Straight-A Guide: Goals

Straight-A Guide: Goals

Our team strives to educate and inspire in all of our work. In the first module, we emphasized the importance of defining success. Your definition of success will frame your values. But identifying your values is only a first step.

We encourage our clients to engineer their pathway to the best possible outcome. Identifying values is a prerequisite to the mitigation effort. The next prerequisite includes the clearly defined goals that you will set. Remember that we must show our work. We must show the deliberate steps we’re taking to become the success that we want to become. And we’re always thinking about the people that we want to influence in our future. 

  • Who are those people?
  • How will those people influence our prospects for the best possible outcome?

Think about how these two prerequisites of identifying values and setting goals can influence the outcome you want to create. Satisfying both prerequisites is essential to starting down your path on the Straight-A Guide. 

Driver’s License:

To illustrate the importance of prerequisites, we draw attention to the process of obtaining a driver’s license. Think back to when you first began driving. Before you could receive your driver’s license, the state required you to complete some prerequisites. In some cases, you had to go through a class. You had to take a written exam to show that you understood the rules of the road. Then you had to take a driving exam—showing that you knew how to drive. By advancing through your prerequisites, the state issued your driver’s license. 

Crafting an effective mitigation strategy requires the same prerequisite work. First, you need to advance through the values module. The values module should show your work. By responding to the questions we asked, you show that you’ve taken deliberate steps to identify the best possible outcome. You’ve introspected. You’ve reflected on all of the decisions in your life. Those decisions influenced the choices you made along the way. 

This strategy helps your judge consider more than only the crime or conviction. The crime isn’t the only factor at sentencing. Your judge and others will consider your life in its entirety. There were many steps along the way that influenced what and who you became. Similarly, there will be many steps in your future that will influence who and what you become. 

A judge will want to know how much thought you’ve invested in this process. To the extent that you can show how much work you’ve done, you can influence how that judge perceives you. You can overcome biases. Your work will show that you’re more than the criminal charge. 

Values show how you define success. The goals you set will show that you’re doing more than simply defining success. You’re also contemplating a pathway, showing that you’re more than “happy talk.” A good mitigation strategy will show that you’re working toward becoming the person you want to become. 

What does that mean? 

Again, we offer an analogy. 

Your Mitigation Strategy is Your Personal Development Plan:

Think of a building project. What do you see on any construction site at the earliest stage? You may see excavators. You may see pipes that contractors will install underground. You may see lumber and cement and steel. No one will see those building materials at the conclusion of the project. Just like no one can see all of the work that went into the project before there was any construction site. 

To create an end result, a developer had to architect a plan. A developer had to visualize the building he wanted to create. He had to craft his plan and set many small goals along the way. He had to execute his plan flawlessly. Consider some of the smaller individual goals that go into a development process: 

  • A developer identifies a market need.
  • A developer does some calculations to determine the revenues that a building could potentially generate.
  • A developer completes further calculations to determine how much it will cost to produce a building.
  • A developer writes all of these factors out and makes a persuasive presentation to prospective investors or lenders.
  • A developer secures the financing that will lead to the project’s completion.
  • A developer then executes the plan.

All of those individual goals take place before any building materials appear. And once the developer completes the project, no one will see the building materials that were necessary along the way. 

Mitigation Efforts:

Effectively, a mitigation effort uses the same model as a builder uses to develop a real estate project. But we’re not striving to persuade lenders or investors to buy into the structure we want to build. We’re striving to persuade prosecutors and judges. We’re developing ourselves and we want those who judge us to see who we can become. 

Our exercise on values may help to persuade judges that we’re growing from this experience. We can show that we’re giving considerable amounts of thought to what we’ve done. Our investment in writing out our values helps us show that we’re visualizing the best possible outcome. We’re defining success. We can help judges see that we’re worthy of mercy. That’s what our exercise on values accomplished. Next, we show the specific steps for identifying goals.

In order to remain consistent with the principles of our program, we’ll offer an example from one of our books that we recommended in the first module: 

In Success After Prison, Michael wrote that he wanted to share the strategies that empowered him through 26 years in prison. He wrote that many people who needed his work would be cynical. They were struggling through criminal prosecution or a prison term. To persuade them of the validity of our Straight-A Guide Program, Michael wrote that he would need to document success. And financial resources would help him define success. 

As he drove with his wife from the federal prison in Atwater to the halfway house in San Francisco, Carole showed Michael that he had a 0-0-0 credit score. Michael told her that in spite of that credit score, he would become successful. Despite the non-existent credit score, he pledged that within five years he would control $1,000,000 worth of assets. To achieve that goal, he would use the same principles of the Straight-A Guide that powered him through 26 years in prison. 

