From Cañon City to Maui: Ex-con Weldon Long's strange trip

It sounds like a tidy piece of inspirational fiction: A coke-snorting, booze-guzzling dropout squanders every opportunity in life, turns to armed robbery, burglary and sleazy telemarketing scams, spends much of his adult life behind bars as a self-proclaimed "worthless piece of shit" -- then discovers the secrets of better living from self-help gurus, totally reforms, emerges from prison in time to salvage a relationship with his young son, and builds a multimillion-dollar company from scratch in just four years.

But Weldon Long's just-published The Upside of Fear: How One Man Broke the Cycle of Prison, Poverty and Addiction (Greenleaf Book Group Press) is actually a memoir. And a surprisingly readable one at that. It won an award for best autobiography at the New York Book Festival and has launched Long, who spent much of his time from 1987 to 2003 in Colorado prisons, as a motivational speaker in his own right.

An Arkansas native, Long was just 23 when he and a man he'd just met came up with the brilliant idea of robbing two men in a restaurant parking lot in Colorado Springs, using a shotgun Long had been trying to pawn earlier that day. They were soon caught -- and Long was on the first of several trips to Cañon City. When paroled, he soon fell back to drinking and drugging and heists. A boiler-room telemarketing operation eventually landed him in federal prison, down the road in Florence, with more state charges pending.

While serving his federal time Long came across the positive-thinking pitches of Wayne Dyer, Tony Robbins, Stephen Covey and others. The nifty formulas for success unlocked something in Long's stubborn psyche.

Building on Emerson's dictum that "we become what we think about all day long," Long resolved to quit thinking about drinking and lying and stealing and focus on how to be more honest with himself and others. "If I could find a way to climb out of this deep, cavernous hole, it would be proof that anybody could turn his or her life around. I set out on a mission to prove there was hope for anyone -- including me."

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Long's contention that criminals end up inviting or even creating the disasters they most fear doesn't bear close examination. (As Tony Soprano once pointed out, telling someone they're their own worst enemy is hardly a deep insight; everybody is their own worst enemy.) What his revelation gave him was a formula for FEAR: focus, emotional commitment, action, responsibility. And to his credit, he stuck with it. The book is unsparing in its appraisal of his criminal career and the damage he did to people who cared about him, but it also demonstrates how hard work and self-sacrifice can redeem even the most sluggardly among us.

Ironically, Long's heartfelt transformation failed to impress the parole board. Even saving a guard's life by performing CPR (a ballsy act for a convict, surrounded by other convicts) failed to shave his sentence by much. But his account also shows how a little flexibility and kindness in the system, the encouragement he received from some staff and halfway-house personnel who helped him pursue an education and prepare for the outside world, can really pay off.

Once he applied himself, Long turned out to be a born salesman. He built one of the largest heating and air conditioning companies in the state after his release, bought a house in Maui, collected blurbs from the same self-help gurus whose books inspired him -- and now tells audiences of convicts and others that they can make the same trip to self-sufficiency. As the state wrestles with the rising cost of parole failures, this is a story that ought to be studied in the statehouse as well as the cellblock.

For more on Long's book and speaking gigs, check out his website. For another story about beating the odds after prison, see our blog series "I Shall Be Released."

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