What A Year In Prison Taught Piper Kerman About Success

Two weeks into her 13-month incarceration, Piper Kerman was seated in the mess hall of the federal correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut, eating another desultory meal.

"Knowing less than nothing I began maligning the food," Piper writes in her prison memoir, Orange Is the New Black. As Piper made a joke about going on a hunger strike, a fellow inmate, Pop, overheard her. Pop, a Russian gangster’s wife, just happened to rule the mess hall’s kitchen with an iron fist. Pointing a finger in Piper’s face, Pop warned her, "Listen, honey, I know you just got here so I know that you don't know what’s what. That kind of shit you're talking about, hunger strikes, that kind of shit, that’s inciting a riot. They will lock your ass up in SHU [solitary confinement] in a heartbeat. So take a tip from me and watch what you say."

Piper Kerman

Piper, a graduate of Smith College whose book has been adapted by Weeds creator Jenji Kohan for an upcoming Netflix TV series, was building a successful career in corporate communications when the Feds knocked at her door and served her with a warrant for an arrest for a crime she had committed ten years earlier—carrying a bag stuffed with $10,000 in undeclared cash from Chicago to Brussels for a drug dealer. After a plea bargain and reduced sentence, Piper landed in Danbury, clueless about prison dynamics—the power structures among prisoners, and among prisoners and the staff.

We were curious to know about what it took to survive in prison, so we met with Piper. And we were surprised to discover that much of what she told us about surviving in jail could actually be applied to one’s career.

Think about it: a prison is a lot like a workplace. Both are inhabited by a bunch of people who did not choose each other and are stuck in the same place for some specified duration of time. Both a prison and a workplace are human ecosystems with potential risks and rewards-to-be-reaped based on one’s ability to relate to others. Of course in prison, the stakes are higher, and the downside, starker—being beaten or dumped in solitary confinement for a careless comment as opposed to being left out of an important meeting or passed over for a promotion. But whether an inmate, employee or boss, people thrive (or not) based on their interpersonal skills.

What fascinated us most about Piper’s survival skills was how much they aligned with the insights we gleaned from the superachievers who we interviewed for our upcoming book on success, The Art of Doing. How Superachievers Do What They Do and How They Do It So Well. Piper told us, "I learned in prison if you don’t perceive reality correctly and get some detachment from your condition, it will be a detriment." Her strategies (below) required self-awareness—the ability to clearly assess one’s self and surroundings—a theme that surfaced over and over with the extraordinary people in our book.

Know the people

"Some people will be kind and collaborative, some will not have your best interest at heart. So you have to watch. In other words, keep your mouth shut and your eyes open," Piper said. "Some people like to show off and shoot off their mouth out of frustration, which can lead to a conflict with another prisoner, guard, or other staffer."

In a workplace, just as in prison, it pays to be observant about who has your best interests at heart—and who doesn’t. Regardless of how large or small your workplace, be smart about who you choose to make your allies. Gossip, trash-talk, and complaints have a way of coming back at you. Particularly in a highly competitive work environment, why give others the ammunition to thwart your goals?

Know your place

"You have to recognize that you’re not the center of the universe," Piper said. "It took me a while to understand where I fit into the social ecosystem and what degree of interdependence and coexistence would be required." Piper could have paid a high price for assuming that inmates (namely Pop, in the mess hall incident) didn’t take pride in their jobs.

A workplace, whether a hedge fund firm or an NGO, will—like prison—have a particular culture and set of values. Recognizing that it’s not all about you and taking the time to understand that culture can keep you out of the workplace equivalent of solitary confinement.

Know how to make yourself useful

"In prison it’s important to analyze the situation and ask yourself, ‘Where are the power gaps within the system?’ and then, ‘What are the things that I can provide that don’t already exist here?’" Piper said. "Survival is dependent on figuring out what you have to offer. It could be something small, like uniform repair, doing pedicures or letter writing."