  • He visualized success as building assets worth $1,000,000 within five years of his release date: August 13, 2018. 
  • He created a plan that would deliver him from being non-existent in the credit world to achieving his success within five years. 
  • He put priorities in place, understanding that success comes with one step at a time. 
  • He executed the plan each day. 

In the rest of his book, Michael shows how identifying values and setting clear goals allowed him to exceed his goal. The tiny, step-by-step goals that he set persuaded others to believe in him. The values and goals persuaded others to see him for what he could become. The fact that he was in prison for 26 years didn’t matter. Instead, he persuaded others to see him differently. 

Those were the same strategies that Michael used to get through prison. 

Shon Hopwood shows the same strategy. Shon wanted to become a lawyer. But he had a record of pleading guilty to armed robbery. Tiny, step-by-step goals created a better outcome. What were those small goals? In Shon’s book, Law Man: Memoirs of a Jailhouse Lawyer, he described how he read more than 8,000 cases while he was incarcerated. He didn’t only read the cases. Shon took the time to write briefs of the cases so that he could master them. He set clearly defined goals of reading at least 50 cases every month. By executing that goal, he became a master of his craft. By becoming a master of his craft, he put himself on a trajectory for a scholarship to law school. Then he completed the incremental goals that would lead to a law degree. 

By living a values-based, goal-oriented life, Shon achieved the outcome he wanted. His life is yet another example of: 

  • Visualizing a successful outcome.
  • Putting a plan in place.
  • Setting priorities along the way.
  • Executing that plan every single day, with a 100% commitment to success as defined by the values and goals.

To advance your mitigation effort, you must set clear goals. Those clear goals must show your commitment to your stated values. 

  • What are those values that you clearly defined as being consistent with the best possible outcome in your life?
  • What clear goals can you set to show your commitment to those values?
  • Will achieving those clear goals make your commitment to the values self-evident?

In his book Lessons from Prison, our partner Justin describes how he used this strategy to prepare for success. Authorities charged Justin with violating securities laws. While advancing through the humiliating prosecutorial process, Justin felt his life spinning out of control. He felt like a puppet. Others were pulling the strings. He didn’t have any sense of balance. To cope, Justin ate and drank excessively. He gained weight. He couldn’t sleep. He struggled with depression about what was going to happen. 

When he surrendered to Taft prison, Justin met Michael. Together they began crafting a plan. The plan began with defining the best possible outcome. By using this Straight-A Guide strategy, Justin saw possibilities to build a new career helping other people overcome struggles. Justin would need to show a methodical pathway from struggle to success. He could build credibility by revealing his own vulnerabilities. By laying out a methodical plan, Justin could achieve his objectives. 

Justin sat beside Michael each morning to engineer the plan. That plan led to the publication of Lessons from Prison. It also led to publishing articles and lesson plans that others could use to prepare for success. We now feature many of those articles and lesson plans on our website at We use them as a foundation for the projects we create for government agencies and individuals alike. 

Rely upon these strategies to craft your own mitigation efforts. If you’ve taken a step to identify your values, the next step will be to write out clear goals. Those clear goals will reflect your commitment to the values. Your goals should show the judge how much thought you’ve put into becoming the person that you say you’re going to become. 

SMART Goals:

When you’re writing out your goals, we encourage you to follow the principle of SMART goals. People in your future will assess whether you’re authentic or not. Your ability to tell your story will influence how people assess you. Is your story believable? By setting SMART goals, you can tell a more convincing story. And if you tell a more convincing story, you can influence how people see or perceive you. 

Follow along to learn the principles of a SMART goal: 

S: You should make each goal specific.

M: You should measure progress toward the completion of each goal.

A: You should set goals that require action.

R: You should show why your goals are realistic.

T: You should set clear timelines to complete your goals.

By identifying and setting the SMART goals, you will show your judge that you’re not simply speaking about values. Instead, you’re working toward success as you’ve engineered success. And remember that success for one person does not have to mirror or match how another person defines success. We define success with the values we’ve set. Our goals show our commitment to those values. 

Your mitigation effort should include very specific goals that adhere to the SMART principles above. When setting those goals, think about the people you want to influence with your mitigation effort. You may want to influence the following people: 

  1. A federal judge who wants to know why you’re worthy of a downward departure and mercy at sentencing.
  2. A prosecutor who likely will object to requests for mercy or leniency.
  3. A probation officer who likely will parrot the prosecutor’s version of events.
  4. A defense attorney who will make a sentencing argument.
  5. Various prison officials who will determine whether you qualify for programs that can advance your release date.
  6. Officials in a halfway house who will determine what type of liberty you can have to work.
  7. A probation officer who will determine how much liberty you can have in your future when you’re on Supervised Release.
  8. A federal judge who may determine whether you’re worthy of relief at some point in your future.
  9. Prospective employers who may consider hiring you.
  10. Prospective creditors who may consider doing business with you.

