Dr Paul Wood is a compelling communicator, an author, a motivator and a mind trainer. He is also late for our call as he’s been double booked at the barbers but does politely message to let me know first. It’s just a few days into Aotearoa’s easing out of lockdown and into level 2, and his barber is, thankfully, clearly doing a roaring trade.
Paul is also a husband and a father of two sons, aged two and five years. I begin by asking how their lockdown went. It was, he says, a great opportunity to spend time with his young family, and expresses gratitude both for having that period with them, and for being in such a privileged position as to be able to continue working from home. Paul is a philosophical guy. But it is not the first time that the 43-year-old has experienced enforced confinement, for Dr Paul Wood is also a convicted killer.
Already heavily involved in crime and substance abuse, Paul holds his hands up to having already made some awful choices by the time he took another man’s life at the age of 18. His mother’s cancer diagnosis simply compounded his self-destructive tendencies, and a couple of days after she died, Paul visited his drug dealer who attempted to sexual assault him. It was the last thing his drug dealer ever did.
When Paul was released from prison more than a decade later, he had become the first person in New Zealand’s history to attain a master’s degree and begin a doctorate while locked up. I ask if his decision to study psychology was a way of attempting to better understand himself and his actions.
“No, originally it was to understand others,” he says. “In prison you you’re constantly worried about being attacked by others due to their mental instability or inability to cope with their own emotions. There is a high level of hypervigilance that people have to perceived slights or disrespect. I wanted to better understand and avoid negative outcomes, but when you study something like that the spotlight quickly turns within and it is yourself that you begin to understand more. That’s the gamechanger.”
Paul is also working to promote change within the prison system.
“The system has improved vastly in terms of strategic intent under the Labour Government,” he says. “But organisations like that are slow turning ships. It doesn’t happen overnight. Previously, the prison system was simply used cynically, as a political football in terms of making decisions on an ideological basis as opposed to seeking the best outcomes. You only have to look at the historical reoffending rates.”
He makes the point that the leadership of any other business would have long since lost their jobs if they’d performed as poorly as the Department of Corrections. He’s pushing for the government to adopt the highly progressive approach of the Scandinavian nations who believe in prison as a place of rehabilitation rather than retribution, no matter what the crime. In Norway, for example, the recidivism rate is around 20 percent after two years of release from prison, whereas in New Zealand three times as may reoffend within the same period.
“The results speak for themselves,” Paul adds. “People need to come out and be positive, contributing members of society.”
Are there many prisoners looking to improve their education as you did?
“It’s a mix. I’d argue that most people in the system want a better life but don’t necessarily have the support or insight to make that happen. One of the things I’m proudest and most excited about it my involvement with Take2, a social enterprise that’s aiming to teach computer programming skills to prisoners and find work for them upon their release.”
Paul says that he was lucky to have the support of his father who visited regularly paid for his son’s study with his pension.
“There are many prisoners who are capable of great things but lack that support network. That’s where Take2 comes in.”
Did you have a good relationship with your father growing up?
“I grew up in the ‘80s and I think parents in general, particularly fathers, were quite a bit less involved, so my childhood was consistent with the era. I certainly didn’t grow up in an abusive home. I went off the rails in my teenage years, which implies the rails were put down in the first place. My parents were both hard working, pro-social people but they didn’t have a great insight into just how much trouble I was in. Then later, my mum’s illness became the main focus of my dad.”
Paul also credits fellow inmates John Barlow (convicted of a double murder in 1995, has always maintained his innocence) and Ken Welsh (member of the ‘Hole in the Wall’ gang of safecrackers of the 1980s) with inspiring him to turn his life around while in prison.
“Ken was the first who shifted my thinking around the value of knowing stuff, he sowed the seeds,” he says. “Then John played an incredibly important mentoring role. He was someone who presented counterargument to the standard prison ideology, criticising the retribution we witnessed and encouraging me to think differently.”
Paul has worked with everyone from professional athletes to government agencies, as well as writing books and Huffington Post blogs, running workshops and giving TEDx talks. He is also a patron of START Taranaki which is an Outward Bound-type organisation for wayward young blokes. Much of his work is centred around developing what most would call ‘emotional intelligence’, though it’s a branch of psychology that Paul prefers to term ‘emotional agility’.
“I try to use the term ‘emotional intelligence’ less these days as people have a mental barrier to the word ‘intelligence’ whereby they think it’s a predefined attribute that can’t be developed,” he reasons. “The word ‘agility’ carries with it more of the sense that it is something that you can work on and get better at.”
Has fatherhood helped develop your emotional agility further?
“It certainly helped me identify a gap and get better at it. Becoming a parent provides you with greater motivation that just about anything else as well. The relationships that are most important to us—that is our partners and our children—are also the hardest to navigate. They are the ones that are most likely to impact us both negatively and positively, and unfortunately, where we are most likely to present the worst versions of ourselves.”
So, by definition, they are also the relationships that are most likely to spur our emotional growth.
“Being a parent and being a husband means I’m in far more emotionally challenging situations day-to-day emotionally than I would be if I were by myself, without those responsibilities,” says Paul. “Alone, I am at greater risk of existential angst, questioning my sense and purpose, and dealing with loneliness—chronic loneliness has the same negative health outcomes as smoking in terms or reduced lifespan and heart disease. The more meaningful space to be in as a human being is to have close, intimate relationships.”
Most of us get more emotionally intelligent with age—or at least, we hope—to be more able to separate the inconsequential stuff from what really matters, and better communicate, but Paul would like to see such skills taught at a far younger age, for them to be part of the school curriculum.
“Historically, the vehicle that people have used to cope with stressful situations is emotional disconnect,” he says. “But the problem with this is that it disconnects you from positive emotions too, and walls you off from intimacy, from the best stuff. One of the best things about developing emotional agility is that you can develop the same skills that also enhance your resilience without depriving you of all the rich, human experiences. Of being open to other people’s love and of being able to love effectively.”
Courage, he continues, is a muscle that must be worked like any other.
“As a society, we massively overestimate the value of confidence. Confidence is the by-product you get from exercising your courage muscle. When you have the courage to get out of your comfort zone then you grow and develop, and that’s what births confidence. The more you exercise it, the stronger it gets and the easier it is to use.”
I finish up by asking what advice he will give his young sons about what it is to be a man in the modern world.
“Firstly, I will try to avoid them developing unhelpful ideas about masculinity, and that’s the stuff that starts off early,” he says. “That it’s normal, regardless of gender, to experience all sorts of emotions, that it’s not an indicator that there is anything wrong with you. But then it would be more general advice about what it is to be a good person, and to have a good life. To be aware of what values are important to you and to make sure that you live by them to lead a life of purpose and meaning.”