Episode 217 – The Master Plan with Chris Wilson

Chris WilsonJust occasionally, you have a conversation that rocks you to your core. One of those conversations that shows you how little you really know of life, how blind you are to your own privilege, and how feeble your excuses are.

This is one of those conversations. 

Chris Wilson was facing life in prison for homicide, with no hope of remission. After an upbringing marked by deprivation, violence, abuse and discrimination, his only resources were strength of character, force of will, and a love of reading. 

Fortunately, those were enough. 

Chris wrote out a Master Plan – a remarkably ambitious list of achievements he would aim for – and gradually ticked them all off. Incredibly, he convinced a judge that he was not only no longer a danger to society, but an asset. And he’s gone on to live a remarkably successful life as an artist, businessman and mentor. 

This is a conversation I will never forget, and I suspect you won’t either. 


LINKS:

Chris’s site: http://chriswilson.biz/

Chris on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ChrisWilsonbalt

Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

PI Virtual Writing Retreat, May 2020: https://alisonjones.lpages.co/virtual-writing-retreat/

PI-Q webinar: “How Are You?” Practical steps for protecting your mental health in a crisis: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/pi-q-webinar-how-are-you-with-andy-salkeld-tickets-103937662346

See all PI-Q webinars and replay links: https://practicalinspiration.com/pi-q

The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge Sep 2020: https://alisonjones.leadpages.co/proposal-challenge/

Alison Jones 

I’m here today with Chris Wilson who splits his time between Baltimore, Maryland and New York City. He works as a visual artist and a social justice advocate. Through his work, he investigates societal injustices, human relationships and public policies. His artwork is collected and displayed internationally. He’s also the founder of the Chris Wilson Foundation, which supports social entrepreneurs and prison education, including reentry and financial literacy for returning citizens, as well as art related programs. And his book, The Master Plan: My journey from life in prison to a life of purpose, has just won the International Business Book Award 2020 here in the UK. So welcome to the show, Chris.

 

Chris Wilson 

Thank you for having me.

 

Alison Jones 

It’s really, really good to have you here. It is an astonishing story. And we just saying before, we were chatting before, I read the book, and I’m like, Yeah, I know nothing. We we could take the whole programme just telling your story. We won’t do that, because there’s other stuff I want to ask you. But I think for anybody to understand this at all, they’re going to need to know a little bit about it. So just tell us about the six shots and the one shot.

 

Chris Wilson 

Well, essentially, I grew up in a very tough neighborhood in Washington, DC. And my family was attacked by a police officer that started stalking our family and a lot of gun violence in my neighborhood, eventually, you know, some men came after me and I took a person’s life. And I was charged as an adult and sentenced to life imprisonment. And, you know, once I was in prison, I realized that, you know, I would have to grow old and die in prison. And I chose not to believe that, you know, I call it a positive delusion. And so I came up with like a kind of a bucket list. I called it my Master Plan of how I was going to turn my life around, mostly through education, through therapy, and through learning entrepreneurship. And so I spent, you know, almost half of my life in prison, and so on. I finally got a chance to get back out and I’ve been home about eight years now and I have just been incredibly successful so far. Knock on wood. So I’m happy to have you be able to share my story, I hope that it will inspire people that despite their situation that they can come up with plans and turn their life around, and also live their best life. That’s what I try to do.

 

Alison Jones 

And let’s just dig into the master plan a bit because I found it remarkable that coming from the place you’d come, in the situation you were in, because as you say, you know life usually means life, it was a pretty hopeless situation. What fire in your belly was it that made you go, you know what, I’m going to make a list and I’m not going… I mean, we all make lists, right? But it was so detailed. You iterated it, and then you just sat you focused and started just ploughing through that list. What was it in you or what gave you that idea, to use that tool to turn things around?

 

Chris Wilson 

So I think it was a combination of things. First, I would have to credit my mom, at least initially. Me growing up, she instilled in me a sense of worth. And she taught me about money and finances and just that if I worked really hard that I could be successful. Now, I didn’t necessarily apply myself the way I wished I did when I was young, but that’s stuck with me. The other thing is, I’ve always been stubborn, growing up. And so, you know, I just decided once in prison to use that stubbornness to channel that towards something positive. And then the other thing, the final thing was, you know, with so much negativity all around me inside a prison, I knew deep down inside I wasn’t a bad person. And I got a chance to meet a person who eventually became a mentor, and who gave me that motivation. And instilled in me a sense of more sense of worth, that I can be successful that I go to prison and mostly to study in educating myself.