Piper, whose prison job was being an electrician, repaired small appliances for other prisoners. "These skills can earn you commissary—a tube of toothpaste—and good will," she said.

The concept of creating value for others is applicable to any workplace. Whether you’re working for a Fortune 500 company or a scrappy startup, finding what Piper calls "the power gaps" within the system is the first step. Then if you take the initiative to use your skills to fill those gaps, you will create value and make yourself essential.

Asking Piper how her incarceration has shaped her prison afterlife, she told us, "Prison is an experience that is intentionally designed to be debilitating. Coming back is difficult. But when you’ve experienced something so intimidating and frightening, it’s what I call ‘a trump card of failure.’" Now when she tries something new, she said she reflects back on her prison experience and thinks, "It can’t be worse than my previous failure, so fuck it. I did that…I can do this."

Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield are the authors of "The Art of Doing: How Superachievers Do What They Do and How They Do It Well" .

[Image: Flickr user David Goehring]

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  • Shneevels

    Yep.  Let's celebrate criminal activity again, and then shake our heads wondering why our culture is so permeated by crime.  This chick was dirty, and is likely still no angel.  But she gets a show, and we explore the dark side of life all over again....in a popular dramedy.  America. 

  • Guest

    More proof there are positive lessons to be learned on every walk of life, and the significance of our actions are not the consequences. It's what we take from the consequences and how we succeed from that point on that matters. Great article. 

  • Mgcloghesy

    This story was not intended to be about whether Piper was remorseful for her actions.  We all make mistakes.  Hers was a big one and she paid the price.  I think it was a very interesting article comparing the two environments.  Frankly, I've been the recipient of nasty workplace behaviour that probably compares to those perpetrated by inmates.  The only difference is, corporate management got away with it as it was "for the better of the company".

  • Bitterbetty

    Thirteen months. Compare that sentence to the sentences imposed on minority females who do the same thing. Why are you glorifying this criminal, who got off easy for being a drug courier, and who has no excuse for having done so?

  • Domi59

    I agree.  I do not know Piper's specific charges, but I do know that a federal drug charge carries a much longer sentence than 15 months, so my mind is wondering "what did she do to secure this deal"?  Race has some bearing on the profiling, but the actual drug a person is charged with is the deciding factor in the federal system.  Whatever drug the federal government deems most detrimental for the current times will be the one most focused on and the one that carries the most prison time.  Do the research...

  • Lola333

     She got that sentence because she could afford a ridiculously expensive fancy lawyer and I think was charged in the end with a lesser crime not related to the drugs. I think money laundering, which she also did? She mentioned in the book that someone who couldn't afford the fancy lawyer would have probably done more like 35 months. So it wasn't that she was white that got her that sentence, it was that she was rich and had connections.

  • RB

    The problem  isn't that the prison term for a white person is too short,  it's that the prison term for a minority is too long.  We need to end the racist,  classist war on drugs and make room in our prisons for the rapists and thieves who belong there. 

  • GemGirl

    Orange is the new Black, huh, Piper? Did it ever occur to you that white criminals -- street and white-collar levels -- have been around all along? You might have been playing on words and trying to be cutesy with the title of your book, but the racial connotations are clear. Prisoners never wore black -- so you obviously are making a reference to suggest anyone (even someone like you who is white and supposedly a good girl) can end up wearing orange (the incarcerated), not just someone who is black. How true, but this is nothing new to those of us not surprised that criminals can be found in all racial, age, gender and income groups.  

    You might benefit from knowing about Robert Jensen (a professor, author and activist) who is part of a group of progressive white males like Tim Wise, who have analyzed the ongoing problems regarding race, racism, inequality and related issues like sexism and classism. 
     Following the ideas in his book The Heart of Whiteness, Jensen argues that -- even decades after the significant achievements of the civil-rights movement and with an African-American president -- it is still appropriate to describe the United States as a white-supremacist society, in terms of how we think and how we live. Through an analysis of contemporary racial ideology, Jensen presents a framework for critiquing the naturalizing of power and privilege in other arenas of our lives (gender, class, nationality, and ecology). How have we come to accept so easily systems of domination and subordination? How did we become resigned to hierarchy? How can we challenge the unjust and unsustainable nature of the systems in which we live? Video uploaded on Jul 1, 2009Jul 1, 2009 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v..., Robert Jensen talks about the problem of white supremacy that is at the root of race problems amd the ongoing lack of awareness among white people regarding racism.

