Last month, an executive contacted me, sharing his struggles since pleading guilty to providing kickbacks to doctors in Arizona. “Justin, since then, I’ve put on 50 pounds. I was a D1 College Football player, but those days seem like a distant memory. Sentencing keeps getting delayed, and I feel lost, so lost,” he confided.

I can relate.

As a defendant, I struggled to accept my bad choices. As a former baseball player, I had coaches and teammates hold me accountable. My parents raised me to know right from wrong. Yet, there I was reading United States of America vs Justin Paperny.

During the agonizing wait between pleading guilty and sentencing, I found myself in a downward spiral. Neglecting my health, succumbing to unhealthy habits, and dwelling on lost opportunities became all too familiar. Tom Petty’s lyrics, “Waiting is the hardest part,” couldn’t be more accurate. It truly is the toughest part of the journey.

In those moments, I craved guidance—a mentor to help me. Not someone who would help me game the system but someone who could help me understand the long-term consequences of my actions, irrespective of the sentence Judge Wilson would eventually give me.

When my new friend reached out, I approached our conversation with the empathy I wished I had received. Instead of sugarcoating the situation or assigning blame, I asked him to define success.

“Success is feeling like I have some control over my life. I have lost the ability to start and finish something–I give up. The more I give up, the more demolished I feel. Then I resort to eating. It is a terrible cycle,” he told me.

“What made you feel strongest in the past?” I asked.

“Running, hitting the gym—that’s where I felt alive. I have not exercised in ten months since I got my target letter.”

In prison, I found solace in long-distance running. There’s something cathartic about pounding the pavement, mile after mile.

“I’m not the most social runner,” I admitted. “But how about we run together? I will call you, and then we will run and talk.”

“For how long?” he asked.

“Start with just one mile. Remember, as the stoics say, one mile is better than zero!”

“When do we start?” he asked.

“In 10 minutes!” I told him.

For the past month, I’ve called my friend every Monday at 8:15 a.m., and we run together. At first, he could only manage 15 minutes, then 25, but yesterday, we completed five miles!

“This is the best I have felt in a long time,” he told me,

Daily incremental action, Michael Santos taught me in prison, is the key to rebuilding through crisis.

Justin Paperny