 

Alison Jones 

Yes, I want to talk about that, because you got that great phrase ‘the Book Crushers’. I might nick that. I love that. Just getting going back to the master plan for a minute, it was a very personal thing when you did it.

 

Chris Wilson 

Yeah.

 

Alison Jones 

You started teaching people how to do that really early, didn’t you?

 

Chris Wilson 

Right.

 

Alison Jones 

How did that happen? And what was the response? I mean there must have been some people who just thought you were bonkers, right?

 

Chris Wilson 

So at first people thought, you know, I was a little crazy, because all of this preparation and planning I was doing, especially having a life sentence. And then, in our prison, only people who have are close to release can get in certain vocational trades. So usually like within like two years of your release, and so I was giving people packs of cigarettes and stuff to get on the list just so I can get into vocational classes and learn and study, I just was very determined to, to be successful. And I just had to believe that it was possible, despite other people, just thinking I was crazy, but then eventually, once I, you know, I got my high school diploma in like two months, and I started accomplishing stuff, then people were like, ‘Well, can you teach me to get… Can I help me get my high school diploma? Or like, you know, can I study with you?’ And next thing, you know, it was just a small army of us just hungry to learn and improve ourselves.

 

Alison Jones 

And I just think that’s such an amazing vision of people just going from the ground up, I could change this. You could just make the decision to get the high school diploma. What is it about the master plan that makes it so powerful so it captures people’s imagination in that way?

 

Chris Wilson  

I think, at least using myself for an example, or just anyone in general, like we always, I think, dream or think about what we want to do in life and how we want to live our lives. And we don’t necessarily execute it, implement it, but, you know, I figure out ahead of time. And so when I turned like this time into focusing on bettering myself so that when I get out that I’m ready, and it’s when you write it down, and then you make… like I took a copy of it, and I sent it to my grandmother and I sent a copy of it to my judge early on, because it’s important when you when you create a master plan, to share it with someone and give them the power to hold you accountable. And it’s this equivalent of like having a workout partner when you say you want to go to the gym, you want to lose 10 pounds and that workout partner is gonna hold you accountable, like the day you don’t show up to the gym, they’re gonna call you and say ‘Come on, get out the bed. Let’s go.’ So it’s the same thing with a master plan. And so I just stuck to it. And then when you check off those short-term accomplishments like getting my high school diploma or you know learning a foreign language, it instilled in me a sense of confidence that, you know what, if I work really hard, I can accomplish almost anything. And so it just drives you to further check things off your list.

 

Alison Jones 

Yes, because you can see things getting done, you can see the progress. But it’s interesting when you say about the accountability, because you didn’t even know if your grandma was reading that list.

 

Chris Wilson 

Right.

 

Alison Jones 

But it still worked for you. You knew she was getting it.

 

Chris Wilson 

Right. So yes, I mean, it was important to me. And it was… sometimes I would share some of the stuff with my fellow prisoners. Small stuff, like, I’m not using profanity anymore, and I’m going to work on speaking proper English. And if you hear me using profanity, then I’ll get down and I’ll do 25 push ups. And so people was like, that’s cool. And I was like, on command. So whenever you hear me and you catch me, I’m doing push ups. And eventually I just stopped using profanity. I mean, I cuss like a sailor now, every now and then, but I went like a decade without using profanity. So it’s pretty cool. Just to challenge myself.

 

Alison Jones 

It’s very smart. I mean, what you’re doing is really, really sophisticated behaviour design here, right? I mean, I don’t know if you called it that at the time…

 

Chris Wilson 

I forgot what it is, cognitive, um…

 

Alison Jones 

Cognitive behavioural stuff.

 

Chris Wilson 

Yes.

 

Alison Jones 

Yes, it’s really…  let’s talk about the book crushers because it’s such a great phrase and, like you say, you’re inside, you have got time right now, that’s kind of the one thing you’ve got, is time. So the temptation just to to kick back, you know, to do almost nothing very focused with your time I can imagine must be pretty huge because of the sense of purposelessness, right? But what was it about the book crushing that… you know that learning bug, that changed things for you and how did other people get involved in that?

