Category Archives: goal-setting

What you have the power to do

“The most common way  people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”        

             Alice Walker, author of “The Color Purple”

I love this quote.  It reminds me of something I’ve struggled with on occasion.  Like say, last week when I was having a career-related ” poor me”  party, and forgot that I wasn’t completely at the mercy of events;  that there were some steps I could take to on my own behalf.

Yes, I was guilty of giving my power away.

If you’re starting over with a criminal record, you might also feel you have little power.  That’s okay.   It’s perfectly  understandable to worry about taking charge of your life again, particularly if you’ve served time and had most of your daily movements proscribed. 

But you do have more power than you realize, and even if you don’t feel it now, you can reclaim it.  Here are some of the most common areas where people with criminal records (and even those without them)  tend to give up power and strategies on how to get it back.            

 Job Search

  • Signs and Symptoms:    Thinking no one will hire you because you have a criminal record, thinking you’re turned down for jobs because of your past or because there’s something wrong with you.  Giving up prematurely on an employment search, getting overly nervous in interviews because you’re afraid you won’t get the job. 
  • Remedies: Assessing your strengths and weaknesses so you know what you have to offer an employer and how to sell yourself.  Being upfront about  your background and how you’ve changed and moved beyond it.  Acknowledging you understand why an employer might have concerns, but emphasizing how you will work to the best of your ability to prove yourself.  Realizing that everyone gets turned down for jobs, particularly in this market, and persisting in your search for as long as it takes. 


  • Signs and Symptoms: Staying in a relationship where you are unable to be your best self, or one that is abusive or otherwise unhealthy.  Can include romantic relationships or friendships where you are encouraged to engage in behavior that is not in your best interest. Becoming involved in a relationship where you feel you must sacrifice your dreams or desires in order to make someone else happy.   Carrying grudges or anger from slights or hurts in the past.
  • Remedies:  Learning to value your own wants and needs as much as other people’s.   Making sure you do not have to sacrifice who you are to maintain a friendship or relationship.  Seeking out alliances with individuals you admire who are living the kind of life that you aspire to. Leaving relationships that are abusive or otherwise unhealthy.  Dedicating yourself to developing your own strengths and reaching your own goals.  Letting go of blame for past hurts and moving on with your own life.


  • Signs and Symptoms:  Usually obvious and unhealthy attachment to substances or practices that are destructive and ultimately take over your life; drugs, alcohol, gambling, thrill-seeking, sex, etc.
  • Remedies:  Acceptance, treatment and support.

Dealings with Law Enforcement:  

  • Signs and Symptoms:   Unnatural or exaggerated fear that even though you have served your time, police or local law enforcement (sometimes even probation officers are included here) are out to get you.
  • Remedies:  Realization that you have control over your actions.   As long as you choose to abide by the conditions of your release and become a law-abiding citizen, you should not be in trouble again.  Realizing the people, places and things that can get you in trouble and avoiding those can go a long way towards helping you stay on the right path. 

Readers, how about you?   Have you ever struggled to hold onto your power?   Have you ever given it away and regretted it?   And if so, how have you gotten it back?

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Filed under addiction and recovery, companies hiring ex-offenders, criminal records, employment ex-offenders, ex-offender psychology, goal-setting, life in prison, personal responsibility, reentry, second chances, starting over, talents

Ex-offenders: reducing the “fear factor”

I came upon great article about a community program in Enid, Oklahoma that helps ex-offenders get back on their feet.  Like most reentry organizations, this one aims to assist newly released individuals in getting their documents in order and obtaining housing and employment.

What’s unique about the Enid Community Re-entry Initiative Committee is the way they’re trying to achieve this.  Their goal is to have a mentor for every returning felon.  By providing one-on-one support, notes, EEOC supervising case manager Mitzi Maddox, these mentors could play a direct role in  helping reduce recidivism.  This would also go a way towards reducing the stigma of incarceration.

“Instead of being scared (of the inmates), we want the community to get the idea of helping them,” Maddox said.


Personally, I love this idea of matching people one to one.    Obviously, it wouldn’t work in every case — people have to want to change. But given that we have 9 million ex-offenders being released from jail annually and 700,000 offenders coming out of state and federal prisons, imagine the impact even a little success would have.

