The Historian Who Couldn’t Escape from Alcatraz


In the introduction to one of the chapters of my new book, I wrote about escaping from Alcatraz. If you’re trying to get out of an unfulfilling job, it can sometimes feel just as difficult as getting out of prison.

I used the Alcatraz story as a metaphor, but a reader who wants to remain anonymous wrote in with a personal story that I really liked. Here’s what she said:

“My uncle was a historian at the Maritime Museum in San Francisco. He gave me a tour of their private collection once, items that were too delicate for public display.

In a large metal drawer, he showed me the fake human heads made of soap that the escaped inmates had used to fool the nighttime guards. Can you imagine? Collecting the tiny end slivers of soap after a shower. Getting them back to your cell. Finally saving enough to create a head. They also made a makeshift drill out of hair clippers and a screw. You get really creative when you need to escape!

Unfortunately, my uncle was one of those people who could not orchestrate his own prison break.

When my father and I cleared out his apartment after he moved into hospice care, we found not only thousands of books, but scores of note pads, with lists of plans for the future. While my uncle seemed to have virtually a genius level IQ, his social skills were almost nonexistent and he had no friends. When my father notified the museum of his death, one of the people in his department didn’t even know who he was. His lists all went in the trash. I find that heartbreaking.

When you miss out on your calling, it’s all too easy for years to slide by. Then you get to the end… And that’s it. That’s how your life actually went.

Why settle when there’s another way?”

I don’t have much to add to this story, which is already well-told. I’d just note that the historian isn’t the only one who lives and dies without pursuing a dream. Whenever I hear stories like this, I try to think about it in the context of my life. What are my plans for the future?

As you consider the story, ask yourself: “Is there an Alcatraz I need to escape from? What’s left undone in my life?”


Image: Dakota

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