 

Chris Wilson 

Right, so growing up, I wasn’t that into sports. I ran track a little bit but I was kind of forced onto the track team, but I would get in trouble often for going to the library across the main street. I’d go to the library just to read, and you know, just … whatever I could do, right. And for me reading was a way to escape my reality. If things were crazy out in my neighborhood, I would curl up somewhere and read a book. And things were actually crazy in prison, and so reading books and learning was a way for me to mentally escape my environment. And I felt rewarded, you know, the things that I read, I read self-help books, I read biographies and encyclopedias and stuff like that enriched me, and the more I read, the more I wanted to, you know, just learn more stuff. And so eventually, you know, we created like a group, it was actually like a book club and, you know, we call it Book Crushers, and we learned how to learn, so reading a good book, I kept… we always kept journals. We would take notes and like maybe mock up the pages and stuff and share that information, you know, over cups of coffee. And so after a while, like a 300 page book, you know, I could read in like a day and a half or two days, and then also be able to retain 70% of the information. So developing that skill set, all of us, we just made a list of like books that we wanted to read, and we just started checking them off. And we did this for years.

 

Alison Jones 

That’s awesome. And I guess it’s it’s like a portal, isn’t it? You’re reading a book, you’re genuinely… you’re in a different world. You’re sharing somebody’s brain. It’s a form of freedom.

 

Chris Wilson 

Right. Absolutely.

 

Alison Jones 

And, again, was there an immediate rush to be part of your book group, or was that a kind of slow growth?

 

Chris Wilson 

I think it was… it was slow. I think we probably went up to maybe 15 people at the highest but… I don’t want to say it was an acquired taste, but maybe some people felt like intimidated. Because the book questions were for, like diehard readers. And so, you know, if you got into the club and you took, like over a month, like to read a book, you know, that’s kind of a problem. But it grew over time, and the program actually still exists inside the prison now. Which I think is pretty cool. And so they see the importance of it.

 

Alison Jones 

It’s super cool. And what I love is – you just make reading cool. So you know, well done that. The geeky kid  with the book, suddenly you call them a Book Crusher and that’s, that’s cool.

 

Chris Wilson 

Right? Yeah.

 

Alison Jones 

And then you didn’t just read books, you started writing. So yes, where did that come from, that you knew how to write the story? And I know that you worked with Brett to shape that, just tell us a little bit about that process, how that was?

 

Chris Wilson 

Sure. Like I’ve been journaling all my life and more solidly since I was 10. And I journalled when I was in prison, and I was about 19 when I wrote up the master plan, and I put on that, you know, write a book, you know, a memoir, an inspiring memoir. But the tricky thing was, I hadn’t accomplished many things or anything at that point when I wrote it down. And so it was like, Alright, I need to write an inspiring book, so I have to do some inspiring stuff. And so, you know, fast forward many, many, many years later, and I was still, you know, planning on writing a book, and so everything that I was going to accomplish, and so eventually, you know, had won every award in my state. I won a presidential award from Obama and, you know, all kinds of stuff I’ve done in my city helped hundreds of people get jobs and I was like, Okay, I think I’m ready for a book. And so, I started going up to New York. I found an agent and I got connected with Brett and Brett helped me create structure. And just… I learned a lot about the industry and, I don’t know, it was amazing. It took us about a year to work on the book. And, you know, I put my heart and soul into it. So I’m really happy the way it came out. I did the audio book to, which was one of the hardest things that I’ve had to do.

 

Alison Jones 

Yes, just because of the stamina. I mean, it’s hard work, isn’t it? Just tell tell us a bit more about that.

 

Chris Wilson 

Yes, it was like the equivalent… So they flew in like a team from New York, they took over a studio here. And they were like, professionals, they were like hitmen, kinda, no sense of humour. You know everything about a book. And they told us, send out a text message and call your friends. We own your voice for this week. You can’t talk. It’s the most you’ll ever talk in your life. And so it was five days straight 12 hours a day. And then at the fifth day, I lost my voice. And you had to keep that energy. So me speaking, like in my book, telling the story, and then someone talking to me, I had to be that person with the same energy and if I was off, they would make me reread it and so it just was a lot of work, it was like a Broadway show.

 

Alison Jones 

I love that: ‘Your voice is ours…’

 

Chris Wilson 

Yes, sir. We own your voice, drink this tea with the honey. You can’t leave the studio. You can’t take any calls. Like that’s it. And I was like, Okay.

 

Alison Jones 

Oh, that’s so funny. Where do they get these guys from?

 

Chris Wilson 

They were flown in. Like, they reminded me of like the folks in the movie Pulp Fiction when they sent them to the cleaner. They just came in it was like, we hate to get disturbed. So like, don’t play. No smiling, no joking, let’s work.

 

Alison Jones 

‘Nobody leaves the studio until…’

 

Chris Wilson 

Right, yeah.