At OAR Fairfax, the non-profit where I volunteer, caseworkers have found that “without employment and supportive relationships, an ex-offender’s likelihood of success is greatly limited. ”  I’ve met some of these offenders in my classes; people whose relationships are unhealthy or abusive, people who have lost contact with their family, or been ostracized by them, people who never have visitors and are terrified of their release because they have nowhere to go and no one to support them.  Many times, these individuals seek out mentor relationships while they’re still serving their sentences.    Until recently, the OAR mentor program only extended through the course of the person’s stay in the adult detention center, but now OAR is extending the mentoring relationship so that it continues for the first year after release.

I think that can only help.  In my classes I encourage students to seek out mentors, wherever possible.   I’ve also had the privilege of being a mentor, and can tell anyone considering volunteering in this way that it is extremely rewarding.   I still keep in touch with my mentee on an informal basis and value our relationship.

In previous posts, former offenders have commented on the loneliness offenders feel upon release and the sense of being different — an attitude that can if taken to an extreme lead to isolation, depression and too often, re-offending.    Ernest McNear, a pastor in Philadelphia, summed up the value of a mentor best when talking to the Philadelphia Inquirer:

“If you are going to have successful reentry you have to have someone welcoming you into the community, not just a program.”

How about you?   Has anyone had anyone had a mentoring experience they’d like to share?  Was it helpful?  If so why?  If it didn’t work, why not?

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Filed under education ex-offenders, employment assistance ex-offenders, goal-setting, hope for ex-offenders, reentry, reentry resources, second chances, starting over, taking responsibility

Reentry isn’t always pretty

I got inspired yesterday looking at some gorgeous pictures on fellow Blogathoner Tracy Doerr’s site — and while navigating the miserable construction zone that swallowed my neighborhood.   I live just outside of Washington, D.C., in an area that will someday (that’s 2013 or later, if we’re lucky) boast its own connection to the Metro subway system.

In the interim, what we primarily boast about is who’s found the best route to avoid the newest detour, road closing, gigantic hole that appeared in the street overnight or whatever surprise disruption this hope-for-a-better-life-in-the-future business has thrown our way.  Witness what greeted me as I attempted to get on the road I usually take to the grocery store.

That got me thinking about the process of reentry.  In a lot of ways, rebuilding a life after getting out of prison is a construction (some would say, reconstruction)  project of its own.

  • It’s not always pretty. In fact, you might start again with nothing, not even clothing for an interview, let alone somewhere to live.
  • You won’t be able to do it alone. With a project this size, you’ll have to ask for help and have the humility to try to learn new behaviors.
  • It can be riddled with stops and starts. That person who promised you a job, for example, can’t deliver and no one else is hiring.  Then out of nowhere a training opportunity becomes available.
  • You might have to take a few detours. Yes, some roads and doors will be closed.  It will require flexibility, forgiveness and the ability  to marshal your resources and find a new path.
  • There may be some repair work to do along the way. You may have relationships to rebuild and amends to make to people in your life before you can move forward with your own on sound footing.

But if keep your goals in mind and work towards a better life, than your vision,  like this rendering of my future neighborhood, might someday be a reality.

Hopefully, a better one.

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Filed under goal-setting, hope for ex-offenders, job training, reentry, starting over

What would you do if you could be paid to be yourself?

“I wish I could just be paid to be myself,” a friend who’s looking for work said recently.

“Don’t we all,” I concurred, thinking, in truth, that it was kind of a strange statement, bordering on egotistical.

For some reason, though, I was still mulling it over a day later.  In fact, I was  actually starting to think she had a  point.

Why shouldn’t we all try to get paid for being ourselves, since that’s essentially what we do best anyway?  Anyone who’s  read career classics like What Color is Your Parachute? and Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow? , or their more recent successors, Do What You Are or The Purpose Driven Life knows that these books make a veritable mantra out of following your passion.

And yet, when I  ask my students to talk about their interests, or what they really love to do, they’re often a little reticent. It’s as if they believe hoping someone will actually hire you for what you do best is asking too much.

