When Terry Crews Hit Rock Bottom, He Found a Better Way to Be ‘Tough’

Image Credit: Leigh Keily

Why does my family not like me right now? That was the gut-wrenching question Terry Crews found himself asking one night, 12 years ago. The professional athlete, actor, and entrepreneur had worked himself to the bone – and in certain ways, he’d gotten everything he wanted. He’d been married for decades and had five beautiful kids. After a seven-year career in the NFL, he’d 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. Now he’s also the CEO of virtual production company Amen & Amen, host of America’s Got Talentand designs furniture for Bernhardt Design.

But on that night in 2010, Crews was forced to admit that everything was not okay. Painful experiences from his past were catching up with him. Crews had suffered through an abusive childhood in Flint, Michigan, and toiled against the headwinds of racism. He’d competed mercilessly to make it to the top, never allowing himself to look backward or process his traumas. He was afraid that any display 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, leading him to exhaustion, addiction, and decision-making that nearly destroyed everything he worked so hard to achieve.

Below, Crews offers up his own experience as a workaholic and recovering “tough guy.” He explains how, in the decade-plus since his personal reckoning, he’s found another path to success.

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We’re often told it’s hard to succeed while showing “weakness.” What does the word “tough” mean to you now, in that context?

I called my book Tough because I had to change what that word meant to me. Most men live their lives trying to settle scores. You’re going to show anyone who ever doubted you – success is the best revenge! When I watched The Last Dance documentary about Michael Jordan – he took everything personally. It was a revenge movie. That’s how you win, but I ended up damaged and hurt with that mentality. Then I read a quote that blew me away. It said that intelligent decision-making sometimes requires us to forget what we lost and reevaluate the situation as it exists today. And I went, wait a minute. I’ve got to let this stuff go. Being tough isn’t about showing people up. Being tough is about examining yourself to the degree that it hurts. You’re doing surgery on yourself, reevaluating your life and decisions. It’s painful, but that’s what tough is.

What led you to begin this kind of work on yourself?

My wife was leaving me. I’ve gotten to a point where I was very successful in my career, but when I looked at my personal life, I wondered, How did I go wrong? How did I miss this? I actually had to go to rehab for porn addiction. And while in rehab, I learned the serenity prayer. That was a watershed moment for me. It blew me away. The prayer is all 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 myself, Why doesn’t my wife believe me? I started asking, Why did I lie? I had much more power than I ever realized.

How do you suggest someone start on this kind of self-evaluation? It isn’t always easy to see our own faults.

Look at your life like it’s a business. You’re not getting the results you want? Look at the spreadsheet. We’re losing money here. We’ve got to stop that. That’s what I did with my life. I’m doing great over here, but this part is not working. Ask people you love to help you. You don’t want a bunch of sycophants around you. That is a disaster. I’ve realized the people who really love me will tell me the truth, no matter how painful. And it is! It’s like walking around with a nail in your shoe. But sooner or later when that stuff heals up, you’re stronger than ever.

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Many entrepreneurs struggle with a nonstop hustle mentality. Have you experienced that?

The world is going to praise you for being a workaholic. For me, that led to little mistakes and lapses in judgment that got bigger and bigger. People who are very successful start to think they can cheat just a little bit. You know, I’m already doing good, but I can do a lot better if I just lie about this one little thing. Bad decisions pile up, and your morality gets chipped away. Eventually you have this image of a happy, successful person, but the reality is totally different. I was like, Holy cow, I am two people! This is why my wife walked out. I was able to find balance when I did one thing: What I said I was going to do.

Image Credit: Courtesy of Terry Crews

You write and speak a lot about toxic masculinity. What are some of the ways that culture can negatively impact teamwork?

I played in the NFL, where it looks like you are 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 could smile at you and be like, “Hey, I am ready to work with you.” But secretly, I am trying to destroy you. With every injury on an NFL field, somebody is cheering because that’s their opportunity. Competition like that leads to nothing but damaged goods. But once you realize that someone else’s success actually helps you, it changes everything. If the guy next to you thrives, we all win.

What has acting taught you about collaboration in the workplace?

Every time I would try to steal a scene or make it all about me, it sucked! If you approach the scene wanting the other person to get the laugh, you’ll get it! It’s the law of the universe: The more you give, the more you get back. In everything we do, as soon as people see you giving instead of competing, they will come to your aid.

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You’ve been very public about your addiction, as well as a sexual assault you experienced by a Hollywood executive. What gave you the courage to speak out, and what were you hoping to accomplish?

Going public about my own issues has helped me deal with them. As soon as you put it out there, it loses its power. And I was so inspired by the women who came forward about the abuses of Harvey Weinstein. When [that type of] abuse happened to me, I didn’t say anything. I do not know why I did not, but I did not. These women gave me the courage to do it. I will never forget standing before Congress for the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights. Talking about this stuff is embarrassing and people are going to say all kinds of things about you. But standing up for people who can’t stand up for themselves and putting yourself out there as a human being and not some kind of superhero? That’s being tough.

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