With the recent explosion in the industry, personal coaches have flocked in their hundreds to meet global demand — and to be brutally honest, a significant part of the business involves ‘selling’ one’s services to a degree. This can feel a little repetitive after a while, which is exactly the opposite of what life coaching should be about.

But what about a personal coach who doesn’t need to sell anything? Whose entire life changed, all because he found meaning in the most unlikely of places?

When Erik Salzenstein was released from prison at the age of 27, he knew he had something to offer the world, and he knew how to offer it. Salzenstein had spent the prior four years incarcerated in a high-security penitentiary establishment on twin felony charges. He’d weathered multiple fights and turned down gangs who wanted him as a member.

The recidivism rates in America’s prisons are legendary, with foreign experts roundly agreeing that the way prisons are currently run isn’t the best way to rehabilitate prisoners. More often than not, the end product is a young man stuck even deeper in the life our society is supposed to help him escape from.

It’s not exactly the first place you’d check if you were looking for inspirational advice.

So what was different about Erik Salzenstein? How did he turn things around, and what can we learn from his story?

Early Steps

To answer that question, we need to trace a line back — through a troubled adolescence and early adulthood — right the way to the sporty young kid who played point guard and went to a private Catholic school.

Salzenstein was born in Maine but moved to Orlando, Florida, when he was still an infant. The Catholic school he was enrolled in lasted all the way up to seventh grade, and had traveling sports teams, on which Salzenstein played. (Displaying natural athleticism, the young Salzenstein was in hot demand, and played for a number of different teams across a range of different sports.)

Many of the other members of the traveling team were from public schools, and were almost all older. His newfound teammates introduced him to alcohol and marijuana when he was in sixth grade. Any time he talks about it, Salzenstein is characteristically candid, refusing to shift the blame onto anything except himself for being susceptible to peer pressure.

Character Matters

Erik had been showing signs of the entrepreneurial flair which would come to save him later in life as early as the sixth grade, as well. He started selling candy and mixtapes on CDs, making use of a homemade color-coded catalogue. As he continued to smoke weed, the CD & candy hustle gradually morphed into selling drugs by his freshman year in high school.

This would spell the end of his athletic career — he instead focused on being the best drug dealer in the suburbs he could be, as he’ll wryly admit these days — as well as his first real steps towards trouble with the law. While he didn’t grow the plants himself, he did manage to grow the business, eventually expanding to sell the Adderall he’d been prescribed as well (Salzenstein had been prescribed a cornucopia of different pills to treat his ADHD & ADD from as early as the second grade).

The Spiral Quickens

So far, so-so. The story is bound to be familiar to hundreds of families, who’ve seen, firsthand, the catastrophic effects of the prescription medication frenzy of the early 2000s.

What marks Salzenstein out from many of his contemporaries, though, is the fact that he never really believed in the persona he was creating, even as he took more and more steps to strengthen the deception. At base, the tough guy, drug dealer image was a careful lie, constructed in order to feed the need for approval and respect Erik Salzenstein was shackled by. On top of selling more and more, he was also using more and more himself.

Perhaps inevitably, everything came crashing down in 2012. A rival drug dealer had been causing problems with Salzenstein, with the result that Salzenstein himself was arrested for armed robbery, which is a crime punishable by life imprisonment in Florida. He bonded out of county jail with the help of his parents, who were almost relieved, having imagined that now that Salzenstein had hit rock bottom, the only way he could go was up.

Salzenstein awaited trial in a rehab facility, which he soon fled. Eight months later, he was arrested for another robbery charge, following a cinematic pursuit involving helicopters, K9 units, and plenty of fence-hopping. The lack of a weapon worked in his favor, but he still wound up facing a maximum sentence of life plus fifteen years.

This time, there was no chance of bonding out.

His defense attorneys did catch a break with a fortuitous change of state prosecutors. The original state prosecutor — whose outlook was grim, to say the least, with ‘football’ numbers in the 30s and 20s being tossed around — was replaced by another, who happened to be an old friend of Erik’s attorney. The final sentence was a year over the minimum, which is four years, for each charge. They would run concurrently.

