Dr. Paul Wood is an expert in helping people cope more effectively with stress and figure out how to have better lives. Paul’s expertise comes from his study in psychology and his personal experience of turning his life around. At 18 years old, Paul was a drug addicted dropout who was just beginning a ten-year jail sentence for killing his drug dealer. These days he is a husband and father, runs a successful business, supports a number of charities, and is a regular contributor in the media. His recently released book, How to Escape from Prison, was an instant best-seller.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
KrASIA (Kr): After being convicted of murder with a ten-year sentence in 1995, how did you deal with it mentally and emotionally?
Paul Wood (PW): Ten years feels like forever when you go to prison at 18. It’s damaging to keep wishing for better times. Accepting your reality, even if it’s grim, is incredibly powerful when it comes to coping. I saw adversity as a challenge to be embraced rather than a threat to be avoided. Whenever I’d end up in solitary confinement, I harnessed my distress as fuel to refuse to be broken.
Perceiving pressure as a challenge is constructive. Most of us have heard of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It’s a psychological and emotional struggle. However, there’s an equal likelihood of having post-traumatic growth (PTG). It results in having a better sense of what matters to you. One big difference between experiencing PTG and PTSD is the perception of challenges. Choose to perceive challenges as something you embrace.
Kr: Your father visited you regularly in prison. Was having a good support system one of the factors of having a strong mindset?
PW: Just by having my father there, I had an additional ability to cope. When I decided I wanted to improve my life, my father made that happen. He paid for my education out of his pension. If he wasn’t there to support me practically, I wouldn’t have been able to start studying. Most people in prison don’t have such support.
These days I’m involved in TakeTwo, a program to help people in prison. A number of inmates showing motivation and capability are provided with computer programming training. We then help get them internships for their transition from prison into the workplace. TakeTwo is for people who don’t have the support that I had.
Kr: What made you pursue psychology and philosophy in prison?
PW: I became aware of philosophy after reading about other prisoners. I started reading books about circumstances that were significantly worse than New Zealand’s own prison system. In some books, the authors mentioned useful readings. Those got me intrigued about philosophy and psychology. I thought it would help me cope effectively with the dangers of my then-present environment. It also helped me understand myself better.
Kr: How was it studying in such a tough environment?
PW: There is no access to resources. You can’t browse the net or consult anyone. You’re isolated from all sources of intellectual support. That’s not conducive to learning. On the other hand, you don’t have your usual distractions. I was literally confined with nothing but time on my own hands. I focused on making the most of the resources that were available to me.
Kr: If you hadn’t studied, do you think you would have still had a similar journey because of your mindset?
PW: It would have been a very different outcome. Education led me out of my ignorance. It let me inhabit a bigger world than I had previously existed in a world of crime. There was little awareness about the outcomes of channeling your energy positively. The more I learned, the more I became aware of the different options that were available. Through education, I was able to find a healthy, social, useful outlet for the same energy that I had back then. Education radically changed my life.
Kr: What do you think about opportunities being passed up on due to an anti-intellectual attitude within New Zealand males?
PW: As a male, it would have been seen as effeminate to be smart during my schooling experience. It’s seen as unmasculine to be smart. How can there not be a negative impact when it’s unfavorable to demonstrate intellectual capability and tendencies towards educational prowess. It’s a shared experience among men of my age.
Kr: What was your experience after your release from prison? Did you feel like you had changed as much as you thought you had?
PW: I knew I had changed significantly from who I used to be. My behavior was no longer consistent with the people I used to associate with. When I first got out, I’d been in prison from 18 to 29 years of age. There was an accelerated learning process upon release. I didn’t understand how the world worked outside of prison.
I had a lot of blind spots in areas that needed improvement. They were never apparent to me when I was in a prison environment. I learned how to navigate dangerous situations, but I hadn’t developed any other skills. When I started to build relationships, I found myself completely out of my comfort zone with no idea how to operate. In prison, you’re solely focused on looking after yourself. I’m still a work-in-progress these days, but that’s okay. These are opportunities to learn so that tomorrow’s version of you can be a little bit better than yesterday’s.
Kr: Was it a natural process or a deliberate decision to stop associating with the unfavorable influences that you had before and during your time in prison?
PW: It was a combination of both. When I had been first released, I had warned a friend that I could not associate with them if they were involved in illegitimate businesses. They never contacted me again. With most people, I chose not to catch up with them. I’d never keep a number or give my number out. Over time, I’ve grown to be transparent and honest. I tell them that I’ve made the choice not to associate with anyone who I’ve known from the inside.
Kr: When did you settle into an attitude of openness about your past?
PW: It developed over time. After my release, I put my head down and focused on building my career. I had no interest in talking about my background. It wasn’t until about five years later I wanted to talk about my experience publicly. We need to heal before we can effectively use our experiences to be insightful. I’ve spoken about my background over the last nine years. People judge me because of my background, but my capacity to positively impact others outweighs any anxiety around my life being judged.
Kr: What have been some failures since your release? How has that made you a better and stronger person?
PW: Professionally, it was when I was passed over for a promotion. Still, it was a valuable self-reflection opportunity to step outside of my self-perception. How might others be perceiving me in a way that isn’t consistent with what I want my reputation to reflect? How is it that I might be interpreting some of my behavior more favorably than it’s being perceived by others? What can I do to modify these perceptions?
It’s also important to come to grips with the nature of our limitations. Not all areas of activity require perfection. Instead, it’s key to identifying our stronger areas and build on those. Each of my experiences was valuable in making me a better partner for my wife. They weren’t an indictment on me as a human being. They were opportunities to get better at being who I wanted to be.