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Overcoming Adversity: From Prison to CEO

Jay Coughlan, CEO of TruBalanced

Adversity. It's just part of the deal.

No matter how hard we try, sometimes circumstances throw up a road block and we have to figure out a way forward. And, as always, it comes down to this: What are we going to do about it?

My darkest hour began with a few drinks too many with my dad, whom I loved and admired. He was a gregarious guy, friendly and likable, but tough as nails. When I was growing up in Philly, he always had three jobs and stayed very busy taking care of all of us. When I moved to Minnesota to pursue my career, he would sometimes come out and go hunting with me. We had spent a couple of days hunting and were on our way home when we decided to stop at a local roadside watering hole.

We left the bar that night, started home, and then it happened. I missed a turn, drove off the road and down and embankment and hit a train going 60 miles an hour. The next thing I knew, I woke up in a hospital, all broken up. I opened my eyes and my mother and my wife were standing over me looking at me with great concern.

"Your dad didn't make it," my mother said.

The words landed on me like an anvil. I wanted to die myself or run away, though there was nowhere to run. The next few days were a blur, but I remember kicking out the priests and pastors who came to console me. My foolish decision had killed my father and I was inconsolable, broken inside and out.

Then, one day, a stranger came into my hospital room to see me, and for some reason I decided to let him stay. He offered me the first tiny ray of encouragement I had felt since the accident. He said forgiveness was available to me, and this time, I believed him. I began to heal almost immediately. My wife came to see me shortly after this encounter and she noticed right away that something was different.   

I would eventually leave the hospital and begin to recuperate. God and my family forgave me, but the state did not. I was sentenced to six months in prison and 10 years' probation. On the day after the sentence, I went to a company event in New Orleans. When I stood up to speak, I received a rousing standing ovation, one of the great highs in my career up to that point. I wanted to tell them that only the day before, I had been sentenced to prison.

Figuring out the way forward

Let's face it: There are times in all of our lives where, at one juncture or another, we all feel stuck. Whether these moments are self-inflicted or simply a result of our own limiting beliefs and fears, we have no choice but to act if we plan to go on. These times are critical crossroads, and we all face them. Maybe yours is not as severe as mine, but you either have or will have them at some point. You can stay there and be right there for the rest of your life, or you can figure out the way forward.

When I walked out of the courtroom, I decided right then and there that I would figure out how to recover. My family and my company needed me to not give up, but to relentlessly work on rebuilding my life and my reputation.

My efforts led me to discover five areas, five bold choices that I had to make to be sure that my worst moment didn't define me: 

  • CLARITY: Keeping the important things important
  • ACCOUNTABILITY: Taking responsibility for your life journey
  • ADAPTABILITY: Personal change precedes practical change
  • CONFIDENCE: Keeping your thoughts in proper perspective
  • BALANCE: Choosing the harder right over the easier wrong

I asked myself two powerful questions whose answers were keys to what could be next for me: What if the very things I feared and avoided were the very portals of my success and significance as a leader at work and at home? And, what if those hurdles are really stepping stones to my best life?

It turned out to be true. Though I will always have to live with what I have done, I have found success. My company I worked for at the time was gracious through it all, and allowed me to stay on there and even come back to a leadership position after my prison term was over. I would eventually become CEO of that company and take them public in one of the largest IPO's in Minnesota history.

So, what kind of rollercoaster ride are you on? If you have failed, what are you going to do about it? It begins with one decision: To decide to move forward and on to something better. Then, like all of us who want to improve our lives, you are faced with five bold choices. Work through those successfully and I am here to tell you that anything is possible.

It's your story. You get to write the rest of it. Start today.

About the author: Executive coach Jay Coughlan is the CEO of TruBalanced, an organization that is all about achieving balance in life and becoming a better person because of it. The company is built on the foundation of "Five Choices," or principles of perseverance, which Jay Coughlan has learned from his unique life experiences.

Edited for length and clarity by Nicole Fallon Taylor. Have a great entrepreneurial story to tell? Email your pitch to Shannon at

Image Credit: Jay Coughlan