Workplace Lessons Learned From Prison

Apr 26, 2013
5 Min Read

Do you ever wonder what happens to all the disgraced business leaders and politicians who get caught and end up in jail?  Jeff Smith, a former up-and-coming star in the Missouri State Senate, can partially answer that question for you.  After all, he went to prison for a year for covering up an election law violation.

Smith spent his tenure talking with fellow prisoners, who were mostly drug lords, about business.  It turns out that there are some striking similarities between life in the Big House and life in the business world.  Now a political commentator and writer, Smith inspired these workplace lessons in this recent TED Talk.


Everything is a Hustle

As you might gather from watching cable, prison life is not easy.  In order to survive, you have to hustle.  Smith tells us that prisoners have to pay for everything, including toothpaste, and the in-house jobs don’t cut it.  If you want something, you have to find an unorthodox way to get it, such as charging another inmate to clean his cell.  Think about it – it’s the same deal in the business world.  Unless you’re the boss, getting people to collaborate with you can be like pulling teeth, and bureaucratic red tape often keeps you from doing your job.  Success absolutely requires the ability to hustle.

Innovation is King

Smith says that one of the defining aspects of prison life is ingenuity.  Whether it’s concocting delicious meals from stolen scraps from the warehouse, sculpting people's hair with toenail clippers, or constructing weights from boulders in laundry bags tied on to tree limbs, prisoners learn how to make do with less.  The most effective professionals are the ones who can innovate in order to improve operations, products, and services and save the organization time, resources, and money.  Your upward career trajectory directly depends on being able to accomplish spectacular results on a rapidly fraying shoestring.

You Must Advocate For Yourself

When you’re in prison, no one does much to better your situation.  Smith tells us that there’s little if any actual rehabilitation, or training and preparation for the “real world.”  Many prisoners don’t even have Internet access, and legal counsel can be spotty.  If something is important to your well-being, you have to speak up loudly.  The business world is not much different, folks.  Training and mentoring programs are still suffering from post-recession cuts.  Work/life integration is a non-starter for many who are still doing the jobs of two or three laid-off colleagues.  Unless you are very lucky, no one is standing by to offer you all the tools you need to be happy and productive.  Just like in prison, you have to ask – and advocate.

Corporate America isn’t exactly like prison.  After all, we have freedom.  Or do we?  Maybe that’s a post for another day.

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