Image by Mr J. Doe
WARNING: Shawshank Redemption Movie Spoiler.
One of the most dramatic and effective flashback endings in cinema comes at the end of The Shawshank Redemption – so look away now if you’ve not seen the film and don’t want to know about it!
Andy Dufresne, convicted of the murder of his wife and her lover, is sentenced to two consecutive life sentences at Shawshank State Penitentiary in Maine. Faced with this situation, most of us would go for one of two alternatives: fight to clear our names through the legal system, or resign ourselves to serving our time. Andy did neither.
Instead, he devised an elaborate escape plan. He used his financial skills to set a trap for the prison warders, luring them in with their greed and tangling them up in a web of dodgy deals, hooked onto a fake identity – which was then ready and waiting for him to assume when he got out. Meanwhile, he was chipping away, night after night, at the wall of his prison cell with a rock hammer, covering the hole with posters of movie divas.
It took Andy nearly 20 years to tunnel through the wall – a superhuman effort by any standards. But the final leg of his journey was probably worse than anything he had to endure previously, crawling half a mile through a narrow sewage pipe full of human excrement. In the words of Andy’s friend Red:
Andy crawled to freedom through 500 yards of shit-smelling foulness I can’t even imagine – or maybe I just don’t want to.
Now make no mistake, Andy was a brilliant creative thinker. I could probably have spent a lifetime in Shawshank without coming up with a plan as clever as his. But as we’ve said before, creative thinking is not enough – you need to follow through with action. Red daydreamed about tunnelling through the wall, even trying to work out how long it would take – but he did nothing. By his own admission he didn’t want to even imagine the obstacles, let alone face them for real.
Andy’s plan also relied on his experience as a successful banker – without his financial knowledge, he would have had no honey to bait his trap for the wardens. And he needed a keen knowledge of human psychology and influence in order to home in on the guards’ weaknesses and lure them into the trap.
But Andy could have had all of these things and still failed. What set him apart from the other prisoners – those who daydreamed but did nothing, and those who started out but gave up – was his stubbornness.
It was his stubbornness that made him stand up to his tormentors among the prisoners. It was his stubbornness that helped him put up with abuse and humiliation from Warden Norton and the other prison staff, as he slaved away at the financial scheme.
And it was his stubbornness at chipping away at that prison wall with a hammer, night after lonely night, when everyone else had gone to bed, that brought him success.
On any given night, he could hardly have blamed himself if he had been ‘too tired’ to put in the night shift with the hammer. There must have been many, many nights when his progress seemed so slow, his achievements so miniscule, the task so difficult and risky, that he was tempted to give up. Any reasonable human being would have given up long before they made it through the wall. The only thing that kept him going was an irrational, unstoppable determination.
Had he decided to give up, Andy could have had all the excuses he wanted. But he didn’t want excuses. He wanted freedom – and he was prepared to pay the price.
From the outside, Andy’s stubbornness may have looked like foolhardiness. But Andy was no fool. Like Seth Godin, he understood the principle of The Dip. In his book of the same name, Seth points out that whenever you start a major undertaking you will inevitably run into difficulties (‘the dip’). At that point you need to look ahead and ask yourself: Will persevering lead to a better life or more of the same difficulty? If more of the same, you should quit as fast as possible.
But if you can look ahead and see a time when your present efforts are rewarded, so that life becomes easier on the other side, then it would be foolish to quit. At this point, you need to be as stubborn and dogged as Andy, chipping away with his hammer.
Fortunately most of us will never find ourselves in Andy’s predicament. We won’t have to make the choices he did, and work against such overwhelming odds. But if you’ve ever felt constrained by your work or life situation, and dreamt of a better life, you’ll know something of what drove Andy to escape.
When you consider the
sentences contracts, shackles and (golden) handcuffs that lock millions into corporate servitude, not to mention the drab uniforms and cell-like cubicles, it’s no wonder one of the most popular blogs for aspiring entrepreneurs is called Escape from Cubicle Nation.
Contrary to appearances, most entrepreneurs are not driven by money. Sure, they do their best to amass as much of it as they can – but the money is not as important as what it brings them: freedom.
If you’re one of those independent-minded souls who hates being told what to do and having to settle for mediocrity imposed by others, then being trapped in an unfulfilling job (or relationship, or any other limiting situation) can start to feel, without too much exaggeration, like a prison. And if you want to escape, then you’ll need to do as Andy did.
Like Andy, you’ll need to hatch a brilliant plan, looking at the same obstacles and constraints as everyone around you – yet seeing the opportunity no-one else has spotted.
Like Andy, you’ll need to draw on all your past experience and skills – and maybe develop some new ones, including talents you’d never have suspected in yourself.
Like Andy, you’ll need to look into the souls of people around you, note their desires and foibles, and influence them to play their part in your plan. (Though hopefully you’ll have a wider choice of associates, and can look for win-win outcomes – as Andy did when he helped his friend Red.)
Like Andy, you may well reach a point where any reasonable human being would give up – when your plans are thwarted time and again, things take longer than you expected (even after you’ve allowed for them taking longer than your expected), and obstacles keep appearing out of the blue. You may even have people around you advising you, with the best of intentions, to ‘quit while you’re behind’.
At that point, like Andy, you’ll have to rely on your stubbornness to succeed, pushing through the final barriers no matter how much pain or unpleasantness you have to endure.
And when you finally break through, just like Andy, you’ll know the sweet taste of freedom.
At this point, you may notice a difference in the attitudes of people around you. Instead of expressing concern about your naivety or pigheadedness, they start to express admiration for your determination and clarity of vision.
Others may forget or fail to notice the stubbornness and sacrifice, and tell you how ‘lucky’ you are to be doing what you’re doing, with all the opportunities that are now open to you.
You may be tempted to retort and tell them what it cost you. But it could be more fun to follow Andy’s example one more time – smile, assume your newfound identity, collect your reward and stroll out into the sunshine.
How Stubborn Are You?
Have you ever succeeded against apparently impossible odds? How did you do it?
How do you decide whether it’s worth persevering with something – or time to quit?
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received/given about the power of persistence?
About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a poet and creative coach.