Image credit: Leigh Keily
Why doesn’t my family like me right now? That was the heartbreaking question Terry Crews found himself asking one night 12 years ago. The professional athlete, actor and entrepreneur had worked to the bone – and in some ways, he had gotten everything he wanted. He had been married for decades and had five beautiful children. After a seven-year career in the NFL, he had found success on the big and small screen, starring in TV shows like Everybody Hates Chris and movies like get smart and The longest yard. Today, he is also CEO of the virtual production company Amen&Amen, host of America’s Got Talentand designs furniture for Bernhardt Design.
But that night in 2010, Crews was forced to admit that all was not well. Painful experiences from his past were catching up with him. Crews had suffered from an abusive childhood in Flint, Michigan, and struggled against the headwinds of racism. He had fought ruthlessly to reach the top, never allowing himself to look back or process his traumas. He feared that any show of “weakness” would bring down the whole house of cards. But as he writes in his new book, Tough: My Journey to True Powerthe fight had taken a terrible mental and physical toll, driving him to exhaustion, addiction and decision making that almost destroyed everything he had worked so hard for.
Below, Crews recounts his own experience as a workaholic and “tough guy.” He talks about how, in the decade since his personal toll, he’s found another path to success.
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We are often told that it is difficult to succeed by showing “weakness”. What does the word “hard” mean to you now, in this context?
I called my book Difficult because I had to change what that word meant to me. Most men live their lives trying to settle scores. You will show everyone who has doubted you that success is the best revenge! When I looked the last dance documentary about Michael Jordan – he took it all personally. It was a revenge movie. That’s how you win, but I ended up hurt and hurt with that mentality. Then I read a quote that blew me away. He said smart decision-making sometimes forces us to forget what we’ve lost and reassess the situation as it exists today. And I went, wait a minute. I have to drop this thing. Being tough isn’t about showing people off. To be tough is to examine yourself to the extent that it hurts. You are doing surgery on yourself, reassessing your life and your decisions. It’s painful, but that’s what’s hard.
What led you to start this kind of work on yourself?
My wife left me. I had come to a point where I was very successful in my career, but when I looked back at my personal life, I wondered, How did I go wrong? How did I miss that? I actually had to go to rehab for porn addiction. And while in rehab, I learned the Serenity Prayer. It was a defining moment for me. It blew me away. Prayer is about accepting what you cannot change, having the courage to change what you can, and the wisdom to know the difference. So instead of asking me, Why doesn’t my wife believe me? I started asking, Why did I lie? I had a lot more power than I ever imagined.
How do you suggest someone start this kind of self-assessment? It’s not always easy to see our own flaws.
Look at your life as if it were a business. Not getting the results you want? Look at the spreadsheet. We are losing money here. We have to stop this. That’s what I did with my life. I’m fine here, but this part isn’t working. Ask people you love to help you. You don’t want a bunch of sycophants around you. It’s a disaster. I realized that people who really love me will tell me the truth, no matter how painful. And it’s! It’s like walking around with a nail in your shoe. But sooner or later, when this stuff heals, you’re stronger than ever.
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Many entrepreneurs struggle with an incessant restlessness mentality. Have you experienced this?
The world will congratulate you for being a workaholic. For me, this led to small mistakes and misjudgments that grew bigger and bigger. Very successful people start to think they can cheat just a little bit. You know, I’m already fine, but I can do much better if I lie about this little thing. Bad decisions accumulate and your morality is shaken. Eventually, you get this image of a happy, successful person, but the reality is totally different. I was like, Holy cow, I’m two people! That’s why my wife left. I was able to find a balance when I did one thing: what I said I was going to do.
Image credit: Courtesy of Terry Crews
You write and talk a lot about toxic masculinity. In what ways can culture negatively impact teamwork?
I played in the NFL, where it looks like you’re on a team—you’re all wearing the same uniform—but it’s actually a bunch of men competing for the same gig. So I can smile at you and say, “Hey, I’m ready to work with you. But secretly, I’m trying to destroy you. With every injury on an NFL field, someone cheers because it’s their opportunity. Such competition only leads to damaged goods. But once you realize that someone else’s success is actually helping you, it changes everything. If the guy next to you thrives, we’re all winners.
What has comedy taught you about collaboration in the workplace?
Every time I tried to steal a scene or spin it around me, it sucked! If you approach the stage wanting the other person to laugh, you’ll get it! It’s the law of the universe: the more you give, the more you receive. In everything we do, when people see you giving instead of competing, they will come to your aid.
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You have spoken very publicly about your addiction, as well as a sexual assault you suffered from a Hollywood executive. What gave you the courage to speak out and what did you hope to achieve?
Speaking publicly about my own issues has helped me deal with them. As soon as you put it there, it loses its power. And I’ve been so inspired by the women who have spoken out about Harvey Weinstein’s abuse. When [that type of] happened to me, I said nothing. I don’t know why I didn’t, but I didn’t. These women gave me the courage to do it. I will never forget standing before Congress for the Sexual Assault Victims Bill of Rights. Talking about these things is embarrassing and people will say all kinds of things about you. But stand up for people who can’t stand up for themselves and present themselves as a human being and not some kind of superhero? It’s hard.