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Visiting Death Row Was A Good Career Move

career choice decision jimmy filliagi momentum

Decide comes from the same family of words as homicide, suicide, genocide, infanticide. The suffix ‘cide’ means to kill.  To decide is to kill off the alternatives.

Could a murderer (homicide) influence my career choices (decide)? Maybe yours?

If you feel stuck in your career and you could unravel your current situation and follow the threads back, you would likely start to notice patterns in your language. You’d hear yourself saying ‘but you don’t understand, my situation is different’, ‘my hands are tied’, ‘that’s not my decision to make.’

On the surface, these appear reasonable given the complex lives we lead. Stop and think about that for too long and you come to the unsettling conclusion that you are correct only if you have allowed others to make the decisions for you.

The world is going to throw stuff at us incessantly. Annoying traffic jams right up to an asteroid hitting our planet.

By and large, there is little we can do to stop it happening. How we choose to respond to these and any situation is completely under our control. 

This was articulated chillingly by Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist and holocaust survivor. He refused to allow the horrific actions of his Nazi captors to break him. They were free in body and could move beyond the wire at will but he was free in mind. He inspired those suffering alongside him, even some of the guards.

He wrote, ”Between stimulus and response is our greatest power -- the freedom to choose.” 

Whatever the world decides to throw at us, we each have the power to decide how we deal with that. These decisions shape who we are. We as humans are responsible for our own lives. The choice to be reactive or proactive is ours. 

When we are reactive we easily blame others for our situation. ‘Honk honk .. the government should be building more roads … honk honk’

When we are proactive we have accepted we alone are responsible. ‘I’m going to leave twenty minutes earlier from now on.’

If your default is to react then you will continually feel pushed around by the system. If you train yourself to respond then you will feel in control. Central to learning to respond, rather than react, is accepting you have the power to choose.

The privilege that is choice wasn’t completely clear to me until I met  Jimmy ‘da fuse’ Filliagi. 

He taught me the distinction between I can’t and I won’t. He showed me that saying I can’t was just a convenient excuse that we all hide behind. 

At this time I was a documentary cameraman for ABC TV and it was on assignment that I met Jimmy.

Jimmy was in and out of trouble all his life. He was your punk kid around town and as many young men from Lorain County, Ohio found out, the worst thing you could do to Jimmy was get into an argument with him and poke-him-in-the-chest. That just made him explode. That's where he got his name Jimmy da fuse. He had a violent temper and that short fuse was lit in an argument with his ex-wife. The powder keg went off and he pulled the trigger of a gun that was pointed at her head. She died instantly.

Jimmy's murder trial had a lot of coverage because his lawyers invoked the Twinkie defence. Twinkies are these exceptionally sugary processed buns that you get in vending machines. They argued that Jimmy's poor diet of sugar-laden Twinkie bars caused a chemical imbalance in his brain and he was therefore not responsible. 

There was a lot riding on this defence argument because if accepted, two-thirds of America's prison population who come from poorer socio-economic groups with sugar-laden diets would all be lining up to walk free. It was a great story which is why I was there covering it for ABC TV. 

I went to visit Jimmy.

Death Row at Mansfield State Prison in Ohio is a prison within a prison within a prison.

Death Row is a place of very few choices and this lack of choice is immediately apparent when you get there.

You get to the big door with the words Death Row on it and if that doesn't freak you out enough you are all of a sudden no longer asked, you are told what to do.

Pass your ID through the slot, stand back from the door, don't touch the door. Set up in this room, the prisoner will come in, the prisoner will be removed at exactly 60 minutes from now. Do you understand these instructions as I have explained them to you?

It's funny what sticks in your brain. I clearly remember hearing  Jimmy da Fuse rattling before I saw him. He was shackled ankles to waist, waist to wrist. He literally rankled down the corridor.

He shuffled in. He was a big man of Italian origin. Handsome. Charismatic.He would quickly win you over with charm then lose you just as fast when his ugly side came out.

We asked him about life on death row.

He lived in a 2m by 3m concrete coffin. His words. He told us Death Row inmates are locked down for 23 hours every day, every day. In his one hour a day outside of his 2m x 3m coffin the most he ever moved in one direction was 6 paces.

And I asked him what was the one thing he missed most of all?

He said he y-e-a-r-n-e-d for choice, he had all choice taken away, and it's not till it's gone that you realise how valuable choice is.Then he very candidly told us about a choice he gets that very few people get.

He had to choose between death or death.

This was in 2003 and many US states only offered lethal injection as an alternative. It wasn’t mandated law. Death row inmates had to choose between the traditional form of execution which in Ohio was the electric chair or lethal injection

So when a person only has one choice left in their life what do they do with that choice?

Theodore Roosevelt said,

“When faced with a decision the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing you can do is the wrong thing, the worst thing you can do is nothing.”

Even though Jimmy rarely made the right choice in his life and we certainly know he made a very wrong choice, I’ve gotta give the guy credit because he didn't make the worst choice which was to do nothing. With so few options left to him, he didn't say it's out of my hands. 

On April 24, 2007, Jimmy da Fuse Filliagi got his choice to ‘volunteer’ realised. He was executed by lethal injection.

