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Advice From Shawshank Redemption: Get Busy Living or Get Busy Dying

Are you ready to crawl through a river of shit and come out clean on the other side?

So who we looking at?

Character: Andy Dufresne
Actor: Tim Robbins (in his best performance ever)
From: The Shawshank Redemption

Please note: there are some ‘spoilers’ contained in this article – if you haven’t seen the film, I’d recommend you’d watch it first before reading this breath-taking article! The movie is a true classic.

So why look at him?

I love the film ‘The Shawshank Redemption’. If you’re unfamiliar with it, the film chronicles the wrongful incarceration of an ex-banker Andy Dufresne for two murders. The film which is (supposedly) based-on-true-events follows his experiences in prison, the friends he makes, the violence and the corruption he suffers. It truly is an epic film with some masterful acting performances.

However, it is not only the story that makes this such a great film. It is the wrongful imprisonment, the struggles that he endures and his reaction to them that makes Andy such a great character to observe. We might not all be sent to literal prison but it is my belief that we all live in a prison in our lives, in one shape or form. It can be physical (e.g. allowing a body issue to stop us), emotional (e.g. anxiety or whatnot preventing you) or mental (e.g. past memories keeping you living in the past). Whatever the type of prison, we are allowing something in our lives to stop us from being happy, growing as a person and living the life that we wish to live. We need to escape from our own prisons … just like Andy does! How we deal with our own individual prison can dictate how you live your life, what you achieve and the man that you become. I feel it necessary to find someone who escaped his prison and remained true to himself the whole time to use as a role model. For this, Andy Dufresne is ideal to look at.

Why should I care about watching Andy?

Andy Dufresne is a great example to look at. He doesn’t let his situation dictate who he evolves into and it is how he deals with his time in jail compared to the others that make Andy a great ideal to copy and act like. Andy maintains what makes him, him deep down, even in the darkest times, even with just a glimmer of hope. He pursues his interests, maintains his identity and finds joy in the little things. Andy endures hell but maintains a bubble of happiness and shows the extremes that you can push yourself to when needed. For this, I believe Andy Dufresne to be a good character to investigate.

OK, what should I be looking out for?

He knows he’s innocent. The problem is that a lot of people start to accept the situation they are in or worse start to identify and attribute it to their personality. Instead of the situation being just a bad experience at that time of their life, the majority of people believe that the negativity and suffering is part of who they are. For many, the negativity crushes them and changes who they are. In the film, Andy knows that he is innocent and refuses to become like the rest. It is his knowledge of his innocence that stops him giving up. We all need to remember that the situation we are in is just that – a situation. We are innocent of it, the situation can be changed and a new life term made. We do not need to live the ‘prison lifestyle’ no matter how long or intense the prison life has been to that point.

He doesn’t lose his identity. Andy retains his humanity and decency throughout the film. He takes risks to help others and always looks to buoy his friends to help them better themselves (as this allows him to feel normal). For instance, note the scene where he takes the prison to a standstill as he plays a record over the tannoy system. Even during the times when he is beaten regularly, treated like he is worthless by the guards (and other prisoners) Andy remains central to who he is at his core: intelligent, strong-willed, interested in pursuits etc. Andy does not let the environment he is in dictate who he is or who he becomes. No matter how bad life becomes, Andy is Andy and not just another prisoner doing anything to survive. He never lashes out or crumbles. Andy simply sticks to his plan, works on his projects and is himself. This is what you need to become like – no matter the shit you are in now, you are still you and you can change your life right now if you persevere.

He doesn’t do it alone. In prison, Andy meets Red (played by the legendary Morgan Freeman) and his assorted cronies. Red teaches Andy the ways of the prison and how to live life in prison as safely as possible. At the start of the film, Andy has a very casual, business ‘meeting’ with Red but as he film progresses, they become firm friends. Having a ‘guide’ to prison life is great as it allows you to avoid making the mistakes they made and they can support you as you try to adapt. We all need a ‘Red’ in our lives – preferably someone who had been through the same struggle that you are right now so they can show you the way out or at least support you as you try and better or escape your prison.

Shawshank!

He takes a beating but struggles on. Andy is talked down to, beaten and even sexually assaulted by a prison gang multiple times but he never gives up, he learns and adapts each time and looks to the positives and the faint glimmer of light in even the darkest of situations. For example, watch how Andy lights up when discussing how music can’t be taken from him even in ‘the Hole’. There is always something we can cling to, to remain how we truly are … even when life is the worst experience imaginable.

He’s resourceful. Andy doesn’t just fall into the prison life like the other cons and allow the prison life to change who he is. Instead, he uses his skills and experiences to offer a service to the guards that allows him to be treated fairly, maintain his humanity and remain who he is as a person. Andy also helps the prisoners. He doesn’t do any of this to get favour from anyone, he does it because he is a nice person and he enjoys helping people. You can easily imagine that Andy would do the same outside the prison that he does inside it.

He has projects. His rocks. The Chessboard. The Library. Coaching other prisoners to get there GED’s. Tunnelling out. Throughout the film, Andy typically has something that he can work on, to feel worthwhile and to keep him motivated when life got tough. For example, look at how he takes to renovating the prison library. He applies for funds and works at the development like a man possessed (in a way he is as it allows him to cling to do something outside of typical prison life). Andy has a long term goal, which he works towards but he also finds mini projects to concentrate on as well. Andy develops into a leader as the film progresses, a role he is happy to take as it allows the true Andy to take control instead of just being a prisoner and being beaten down. You can either let the darkness consume you or cling to working on things that let you hold onto the light and your humanity … like Andy did. Even when he has hit his lowest ebb, Andy fights on. He doesn’t collapse under the system’s brutality; instead he formulates his plan and puts it into action. What can you do to escape your (sometimes self-imposed) prison right now?