  • Ssimonsen

    The review of Kerman's book on Slate says it all: http://www.slate.com/articles/...  Middle-class "transgression" story - her "lessons" described in banalities, with just enough "grittiness" to make it palatable for daytime-talk shows (and option a series on Netflix.) What a privileged doofus.

  • enin

    I normally
    really like FastCo articles. I know they have to appeal to readers just like
    every other media. Same with the author of the new book. Personally I think
    this one is just part of the new Hype. It’s sad, but its always been this way.
    Nothing has changed but the pace of the beatings and smile of the boss as they
    try to tell us they are on our side during the beatings. Wow, a jail experience as learning for employment. Think for just a moment about that. Next we will have some ultra-crazy recount the good old days and suggest perhaps a bit of slavery, Nazi death camp or child work house experience on your resume is just the ticket to prepare you for your next interview. Think about that people. We are experiencing DEVO every day in our country and it feels like normality. It's not.

    30 years ago we were bludgeoned by fads
    foisted on us perhaps every couple of years. Tom Peters, The Seven Habits,
    Peter Drucker, ad nauseum. New waves of business change necessary to carry us
    to new levels. We were told we were empowered, beings capable of leadership and
    change. We were expected to get right, and like a Mao mind camp, we were
    trained. We were then empowered to downsize and ship our own jobs over seas in
    order to create more wealth for the wealthy. We became exceptionally good at
    it, but at the time well paid, and accomplished the goal of dismantling our
    economy before handing it to our children. Pathetic.


    Now keeping up with the pace of change
    is the fad of the month. We’re carpet bombed with books, programs, text
    messages, emails and webinars on the new Zen of how pathetic we truly are.
    Empowerment – gone. Loyalty  -
    gone. Stability, benes and pay – gone. Open abandonment and poorly cloaked
    humiliation - in. Each new guru foists what passes for genuine deep spiritual
    experiences: hot coal walking in ancient tribal caves in Bali, observing the
    wolf pack in deep winter Siberia, cow poking in Montana, or a life altering
    experience as an under cover CEO mopping for a few hours as a janitor in
    Houston (really?).


    Everybody cries. Everybody hugs.
    Everybody asks for redemption. Everybody learns they’re navel lint after
    touching reality because they never have before. Everybody is just thankful
    someone sees them worthy so they can at least make minimum wage, eat and have a
    place to sleep. None of the “haves” give up any of their massive bonuses, stock
    options, fat perks, parachutes, or obscene salaries - none. As for the ones who
    make the money for them, they are to learn from their lessons, no more empowerment,
    humility, head down into the breach. Fear naught; the new managers are reading
    new leadership books on how to love employees into submission and downsizing.
    At least one per month, so all is well. It’s the New Reality, and how thankful we
    all are for what we are given!


    If it takes forced phony religious
    experiences and pundits for the Business Book-Of-The-Month club to teach so-called
    adults how to treat each other, then our country is raising pathetic sociopaths
    on steroids who should never be promoted to managers in the first place. My how
    far we’ve not come.


  • imadime

    moral of the story: being a high-achieving executive or entrepreneur is a lot like being a criminal? hmmm...

  • Cszell

     She's back out... it's not like she's in for life.
    She sold drugs BEFORE becoming a career person (she left the operation before starting a career). What happened is that it caught up with her (the drug operation she had left had collapsed)

  • Kim

    disappointing. celebrating a criminal because there's a business angle? shame on you, fastco. nope, didn't read it all, but the first paragraphs are enough. piper couldn't pay for better promotion. smh.