Author Talks: Actor Terry Crews wants you to open up

The Brooklyn Nine-Nine actor and former NFL player tackles the issue of toxic masculinity and explores how “tough guys” can find strength in vulnerability.

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Roberta Fusaro chats with Terry Crews, an actor and former National Football League player, about his latest book. In Tough: My Journey to True Power (Portfolio/Penguin Random House, April 2022), Terry Crews offers a structured rumination on his life and what it has meant for him to be “tough”—as a child, as an athlete, as a performer, as an entrepreneur, and as a family man—and how living up to widely accepted standards of toughness can turn into an exhausting performance of toxic masculinity. From his journey, he shares lessons that he hopes will inspire others to pay more attention to mental health and to gender and equity issues. An edited version of the conversation follows.

Find strength in control

Why write this book, and why now?

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Tough is a journey of revelation for me. My whole life, I thought the definition of tough was totally opposite to what being tough actually is. When you find something out, you have a responsibility to tell your truth to others who may not know it. For me, writing a book is the best way to convey your thoughts and put everything out there as thoroughly and completely as you can without being taken out of context, which is a big thing that happens now on social media—people can take one thing and twist it to mean something else.

The good thing about a book is that the people who decide to read it tend to be invested, and they can take in the whole of what you say, which is something that’s been lost, I think, in a lot of conversations.

How did you used to define toughness?

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One thing I discovered in writing this book is that my definition of toughness was “cold.” It was the ability to shut emotion off. I’ve heard a quote—hopefully, I don’t mess it up—but it was about intense morality and how, if you have it, it makes a bad soldier. You have to turn off your moral compass to be a good soldier, so that you can do what needs to be done no matter who gets hurt or what goes on around you or how your world can crumble. That definition of tough had taken over, especially in the world of masculinity.

I was involved in a very competitive world. From growing up among gang members and drug dealers all the way to sports and the NFL, I watched, and I became what I saw. It was about turning off your emotions, turning off what you’re feeling, turning off your pain compass. The revelation that came to me much later was that toughness is not the ability to throw a punch. A lot of times it’s the ability to take hard hits without hitting back—something that’s referred to in the ‘hood all the time as “taking an L,” which is taking a loss, but it’s only the appearance of losing. What you’re really doing is holding on for a better tomorrow. You’re making sure that you succeed.

One thing I say all the time is that you can either have success or revenge, but you can’t have both. Many men live their lives like they’re in a revenge movie, like it’s a fantasy where they’ve been wronged, and now they’re going to get back at every person who wronged them, one at a time. That’s the dream for a lot of men. The problem is that success is about letting go. Success is not about getting back at people; it’s about finding a new way to live, about finding new areas and new things so that it doesn’t even matter what someone else does to you, because you’re already gone, you’re already in a new place.

I was involved in a very competitive world. From growing up among gang members and drug dealers all the way to sports and the NFL, I watched, and I became what I saw. It was about turning off your emotions, turning off what you’re feeling, turning off your pain compass.

How have you been able to break the cycle and redefine for yourself what it means to be tough?

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This is one thing I went through in therapy. I developed an addiction to pornography, and it affected everything in my life. My wife, basically, when she found out, was like, “I’m out, I’m done.” Surprisingly, my first attitude was, like, “OK, bye.” That was the version of tough that says, “She’s not sticking by you. She’s supposed to be with you and accept you as you are. I’ll just find another woman.”

But in the middle of all of that, a little question hit me out of the blue: “What if it’s me?” The issue was, I had already put all the responsibility on her. I had already made her actions responsible for the way I behaved, but excuses tend to be like expired credit cards—you still try to use them, but every time you get declined. The time that my wife declined me, I knew it was time for a change. I said, “Oh, man, it’s me. I have to take responsibility.”

I started to read. I started to study. Therapy opened my eyes to a lot of different ideas, and I said, “Wait a minute. I can do something about this.” Rather than “learned helplessness,” I felt a sense of power and a different kind of control.

How did your commitment to being tough translate into a career in football?

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Ralph Waldo Emerson talks about “a foolish consistency,” where you do things, but you haven’t really thought about why you’re doing them. That was football for me. It was the way to get what I thought was respect, financial gain, and all this other stuff, but the problem was I didn’t really like football.

People would ask me if I was going to get into broadcasting, and that was the furthest thing from my mind because I didn’t even like football. What I really loved was playing outside, all day, with my friends. And it didn’t matter if it was football, if it was golf, if it was basketball, or if we were out playing checkers. I just enjoyed the camaraderie of hanging out all day and doing something fun with your friends.