 

Alison Jones 

What surprised you about that? I mean, not so much the audio, though that is hilarious. But about the writing process? Because you’d had this obviously in your head for a long time, that this was going to happen, you’d read so many books. What was it, when you when you came to do that the writing piece, what surprised you about it?

 

Chris Wilson 

What surprised me was how emotionally challenging it was. I had to dig into a lot of stuff. So I had to get back into therapy, I had to go back to the neighbourhood where I grew up in and walk to scenes and describe like, where my friends were shot, and what had happened, and it was tough for me to do. But it was something that I had to do in order to put that emotion down on the page. And so a lot of stuff that I did in the process of writing a book, and like going through therapy and stuff, I mean, at the end of the day it made me stronger, but it was very difficult. And I felt it was necessary to really show my vulnerable side in my book because it was important, and I see it as a sign of strength. Oftentimes, when folks might hear about someone, you know, being incarcerated, they rarely get to hear about what led or how do you know what happened before that person ended up in prison or how many times how has the system, the school system has failed our young people before they end up in prison. So I thought it was important to tell that story as well. So people understood.

 

Alison Jones 

And I’m guessing it had a big impact on you, personally. Did you? Did you find you understood your own story differently at the end?

 

Chris Wilson 

Yes, actually, yes. And it was also challenging, like, I definitely had a better sense of my story. And even after writing a book, it was some parts of the book that I just couldn’t physically read, which is another thing that made some parts of doing an audiobook, very, very difficult, but I had to keep exploring and keep rereading these parts of my book, and going to therapy to develop the strength to be able to do it and talk about it because you know, I was going to go on tour, so I had to be able to talk about the book and I’m talking about it now, but some things were just so painful as I couldn’t do it. So I’m happy to have gotten through.

 

Alison Jones 

Yes, I hadn’t thought about that. Actually, when you’re doing the audio book, not only have you got the stamina of reading all that stuff for that long period of time, but it’s actually emotionally draining stuff.

 

Chris Wilson 

Oh, yeah.

 

Alison Jones 

Yeah. It’s a level of hard that most audiobook narrators don’t really have to cope with.

 

Chris Wilson 

Right. Right. Well, the folks in the studio, as tough as they were, they did come into the studio at a certain point where I had to read a painful letter to myself, one that I couldn’t read, right, it was from my mom. And I just, I didn’t want to disappoint these guys. They were so serious, and it just, I couldn’t get through this letter that I had to read. And they came in and they said, Listen, this is your story. And it’s an emotional part of your life. So if you feel like you sound emotional, whatever, that’s for real. So just just be emotional and just get through it. And so that was comforting and so I got through it. But, you know, that was also one of the toughest things I had to do.

 

Alison Jones 

Yes. And when you found out about two, three weeks ago now from when we’re talking that you had won the international category in the Business Book Awards, just tell me a bit about that. How was that?

 

Chris Wilson 

I was super excited, very disappointed that I couldn’t get over there. I mean, obviously, we were in the middle of a pandemic, but I was super happy, I remember jumping up and down to celebrate. And I had a bottle of Prosecco chilled and just like waiting and, you know, I just was just super happy because it just feels good to see your art, your work being appreciated, especially, you know, outside of the US so I was greatly appreciative.

 

Alison Jones 

And I can imagine that this book is having a really profound effect on a lot of people do you do you see that… I’m mean we’re in the middle of a pandemic, you haven’t been talking in front of big crowds recently. But you know what I mean: what is the the impact of that on people?

 

Chris Wilson 

Well, first the interesting thing about it, so now, my paperback came out last February, actually. And the book is selling really well. But you know how it is, like, how do you know if people actually want to read the book? Like, I’m biased, and I wrote a really good book. But you know, the thing is, how do you get someone to read it? And so during this pandemic, I’ve been getting more messages from folks all around the world who, you know, you’re locked down, you’re in quarantine, and so you have time to read. So folks have been  reading the book, and reaching out to me…

 

Alison Jones 

We’re all Book Crushers now, right?

 

Chris Wilson 

Right, it’s a good lockdown book. So I’m happy about that.

 

Alison Jones 

It’s quite ironic, isn’t it? Yes. Brilliant. Wonderful. Now, there’ll be lots of people, well, there’ll be very few people who’ve got stories like yours, I’ll be honest with you, but there’ll be lots of people who are finding it hard to write a book, right? What would you tell them, what would be a tip that you’d give someone who’s struggling to tell their story?