It would be a mistake to think that a mitigation effort only influences the sentencing hearing. Unfortunately, the criminal justice system has far-reaching consequences. Ramifications extend long before the sentence is imposed. In many cases, those ramifications extend long after the sentence is served. For that reason, our team at recommends that all clients invest themselves fully in a mitigation effort.

As we stated earlier, an effective mitigation effort begins with prerequisites. Those prerequisites start with the following: 

  1. Identify success with values.
  2. Set SMART goals that reflect a commitment to success, as defined by the values.

It’s also crucial to remember a lesson that we learned from Marshall Goldsmith, a business professor, and executive coach. Essentially, the title from one of professor Goldsmith’s books summarizes this lesson:

What Got You Here Won’t Get You There in Sales

Basically, Professor Goldsmith helps us realize that we neither fail nor succeed in one step. Both success and failure materialize from a series of small, incremental decisions and actions. Our goal-setting strategy should reflect this reality. We must show decision-makers in our future that we’ve thought through our plan. We must show the efforts we’re making toward preparing for a law-abiding, contributing life. 

That means we must give considerable thought to how our decisions come with opportunity costs. A SWOT analysis can help with the goals that we set in our mitigation effort. With a SWOT analysis, we consider strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. 

We must consider what strengths we have today.

  • How can we use our strengths to overcome challenges we’re going to face in the future? 

We must consider our weaknesses.

  • In what ways will our weaknesses influence the ability to overcome challenges that we’re going to face in the future? 

We must open our eyes to opportunities.

  • What opportunities do we have available to us now that will advance our prospects for a successful outcome? 

We must be alert to threats.

  • What types of decisions can threaten my prospects for success, as I’ve defined success with my values? 

In your mitigation effort, show the judge how much thought you’ve put into the plan that you’re creating. Remember our motto at 

  • Visualize success. 
  • Create a plan. 
  • Set priorities. 
  • Execute the plan.

In your mitigation package, do your best to show that you understand this concept. From our perspective, the right decision at the wrong time is the wrong decision. What does that mean? It means that in your mitigation package, you must convince your judge that you’re making the right decisions at the right time. 

In other words, set priorities. Without setting priorities, you threaten prospects for success. A well-thought-out strategy will influence your judge. It will show your level of commitment to the plan. The stronger the plan, the more likely you will persuade a possibly cynical judge that you can succeed. 

Judges have frequently told us how defendants can hurt their prospects for leniency at sentencing. If a defendant doesn’t know how to set priorities, the judges have said, they do not believe that the defendant has given adequate thought to his problems. When defendants talk about saving the world or saving other people, or doing anything like that, they will not serve themselves well—unless the defendant has built a plausible case that could support such a statement. Judges have told us: 

I don’t want to hear a defendant talking about how he is going to save others. Before he can save others, the defendant had better show me that he knows how to heal the harm that he has caused. He had better show me that he can heal his own thinking that led to his problem.

In his book Earning Freedom, Michael described how Socrates influenced his definition of success. Michael understood that, ultimately, his judge would impose the sentence. Regardless of what sentence the judge imposed, Michael wrote that he would return to society unscathed by the experience. He wrote that he would be able to walk into any room without concern for others judging him. To achieve that success, he defined his values and goals: 


  • Education: he professed to work toward earning educational credentials.
  • Contribution: he professed that he would work to contribute to society.
  • Network: He professed that he would develop relationships with mentors who could guide him.

The goals that he set matched his values above. Those goals were SMART, as defined below:


  • Within 10 years, he pledged to earn a university degree.
  • Within 10 years, he pledged to become a published author.
  • Within 10 years, he pledged to bring 10 mentors into his life.

Our team encourages you to advance through the prerequisites of our Straight-A Guide Mitigation Program. That means you must identify the values that will define your life. Then you must set the goals that will make your commitment to the values self-evident. 

We encourage you to align your values and goals together. Then, we encourage you to continue with the Straight-A Guide Program. 

Reflection Exercise

Reflecting on your answers to these questions may prompt you as you prepare your mitigation package:

  1. In what ways do the goals that you’re setting reflect your commitment to the values by which you profess to live?
  2. How will the goals you’re setting today influence your life in five years?
  3. In what ways will the goals that I’m setting today position me to achieve new goals in the future?
  4. In what ways do the goals that I’m setting today reflect my commitment to reconciling with society?
  5. How do the goals that I’m setting today show that I am working to make things right with the victims of my crime?
  6. How will I measure progress toward the goals that I’m setting?
  7. Why have I learned about myself that puts me in a better position to achieve the goals that I’ve set for my future?
  8. Why will working toward the goals that I’ve set make me into a better citizen?
  9. In what ways will achieving the goals I’m setting show my commitment to living as a law-abiding, contributing citizen?
  10. Why do the goals that I’m setting advance my request for mercy at sentencing?