I had always been an advocate for personal responsibility. Meeting Jimmy strengthened my views. Jimmy’s death had brought to life the words on paper written by Viktor Frankl in the concentration camp a half-century before. Personal responsibility is a great power, not a burden. Accept this and then you start to move forward. 

It’s like driving off with the parking brake on and you know something is wrong. It takes a few seconds for you to realise. Duh! You release the brake and suddenly you shoot forward is a brief rush. Do you know that feeling? That moment when you realise there’s nothing actually wrong with your car, nothing is going to restrict you getting to where you want. That fleeting moment is freedom. Accepting personal responsibility gives you the same feeling.

When it came to my career, I had to accept I was not a tree, I didn’t have roots. I could change my ideas, my position, my beliefs, my limitations. Choices are opportunities in disguise. Opportunities for me to change the story of my life. I wanted to change but for years I said: I can’t. I had the best job in the world as a documentary cameraman. They would put a plane ticket in one hand, money in the other, kick me out the door and say go tell people’s stories. I ‘can’t’ throw that away.

It reminds me Gary Vaynerchuk has this saying, “people are living in a world that is convenient for their mindset. People are in the excuse business.” Yes, I did have a great job. The more I told myself this, the more I believed it, except, for that niggling feeling in my gut. 

I can’t or I won’t. Two completely different things. Ninety-nine percent of the time it’s that I won’t do something.This is what I did then, and I do now, to work out if it’s something I can’t do or I won’t do?

I use what I have privately named the Jimmy Test.

You call it what you want. It’s a little macabre but it really gives me clarity on whether I can do something or I’m just making excuses.

Here’s an example.

Let's say I asked you to come up with one hundred thousand dollars cash, and you say, ”you don’t understand, I don’t have access to that sort of money, I can’t do it.”

The Jimmy test is simply adding these words ‘otherwise your whole family will be executed next week.’ Simply add that to the end of the initial question so the question now reads “Come up with one hundred thousand dollars cash otherwise your whole family will be executed next week” and your new answer would be yes, yes, of course, I can, I’ll start right now. I won’t sleep. I’ll knock on every door. I don’t care who they are, I’ll ring them any hour of the day. I’ll get that money.

This simple test has helped me see that so much of what I put up as excuses is just that: excuses

It helped me make my decision to leave my career of a globe-trotting cameraman to change the attitudes of a new generation pursue my goal of teaching philanthropy to school children.

I didn’t know if I was doing the right thing or the wrong thing but I had comfort knowing I wasn't making the worst choice: doing nothing.

Doing nothing is very bad for your career hopes and dreams.

Doing nothing equals inertia. Like the Penguin was the nemesis of Batman; like kryptonite cripples Superman; inertia is the natural enemy of momentum. Without momentum, your career struggles, mired in indecision. You look outwards to your employer, the economy, to anyone or anything other than the one person who can move you forward. It is your future, your responsibility, your choice. 

Decision and momentum are like the tick and the tock of a clock. Sixty little tick-tocks every minute, inching forward the hands of the clock, like little decisions inch forward our careers. Should the tick and tock stop, the grandfather clock stands silent, it’s hands frozen in time to show exactly the time of death. Knowing when our career dreams died isn’t as easy to pinpoint. 

Momentum is very important for everyone to have in their career, whether that’s growing in the same job or wanting to make the big switch to something new. Why? Because we don’t experience our career in a bubble. Our careers are dependent upon other people in some form or another. Many of these people can help us. They will help us if we reach out and ask them 

IF … and this is a very important if… they see you have put the effort in first. 

Never reach out to someone with an idea. When you say ‘idea’, that says to the other person,  what I really want is for you to do the work for me. If you’re wondering why you don’t hear back from people about your great ideas, this is likely the reason.

Imagine how different it would sound to read ‘I’ve got this project off the ground and have hit a snag. You have so much experience in [specific project] Are you able to identify what I am doing wrong?’ You’ve set yourself up as someone who is an action taker. You are unlikely to be a burden. You’ve used specifics so the other person doesn’t have to try and fill in the gaps. This is what momentum is.

Momentum is attractive. Inertia isn’t. 

Momentum comes from decisions. Right here is many get stuck. They won’t make a decision for fear of getting the decision wrong. They will only make a decision if the certainty of outcome is guaranteed. That’s not a decision, that’s the next step out of an instruction manual. Regret is too large for them to get past so they walk this big wall in front of them looking for a gap where they can slip through. There is no gap. There is no shortcut. There’s only one way and that’s to get over regret or the fear of it.

Accepting that some decisions you make will be wrong and just getting on with it pays dividends. Recovering from wrong decisions, showing resilience, living with a greater purpose are all very attractive to others you are seeking help from.

My career has always had momentum because I’ve never regretted any of the choices I have made. Many of my choices cost me money, time, status but they were all the right choices for me to make at the time. I have mastered the art of taking imperfect action. 

Imperfect action aka. momentum has taken me from chronic high school truant to Army sniper to globe-trotting TV cameraman to failed social entrepreneur to magician to accidental Youtube personality to online entrepreneur to author and speaker. I go to the grave - hand on my heart when I say this - with no regret.

The key to all of this is accepting that you have the privilege of choice. 

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