It was a good deal, and Salzenstein took it. State prison was, in a word, tough. The culture of respect and the countless unwritten rules — not to mention the ever-present threat of violence — are difficult for anybody to adjust to, and Salzenstein was no different. All the same, it’s here that his story really begins, in a sense.

A Seismic Shift

Determined from the beginning to keep his head down and use the awful situation to his advantage as best he could, Salzenstein made it through a number of different fights. While he didn’t win all of them, he put on a good enough display for a couple of the gangs who operate within the prison to extend an invitation. He declined, which was an early indication of the single-minded drive he would ultimately bring to pursuing his life coaching and speaking career.

Before he got shipped to prison, when he was still in county jail, Salzenstein recalls telling his father that he was ready to serve however long he had coming. The repentant and essentially decent person which had lay dormant for so long underneath the bad-boy exterior was finally breaking out. Not even the mindless tedium and continual fear of prison was going to be enough to keep him from emerging.

The scene was set. A change was coming, but it still wasn’t clear where that first spark would come from. After six months in prison, Erik essentially woke up and realized that even though he was in deep, he was ready to start swimming in earnest. He reached out to his brother Jeff (a Stanford graduate, business magnate, and ex professional tennis player). The two had enjoyed a complicated relationship — the golden boy versus the black sheep — and making that one phone call wasn’t as easy as it sounds. But what he got back in response would change his life forever.

Jeff told him to read two books, after which he’d sent him another two books. He also promised him a coaching call once weekly from that moment forward. The first two titles were Awaken the Giant Within by Tony Robbins and Timothy Ferriss’s Four Hour Workweek. The coaching calls would last 15 minutes in reality, but their influence spread throughout the rest of Salzenstein’s prison existence.

Looking Upward & Moving Forward

An addiction to personal growth followed soon after, aided by periods of meditation and the practice of visualization techniques. For the next three and a half years, Salzenstein worked obsessively on himself, filling copious amounts of notebooks with hand-written annotations and working out twice a day.

It was only when he joined the Gavel Club (an offshoot of Toastmasters International), however, that he got the chance to try public speaking.

What Happened Next?

What happened next has the potential to happen to every single one of us. When we’re forced out of our comfort zones, we try things we simply weren’t able to before. Your comfort zone isn’t a flimsy shell you carry around with you — it’s a heavy-duty barrier, the body’s first-line defense mechanism against possible threat.

Erik Salzenstein’s comfort zone was as destructive as it was suffocating, and it took a hell of a lot more than a few motivational words for him to get through it. But when he stepped up onto the stage for the first time, he discovered he had a talent.

It really is as simple as that.

Public speaking was something he turned out to be quite good at — so good at it, in fact, that upon being released from prison (and even pre-release) he was already perfecting his craft with the same dedication that he once grew his drug operation.

Inspiration didn’t find Salzenstein by chance. He needed it: it was his lifeline. It took two felony charges to break him out of the wall he’d built around himself, but when the opportunity came he didn’t think twice. He spent three and a half full years working towards his goal every minute he could, and when you take a look at the ROCK mentoring he offers, it’s obvious that he hasn’t let up since his release.

ROCK is an ideology borne from Salzenstein’s own experiences, which focuses on the compounding effects of multiple positive changes being made in different areas. The acronym holds the key to the four-step program, which is impressively concise. The R stands for raising the bar, O for owning one’s own thoughts, C for consistency of effort, and K for knowing what your core values are. Based on the same principles which helped Erik turn his own life around, ROCK is available as a six-week course, with participants able to take advantage of hands-on mentoring from the man himself.

By Way Of Conclusion

Talents are a little like pennies. You find them where you least expect to, and if you don’t pay them enough attention they might just roll away again. Erik Salzenstein’s story is an extreme example of just how drastically somebody can turn their life around with dedication, honesty, and the will to work until they can’t work anymore.

‘We are all in the gutter,’ goes Oscar Wilde’s famous line, ‘But some of us are looking at the stars.’ Nowhere is this wisdom more vividly present than in Erik Salzenstein’s story, but we’ve all got the potential to see the stars. We just need to look in the right direction.

For more information about Erik, check out eriksalzenstein.com or Erik’s Instagram @Salzenstein.