It’s gotten even worse with this economy.  So many of us feel we can’t be too picky with jobs in short supply.  It can also be difficult to square this advice with what ex-offenders are typically told.  That is, to take a job, any job, just to get work, since finding employment has been proven to reduce recidivism.

But I don’t think anyone should give up on the dream of being hired to use their best skills.  Letting your gifts go to waste isn’t good for the psyche.  You’re more likely to get down on yourself, or start feeling resentment.    And you know where that leads.

If you’re willing to do some soul-searching and apply a bit of creativity, however, you can learn to let the best you shine through even at a job that’s less than ideal.  Here’s how:

1.  Know what your best qualities are. You can’t sell what you don’t know.  Assess your interests and talents.  What do people compliment you on again and again?  When do people ask for your help?  What tasks do you enjoy so much that they make you lose track of time?   Are you the one who heads projects? The motivator? The salesperson?   The trouble-shooter?  The idea generator? The technical guru?  The artist?  The peacemaker? The person who gets things done?  Organizations always need to fill these roles.

2. Apply for jobs that require that talent or ability. If you’re frustrated about not being able to find work doing what you love, perhaps you need to broaden your search.  The very useful ONET online, an occupational information site developed by the U.S. Department of Labor, offers details on requirements for different jobs.  You can also look for jobs that might need your talents.   On this page , for example, you can check off the boxes next to skills you possess, and ONET will generate an entire list  of occupations requiring these abilities.  Some may require additional training or education, but others may be a perfect fit and something you might not have thought of otherwise.

3.  Find a way to use your greatest talent on the job, anyway. Back when I worked as an  accountant, I made sure my bosses knew my true love was writing by making my audit reports as good as I could.  I also volunteered for any other writing projects that came up.   If you’re a sanitation engineer who dreams of being a salesmen, you can start by developing a good relationship with all the families on your route.  If you work  in a restaurant kitchen, but your dream is to create recipes of your own, what’s stopping you from making suggestions, or getting the cooks to try out your specialty after hours?   Sometimes the very act of using your favorite skills will show a side of you that your employer hasn’t’ seen.  Who knows where that might lead?

If you feel you simply can’t  exercise your abilities on the job, perhaps it is time to look for something better.   But that doesn’t mean you can’t put your talents to use on a volunteer basis somewhere else.   Maybe your church needs a good organizer/people person to put together a potluck dinner or Spring Fair.  Or you can’t find an IT job, but your neighbors would love to have someone show them how to keep in touch with their families via a computer they just can’t seem to get working.

The key is realizing that even if what you do best doesn’t seem to be paying off right  now, it could  pay off in the future.  But if you don’t keep exercising and building on these skills you’ll never know.  As Benjamin Franklin once said, ” Hide not your talents, they for use were made. What’s a sun-dial in the shade?

He had a point, I think.

How about you?   Have you had success getting paid to do something you love?

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Filed under employment ex-offenders, ex-offender psychology, goal-setting, hope for ex-offenders, recession ex-offenders, skills, talents

Resolutions, anyone?

 What better time for a fresh start than the New Year, right?  Personally,  I go back and forth on that one (too much pressure …. too trendy …. too tempted by that last piece of pie in the fridge….), but hopefully, you’re more motivated.

In fact, nearly half of American adults make formal New Years resolutions annually — and about 1 in 5 succeed. If you consider there are about 217 million people over 18 in the U.S., that means 21 million can expect to achieve their goals.

What’s their secret?  I think this CNN story does a good job in laying out the how-to’s for making workable resolutions without setting yourself up for failure.  I particularly like the recommendation to find a “resolution buddy” (remember, accountability and support are critical) and the emphasis on examining some of the deeper issues that may be getting you stuck.

If you’re an ex-offender trying to turn your life around, you might have caught my earlier goal-setting tips for people who hate to plan.  In addition, here  are some other suggestions for getting  a fresh start in 2010.

