Malcolm X’s Alma Mater – And How Choosing Between ‘Dead Time’ and ‘Alive Time’ Can Change Your Life.
Malcolm X was a criminal. He wasn’t Malcolm X at the time – they called him Detroit Red and he was a criminal opportunist who did a little bit of everything. He ran numbers. He sold drugs. He worked as a pimp. Then he moved up to armed robbery. He had his own burglary gang, which he ruled over with a combination of intimidation and boldness – exploiting the fact that he did not seem afraid to kill or die.
Then, finally, he was arrested trying to fence an expensive watch he’d stolen. He was carrying a gun at the time, though to his credit he made no move to fight the officers who had trapped him. In his apartment, they found jewelry, furs, an arsenal of guns, and all his burglary tools.
He got ten years. It was February 1946. He was barely twenty-one years old.
Even accounting for the shameful American racism and whatever systematic legal injustices existed at the time, Malcolm X was guilty. He deserved to go to jail. Who knows who else he would have hurt or killed had he continued his escalating life of crime?
When your actions land you a lengthy prison sentence – rightly tried and convicted – something has gone wrong. You’ve failed not only yourself, but the basic standards of society and morality. That was the case with Malcolm.
So there he was in prison. A number. A body with roughly a decade to sit in a cage.
He faced what Robert Greene – a man who sixty years later would find his wildly popular books banned in many federal prisons – calls an “Alive Time or Dead Time” scenario. How would the seven years ultimately play out? What would Malcolm do with this time?
According to Greene, there are two types of time in our lives: dead time, when people are passive and waiting, and alive time, when people are learning and acting and utilizing every second. Every moment of failure, every moment or situation that we did not deliberately choose or control, presents this choice: Alive time. Dead time.
Which will it be?
Malcolm chose alive time. He began to learn. He explored religion. He taught himself to be a reader by checking out a pencil and the dictionary from the prison library and not only consumed it from start to finish, but copied it down long hand from cover to cover. All these words he’d never known existed before were transferred to his brain.
As he said later, “From then until I left that prison, in every free moment I had, if I was not reading in the library, I was reading in my bunk.” He read history, he read sociology, he read about religion, he read the classics, he read philosophers like Kant and Spinoza. Later, a reporter asked Malcolm, “What’s your alma mater?” His one word answer: “Books.” Prison was his college. He transcended confinement through the pages he absorbed. He reflected that months passed without his even thinking about being detained against his will. He had “never been so truly free in his life.”
Most people know what Malcolm X did after he got out of prison, but they don’t realize or understand how prison made that possible.
How a mix of acceptance, humility, and strength powered the transformation. They also aren’t aware of how common this is in history, how many figures took seemingly terrible situations – a prison sentence, an exile, a bear market or depression, military conscription, even being sent to a concentration camp – and through their attitude and approach, turned those circumstances into fuel for their unique greatness.
Francis Scott Key wrote the poem that became the national anthem of the United States while trapped on a ship during a prisoner exchange in the War of 1812. Viktor Frankl refined his psychologies of meaning and suffering during his ordeal in three Nazi concentration camps.
Not that these opportunities always come in such serious situations. The author Ian Fleming was on bed rest and, per doctors’ orders, forbidden from using a typewriter. They were worried he’d exert himself by writing another Bond novel. So he created Chitty Chitty Bang Bang by hand instead. Walt Disney made his decision to become a cartoonist while laid up after stepping on a rusty nail.
Yes, it would feel much better in the moment to be angry, to be aggrieved, to be depressed or heartbroken.
When injustice or the capriciousness of fate are inflicted on someone, the normal reaction is to yell, to fight back, to resist. You know the feeling: I don’t want this. I want ______. I want it my way. This is shortsighted.
Think of what you have been putting off. Issues you declined to deal with. Systemic problems that felt too overwhelming to address. Dead time is revived when we use it as an opportunity to do what we’ve long needed to do.
As they say, this moment is not your life. But it is a moment in you life. How will you use it?
Malcolm could have doubled down on the life that brought him to prison. Dead time isn’t only dead because of sloth or complacency. He could have spent those years becoming a better criminal, strengthening his contacts, or planning his next score, but it still would have been dead time. He might have felt alive doing it, even as he was slowly killing himself.
“Many a serious thinker has been produced in prisons,” as Robert Greene put it, “where we have nothing to do but think.” Yet sadly, prisons – in their literal and figurative forms – have produced far more degenerates, losers, and ne’er-do’ wells. Inmates might have had nothing to do but think; it’s just that what they chose to think about made them worse and not better.
That’s what so many of us do when we fail or get ourselves into trouble. Lacking the ability to examine ourselves, we reinvest our energy into exactly the patterns of behavior that caused our problems to begin with.
It comes in many forms. Idly dreaming about the future. Plotting our revenge. Finding refuge in distraction. Refusing to consider that our choices are a reflection of our character. We’d rather do basically anything else.
But what if we said: This is an opportunity for me. I am using it for my purposes. I will not let this be dead time for me.
The dead time was when we were controlled by ego. Now – now we can live.
Who knows what you’re currently doing. Hopefully it’s not a prison term, even if it might feel like it. Maybe you’re sitting in a remedial high school class, maybe you’re on hold, maybe it’s a trial separation, maybe you’re making smoothies while you save up money, maybe you’re stuck waiting out a contract or a tour of duty. Maybe this situation is one totally of your own making, or perhaps it’s just bad luck.
In life, we all get stuck with dead time. Its occurrence isn’t in our control. Its use, on the other hand, is.
As Booker T. Washington most famously put it, “Cast down your bucket where you are.” Make use of what’s around you. Don’t let stubborness make a bad situation worse.
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The above was an excerpt from the book, Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday. If you enjoyed this story you can find more quotes, resources, and info from the book below:
Book Overview: Many of us insist the main impediment to a full, successful life is the outside world. In fact, the most common enemy lies within: our ego. Early in our careers, it impedes learning and the cultivation of talent. With success, it can blind us to our faults and sow future problems. In failure, it magnifies each blow and makes recovery more difficult. At every stage, ego holds us back.
Ego Is the Enemy draws on a vast array of stories and examples, from literature to philosophy to history. We meet fascinating figures such as George Marshall, Jackie Robinson, Katharine Graham, Bill Belichick, and Eleanor Roosevelt, who all reached the highest levels of power and success by conquering their own egos. Their strategies and tactics can be ours as well.