In 1999, Jordan Belfort pleaded guilty to fraud for stock market manipulation and related crimes and served 22 months in prison. In 2007, he published The Wolf of Wall Street, a memoir that was adapted in 2013 to the Hollywood blockbuster bearing the same name. Sitting alone in a dark prison bunk, Belfort had a decision to make. I’ve transcribed a clip in which Belfort discusses how his desire to redeem himself to his children drove him to turn his life around. His story speaks more broadly to the utility of having a purpose (a why) that is greater than oneself.
The saddest night of my life, for sure, was the night before I went to jail. I had to tell the kids. It wasn’t like the movie where they took me away, I reported for jail. My ex-wife, we sat down with the kids, it was a Thursday night, and we called the kids into the living room. And they’re like “What’s up, what’s up?” And I started telling my kids, I said, “Listen, a long time ago, when I had that big company, and I made some mistakes.” As soon as I started getting even close to it, my daughter starts bursting out hysterically crying. My son was very young. She just starts crying, and it’s this terrible, gut-wrenching scene, where my daughter’s like “No, no.” And she’s on my lap and the kids are hugging me.
The worst thing you can imagine. To tell your kids that daddy made a mistake, he’s got to go away. And, you know, I was guilty. I couldn’t say I was trapped. I did it, I made a mistake. I took some great skills, and I made the mistakes, and I deserved to be there. I had no one to blame but myself. I made the mistakes. And it’s very difficult when you have to come to terms with that.
I think when people watch the movie Wolf of Wall Street, it’s important that they look at that movie, I get it, it’s glamorous, and it’s fun. I’m not going to deny that it was fun, it was glamorous, yeah. But there’s something called balance in there, when you’re that character, it never ends well. And this never ends well. And one question that I get asked all the time, how was I able to stay positive and motivated in what was certainly the worst time of my life. I had lost all my money, I lost my freedom, I lost my children for a time, my wife, bottomed out, right? And I said, I think about it, here’s the secret. When I was in jail in those moments, the worst moments of all were at nighttime. When you’re in your bunk, and people are sleeping. You’re alone with your thoughts, you can just really get negative.
The answer is that in bed, when I was alone with my thoughts. I would close my eyes, and I would visualize the faces of my two children and I closed my eyes and could see their faces, and I knew I had let them down so badly, caused them so much pain. And I said there’s nothing I won’t do, no length I won’t go to, to prove to these kids that their dad can do it right. That dad’s going to come back even better than before. And it was all about proving to my children that you can come back from failure, that you can make the world right, and I can be an example, make them proud of me.
That was my why. It was all about my kids. And that’s the secret. Your why, it’s never about you. People will do crazy things for causes they believe in, but for yourself you will only go so far. If my kid’s in trouble, I’ll run through a wall of fire, wouldn’t think twice about it.
And that’s step number one, you have to have a vision for your future that inspires you, when you think about it, it just makes you jump out of bed in the morning, to have a life that is far better, far greater than it is today. That’s your vision for the future. That’s step number one.