1. Set limits.  It’s tempting to draw up a list of everything you’d like to change to completely tranform your life.  We’d all like to snap our fingers and be thinner, richer and happier, not to mention better parents, sons and daughters who are living rewarding and productive lives. Forever. But that’s unlikely to happen.  If you’d like to write down  all these hopes for inspiration, that’s great, but it’s not a workable list of resolutions.  A better approach is to focus on one or two things — three, at the absolute most, that you can break down into simple measureable steps. Otherwise you’re just engaging in unrealistic and grandiose thinking.  For someone with a criminal past that spells danger, and ultimately disappointment when things don’t change quickly and easily. 

2. Plan for slip-ups.  This isn’t self-defeatng, it’s just smart.  In order to change the way you do things, you have to change your thinking.  That means resisting the fanciful idea that everything is under your control and you can instantly get what you want.  Afterall, this is often the attitude that got you in trouble to begin with.  Instead, you need to anticipate not only the obstacles you might face in trying to reach your goals, but your likely reaction to them and what strategies might help you ge back on track.  

A document like this change plan worksheet can be a useful way of doing this.  Note, there’s room here to write down both  the reasons you want to change and the likely outcomes if you don’t.  For example, say your goal is finding a job.  In addition to meeting the conditions of your probation, another reason you probably want to work is to support yourself. You also know that when you’re not doing something productive you become depressed and you risk returning to old behaviors.  Under likely outcomes if you don’t succeed?  Re-offending and ending up back in jail.  If you have this all spelled out, you can come back to it when you find yourself wavering to remind yourself why you need to change.

 3.  Be honest with yourself.  This part is tricky.  You don’t want to beat yourself up when you slip.  At the same time you have to take care that you’re honest with yourself about your progress. NO exceptions.   If you’re giving up drinking and you decide to have a beer one afternoon, you have slipped up and are no longer working toward your goals.  You need to acknowledge this, as excusing it can cause you to abandon all efforts to be responsible. In his seminal work, “Inside the Criminal Mind,” psychiatrist Stanton Samenow described how his colleague, the late Samuel Yochelson used to tell the ex-offenders he worked with that they had to approach everything in their life with total integrity.  “No lie is too small,” Yochelson was fond of saying.  He also believed that fear and guilt were not only effective but necessary motivators for change.

4.   But allow go-backs.  Everyone’s got  that one regret.  Someone offered a helping hand when you first got out, but you were too busy dealing with family issues to take them up on it.  Or you were feeling bad on the day a friend scheduled an interview and you didn’t show up.  Or you didn’t take advantage of re-entry assistance right away and now you’re afraid it’s too late to ask for it.  While it’s true that people are most eager to help you at the beginning and you shouldn’t let them down, don’t be afraid to go back and ask for a second chance. It is a new year, afterall.   Just be honest about why.  That you weren’t focused when you got out, or that you were afraid you didn’t have enough experience so you backed out of the interview.  True, you may not get another chance, but at least you’ve followed up and been accountable for your actions.  And in the best case, it might not be too late.  People may be impressed with your truthfulness and your humility. Jason Hunter, a caseworker with the Virginia Department of Rehabilitation says he wished more of his clients would follow-up.  “If they’d just put in the effort, they’d be surprised at how much we’re willing to help them,” he says.

5.  Believe in yourself.  It’s a trite, but it must be said.  You’ve got to believe in yourself or no one will. And I’m not talking about the belief in the sense that you have a huge ego and an even bigger sense of entitlement.  Rather I mean that quiet, steady belief that if you pursue your goals, step by individual step, you can achieve them.  It may take awhile, probably longer than you like, but you  can change if you’re commit yourself and follow-thru.

I think this quote sums it up nicely:

“A New Year isn’t just a blank canvas that you throw all your hopes and happiness at, only to trash it later when the picture didn’t come out as expected. A New Year is 52-week job, that will reward those who to work at making those hopes and happiness a reality each and every day.”

Here’s wishing you a productive and successful 2010!

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Goal setting for people who hate to plan

At the beginning of the employability  course I teach, we always work through a section on setting short and long-term goals. 

It makes sense.  You’re not going to accomplish anything without a plan to get there, right?

Trouble is, more than half of the class typically balks at this exercise. I don’t know how this compares to the general poplation, but among offenders I’ve worked with — getting those goals down and then following through can be a challenge.