OK, pretty cool but how do I become like him?

Identify your prison. You need to find what prison you are living in and who or what the Warden and Prison guard are. Only when you find what is holding you prisoner at that stage of your life can you change and escape it. You need a grand escape plan, yes, but you also need to know what you truly need to escape from first before you can plan anything. Look at all aspects of your life and look for the root cause for any negativity, pain and suffering. Is it a bad breakup, sexual abuse, alcoholism, feel unloved etc? It can be daunting and scary to pick what prison you are an inmate of. For me, it was depression and being regretful of time wasted and losing my first love. It will be horrible to confront it but that is the hardest step – deciding to change. Anything else is considerably simpler after that.

Find your ‘cell-mate’. For your best chance of success you need to discover a support mechanism that can guide you through the trials and pit-falls like Red did for Andy. It can be a family member, a friend, a colleague or even a ‘Guru’ off the internet. It doesn’t matter who or what it is. All that matters though is they help support and encourage you when you are confronting the warden in your prison and trying to tunnel your way to freedom! They need to be there to ask questions, help pick you up if you fail, help celebrate the small victories and so on. It can be one thing or a mix of things but you will most likely need a ‘Red’ in your life.

Prepare for a tough … but winnable race. Like Andy, your work to escape your prison will be tough. There is no getting away from it but you can escape it (or at least be paroled). You will need to work hard. You may fail several times but you need to remember that you can win this and escape the warden and prison. Decide on the life that you want and continue to visualise it throughout. Concentrate on the life that you want and not where or what you are just now. Cling to the hope that you can change no matter what is thrown at you – no matter how small that glimmer of hope is at first. As you start to accumulate small victories, the old you will break through the prison walls, and the new life you will be free to hit that small beach in Mexico and be happy!

Adapt to who you become. Andy became a leader, a teacher and someone who inspires others as the film progresses. As you try and escape your own prison, you will change. People bad mouth change but Change is not always bad though. You may find that what you do to escape prison, is what shows you who you really are as a person and why you were put on this earth. I’m not religious but things do seem to happen for a reason (well they do to me anyway). Each event is a learning experience – good or bad – you can always take something from it. The changes that take place as you try and escape your prison may be the changes that finally allow you to live life on your terms.

Find projects. Like Andy, you need to find projects that help you change and keep you motivated as you tunnel out of your prison. Look at the scene when Andy is told about Tommy passing his GED. Despite being in a cold, dark and filthy hole, he lights up at the news. You need to find a project or something like this that will inspire you to keep going even when you find yourself in the worst conditions. Your projects will keep you motivated and inspired as you work towards your overall goal (escaping your prison). Even if you feel you are making no progress and feel ready to give up, having a project that inspires and possess you, will keep you fighting on.

Remember who you are. At the end of the day, no matter what happens, you are a good human being. You may make mistakes but no one is perfect, not even Andy! Work hard to improve yourself and tunnel out of your prison but don’t expect miracles or condemn yourself to solitary confinement straight away. Change and escaping your own prison will take time but it a journey and learning experience that will change your life for the better … always. Set realistic time frames to achieve things and be ready to repeat trying to achieve things. However, nothing in life is really impossible. If someone has done it even once, then you can do it too. Your situation is not you. I repeat your situation is not you. Remember who you truly are as a person and it doesn’t matter the situation you find yourself in.

A final note:

We all live in a ‘prison’ at some point of our lives, be it a physical, mental or emotional prison but how we allow it to affect us displays the true measure of a man. Take a look at your life now and see what type of prison you are currently incarcerated in and formulate your escape plan. Like Andy, you can crawl through the sewers of self-improvement and end up on the beach of success. You either ‘Get busy living (as a free man), or get busy dying (in your prison)’ the choice is yours! No matter how bad or dark your situation feels right now, be assured that there is something that you can do about it, there is always a hope to cling to, no matter how small. Remember that ‘hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies’. With enough hard time, you can change. The beauty is when you’ve changed, your life can be like the pacific, and have ‘no memory‘. When you escape your prison, you can begin your life again, fresh away from the prison that you were in. What are you waiting for? Start tunnelling right now!

By the way, if you haven’t seen the film in a while, I implore you to go watch it right now. It truly is a classic. No matter how old it becomes (it was released in 1994), it is still an absolute joy to watch. This film entertained a generation and more of film goers and is always on lists of the greatest films for this or that. It is near impossible to watch the film and not be motivated by it. However, it appeals also, as it shows the strength of the human spirit, how the warm cocoon of knowing your innocent can shield you from anything dark and shows what we truly are capable of no matter how bleak things look. For me, Andy is a true role model (well apart from the stealing money and becoming a fugitive part) – I hope you take the lessions the film shows and apply them to your life and escape whatever is imprisoning you just now.

So what are your thoughts?

Will you be like Andy who ‘crawled through a river of shit and came out clean on the other side‘ or will remain as Prisoner #1 in your own personal prison? Let me know what you think in the comments below.

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About Ian Dawson Mackay Ian is a blogger and entrepreneur who writes to help men develop and better their lives using examples from popular media. His personal journey has been marked by awkwardness and awesomeness, OCD and 'OMG'. He's 29 and currently resides in the United Kingdom.You can see more at his website here.

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