and they are renewing that choice every day. One common example is higher education. For most people, education remains the most viable vehicle for success. In today’s society, there is a greater opportunity and a more “level playing field” than ever before in history. Yet, people offer a bewildering range of excuses about why they cannot get the education they need to escape into a new life, the life they wish for.
Usually, if you clearly know what you want, the path to achieving it is also clear – like our five prisoners’ escape tunnel. Note that I did not say the path would be easy. Most of the time, it is not easy. It may require a long period of sacrifice and effort but the path itself is clear. As the Lovin Spoonful sang in Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind, “It’s not often easy and it’s not often kind.” Prison breaks involve some hard work. Breaking out of your old life and into a new and chosen lifestyle is not without effort and uncertainty. But it is attainable.
Another reason for hesitation about breaking out of their prison is because these escape plans do not come with a guarantee of success. Indeed, there may be much uncertainty, even risk, in many of the steps ahead. Then, even if they reach their objective, no one can promise that achieving their goal will make them happy. Avuncular advice: When you feel discouraged, just remind yourself that, if other people have done it, you can do it also. The fact that others have done something proves that it is possible and often provides a template.
So, what can you do if you are ready to begin the breakout from your own prison? Let me suggest several steps which would be a good beginning to your escape plan.
1) Take time to clearly identify what you want. It often helps to focus your thinking by writing rather than speaking. Finding discrete words to write requires you to move from vague generalities to specific details. Don’t set your goals “moving away from”; always make your goals “moving toward”.
2) Remember the saying by Jim Rohn, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” Choose your closest companions carefully.
3) Recognize what you will give up as a price for escaping. Remember that a lifestyle is a package of many elements. Often, you must leave behind many of the good, comfortable, and familiar benefits when you give up the wasteful, ineffective, and negative aspects of your old life. Are you willing to sacrifice the good and comfortable and familiar parts of your prison life?
4) As necessary, do some research. Go online and find answers to the question, “What did other people in this situation do?” If you follow the same steps, you should expect to get the same results. Caveat: You must be prepared to do everything exactly as they did. Leaving out the difficult, uncomfortable parts will not get the same results. Indeed, it is often said that successful people do the things that other people are not willing to do.
5) Take action! All of the planning and organizing, researching and visualizing and affirming, will mean absolutely nothing if you never take action. A journey must be planned and organized, but it doesn’t begin until you take the first action step. Planning your prison break brings nothing if you never take the first action step. The American writer Ernest Hemingway cautioned to never confuse mere activity with motion. Planning is a necessary activity but it is not forward motion.
What excuses are you offering for staying in your own self-limiting prison? If you are not happy, if you want more than you currently have, if you genuinely wish for a different life, listen to the Eagles in Already Gone again.
So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains
And we never even know we have the key.
You have the key. You know what you want and you know what you should be doing to achieve it. Why aren’t you? What excuses are you making for not breaking out of your own prison?
And what about those prisoners from the lame story? It’s always a dark and stormy night for them. They’re still in their prison, still plotting to escape – and still making flimsy excuses why the breakout must be postponed until later before they take action.