 

Chris Wilson 

I would say just write, just journal and write as much as you can. Also, there’s a lot of things that you can find online to read about developing a writing process, learning about structure, and maybe reaching out to people who have written books, actually, someone messaged me this morning, who is writing a book and they want to get some advice. And so doing things like that can can help you out and also, you know, when I wrote my book, I sat down and talked and recorded it, had it transcribed, and I started working with that and that’s helpful, too, as a tip to just, you know, work on developing it, but also you can work with folks to develop structure and learning, you know, about storytelling. For example, in my book, I love to read. I made my chapters kind of short. And I made sure I ended them in a way that like, say it’s one o’clock in the morning and you’re reading and you’re like, ‘Wow, I wonder what’s gonna happen next. I can do one more chapter…’ and next thing you know, it’s two o’clock in the morning. And so all of those things were deliberate and like putting in the book.

 

Alison Jones 

I love that, keep ending on a cliffhanger, keep people reading. And all that transcribing, that was really good practice, you didn’t realize it, for the audio.

 

Chris Wilson 

Right. Exactly.

 

Alison Jones 

But it’s funny the energy when you’re speaking, particularly when you’re speaking to someone, it’s a lot easier to keep things flowing. You never get… I remember Seth Godin saying you never get a speaking block. If you’ve got a writing blog, stand up and talk, because it’s all going to come out. Brilliant. And from your book crushing experience, what one book would you recommend that everybody listening should should read, apart from The Master Plan, obviously.

 

Chris Wilson 

I’m actually rereading, I really love The Law of Success by Napoleon Hill. So I like that book, I have a bunch of books that I really like. But that’s one that I really like. There is another book that I recommend. It was like a mandatory read for folks in our book club, and it was, I guess it was The New York Times Essential Book of Knowledge. So it was about 1100 pages, and it was about all kinds of things all around the world. And it was important, I would tell people in the group that it was important because, you know, oftentimes in business or just in relationships, you know, people talk about stuff, people talk about the world. And so, reading this big 1100 page book allowed us to be more worldly, even though we were away from the world. And so I learned about all kinds of things, chess and birds in South America, and I found myself pass through it when I’m doing business with folks, you know, they just want to know if they like you, and maybe they’re interested in something – certain kind of flowers or gardening or stuff – and reading that book, just allowed me to be well rounded. And so that’s…

 

Alison Jones 

That’s fascinating. So A) it’s a doorstop of a book, right. I mean, that’s, that’s a lot of pages. But I remember a book about… was it a dictionary of cultural literacy, or something and it’s got that kind of insane, you know, Renaissance kind of grandeur to it: this is just everything you need to know.

 

Chris Wilson 

Yeah, makes you really good at trivia games too.

 

Alison Jones 

Which is, you know, a side effect. But actually, there’s a lot to be said for just, you know, modern knowledge is so siloed. And you get to be expert in a tiny, tiny, narrow field, right? And lifting yourself up out of that and just getting that breadth and understanding people who are so different from you, and finding those points of contact – it’s a really valuable thing to do.

 

Chris Wilson 

Absolutely. I remember, I was going to do a deal to sell some furniture, because I make furniture and restore furniture. And when I went to this big house, we were just talking about, you know, the Italian Renaissance and craft makers in Florence. And you know, I studied Italian, I studied a culture and it was so fascinated by that. And we talked for like an hour. And we wasn’t even really talking about the business that we were there for. And then it was like, oh, by the way, let me get my chequebook and go and write you a cheque. And it was like, because we vibed just on talking about this, it was just like, of course, we want to do business with you. And I was like, wow.

 

Alison Jones 

Yes, people buy people.

 

Chris Wilson 

Right.

 

Alison Jones 

Yes, really interesting. What a great recommendation. Thank you. Mind you, it’s a whopper. It’s also not the sort of thing you can do one of those precis reads on, there’s no Blinkist for a book like that. The whole point is to just you’ve got to put the hours in, right? You got to put the work.

 

Chris Wilson 

Sure. That’s right.

 

Alison Jones 

Love it. Right, Chris, if people want to find out more about you, more about the amazing work you do and more about The Master Plan, where should they go?

 

Chris Wilson 

I think they should go to my website, ChrisWilson.biz. And also follow me on Instagram, Chris Wilson, Baltimore.

 

Alison Jones 

Fantastic. I’ll put those links up on the show notes at extraordinarybusinessbooks.com if anybody hasn’t got a pen and paper with them right now. Chris, it was such a privilege and pleasure talking to you today. Thank you very much for telling us a bit about your story and telling us a bit about how you put your story together as well.

 

Chris Wilson 

Thank you so much for having me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.