“It just  so overwhelming. I put down all these ideas, then I  don’t know where to begin.”

“Writing down your dreams is depressing.  What if you fail?

“What good is it to make goals if you don’t know the steps to reach them?”

And those are just the comments students have made aloud.

These concerns are understandable. Particularly when you consider that people who get in trouble often wrestle with goal-thwarting behaviors like impulsivity, substance abuse, dishonesty or the need for instant gratification. Making a list, being systematic and having  patience can be a lot of work.  And not just for ex-offenders, by the way.  As someone who has struggled with this personally, I’m well aware of all the tricks the mind can play when it comes to not doing what you set out to do.

So in this post, I’ve tried to lay out some goal-setting tips to help even the most reluctant achiever stay on track:     

1. Write down your dreams . . .
 I’d like to tell you that you can get around having to writing about what you want to do in life — that if you just hold the idea  in your head you’ll get there.  Unfortunately,  it doesn’t work that way. You’ve got to get your thoughts down, somewhere, in some way so  that you can see them, acknowledge them, remember them and hold yourself accountable. As education recruiters at Spelman and Johnson Group in Eastham, MA have noted : A goal not written down is just a wish.

2. ….but do it your own way
Some people begin by listing their long-term goals —  things like working at their dream job, getting married and  having a family or saving a certain amount of money. Then they break each of these goals into the  individual steps it will take to achieve them. You, on the other hand,  might feel  more comfortable just writing in a journal about what you want to do. Once some goals emerge you can start breaking them down into individual actions from there.  Or maybe you’re a more visual person, who likes to see all the options.  As one student said to me, “what if one goal falls through, where do I put my plan B?” This student felt more comfortable diagramming her goals in  a web so she could see how everything was connected.  That way if one option didn’t pan out she could plot some alternatives.

So don’t worry about format — just get it down.

3. Take baby steps.
 Once you’ve have acknowledged what you want, the next step is to consider what you need to do to get it.. If your long-term goal is to be working as a healthcare technician, for example, some short-term steps might be to:

  •  Find out what education/licensing  is required.
  • Explore interim  jobs, perhaps in the industry.
  • . Research grants and scholarships.
  •  Talk to people who work in the industry to learn what they do.
  •  Fill out an application for school.

Each step by itself might not seem like much.  This is a good thing. You can  tackle them one by one and feel a sense of accomplishment each time.  Rewarding yourself at each step in the process will keep you motivated and make it more likely that you’ll reach your goal.  If you wait for the big payoff at the end, you’re not only being unrealistic, but setting yourself up to get discouraged.  

4.  Let go of perfection.
No matter what you hope to achieve, not everything is going to go as planned.  A job you want could fall through.  Or you may start pursuing a path or interest only to later realize it doesn’t work for you.  This is not failure, but part of the  process.  The key to keeping it from derailing you is a) realizing this is going to happen, and b) Try to identify and write down the obstacles you might encounter along the way beforehand.  This will help you think through alternative actions to take if a goal proves unrealistic or otherwise unattainable (as some goals do in everyone’s life).

 For example, say your dream is to be a  medical technician.  Only in doing your research you discover that in your state, getting licensing with a felony might be difficult. Although this would be disappointing, if you’ve planned properly, you’ve also considered what other professions you might pursue if healthcare doesn’t work. You’ve also saved yourself time and heartache by figuring this out early.  Instead of feeling like a failure, you can  use the setback to revise your plans and change direction.
5. Don’t think. Act.

For many of us, it’s easy to get stuck. Putting those goals down can take so much effort it may seem like it’s time for a break.  Or there’s so much to do, you’re  overwhelmed or afraid to begin.  Or maybe you’re so good at seeing that picture in your head, that you want to keep looking at it, or to keep revising it on paper until it’s perfect.
Don’t.  The purpose of goal-setting is to provide a plan of action.  So if you feel yourself getting lost in the dream or the details, just stop.  Go down your list and find something — anything — you can do.  And do it.  Right away.  Goal-setting guru Jill Koenig offers some great advice here on following through on your goals even if you don’t feel like it.  According to her, if you take action now, the motivation will follow -, not the other way around.
So what are you waiting for?

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