There’s been what I would call the “sportification” of society, where everyone has become winners or losers. Everyone keeps score, so to speak, and it’s a sports mentality where it’s me versus you. There was a time in my life where it was me versus you all the time. Even what seemed like me being nice was really an attempt to manipulate. It was phony. It was fake. It was a way to gain an advantage. It was a way to look for an in, to look for a way to dominate and control you somehow even through niceness, through kindness. It wasn’t really about your welfare; it was about, “One day, I’m going to use this information, and I’m going to beat you.” But the world doesn’t operate like that. I’ve found that we evolve, not through competition, but society evolves through collaboration. It’s really about working together and giving people what they need. In the NFL, we were on the same team, but you wanted to watch your own teammates go down. Injury was a thing that was celebrated amongst your own because that was your opportunity. And I said, “Man, this is not the way to live.”

Don’t compete—collaborate

What should business leaders understand about being tough?

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I truly believe that competition is the opposite of creativity. Creativity is mixing two things together. The definition, at its core, is when someone finds one thing and then goes, “Wait a minute, if I put this in there, I have something new!”

When you put yourself into something, you are automatically exercising creativity simply because that cause, or project, or team you join has never had you. When you collaborate with another person, you are going to come up with something special. That’s just the way creativity goes. But if you’re fighting with everyone—if you’re trying to beat everyone—creativity stops, and then judgment starts. I like to say judgment kills all creativity.

I’m an artist. I do a lot of painting and drawing, and as soon as I start to judge my work, I can’t do it anymore. Creativity stops because you’re working for perfection. You’re working against other people. You’re looking at other people’s papers. You’re trying to compare. This is called the sin of comparison—when what you have is never good enough, because you’re always looking at someone else’s stuff. You’re not collaborating, you’re competing.

I was willing to be a comedic actor when everyone thought I should have been an action star because everyone was doing action. At the time, I had the body, I had the look, I was intense, and my first few roles were even big he-man–type characters who were really about kicking ass and taking names. But I decided I liked being funny.

I like being on a show like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, where we can collaborate and we can make people laugh. Remember, when you’re doing comedy, the only rule is that you have to say yes. Especially in ad-libbing and especially with improv, you have to accept what the other person is saying for it to be funny. And it’s fun. I love being this big, muscular guy in this comedy world, you know? I created a new thing, and because of that, it made me an original. I decided to just do that with everything: don’t worry, don’t fight against people, just collaborate and make something new.

I truly believe that competition is the opposite of creativity.... When you collaborate with another person, you are going to come up with something special. That’s just the way creativity goes. But if you’re fighting with everyone—if you’re trying to beat everyone—creativity stops, and then judgment starts.

Did this sense of toughness also affect your decisions about which acting roles to take?

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I tend to be multifaceted anyway, but I knew that in the roles that I take, I did not want to be cookie cutter. I wanted to show all of me. Even in The Expendables, which was a so-called guy’s action flick, I had jokes in the movie. There was a certain bit of levity and camaraderie and friendship, and I want to really highlight that.

I remember after I did the movie White Chicks, I was getting these offers of movies in which people wanted to exploit my image. I was just like, “That’s not me, man.”

Sometimes ‘being a man’ means asking for help

What messages does this book have specifically for Black men?

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I definitely wrote this book to espouse therapy. You’ve got to understand, in the Black community, when I grew up, the response to mental illness was “you’re crazy, and you can’t fix crazy.” Mental health was not seen as something like a broken leg or treated that way. It was more like you were permanently damaged, so what’s the use?

It’s so wild when you think about how fast COVID-19 spread throughout the world. In three months, it was all over the world. Now think about how fast a bad idea can spread, how fast a bad message can go, and how long it can go—for generations and generations if it’s unchecked. You’re talking about people who have gone through tremendous amounts of trauma, with no sorting out, no therapy. Black men make up 6 percent of the American population, but we’re 49 percent of the homicide victims. It’s a tragedy on an epic scale. Forty-nine percent of the homicide victims are Black men.

In the Black community, we don’t get the help we need, we don’t. I had to ask for help. I had to humble myself. The toughest thing about it was being able to ask for help in the middle of everyone saying, “Oh, look at you. You’re weak. You’re a punk. You’re this. You’re that.” It’s, like, imagine you’ve fallen into a pit, and the only way out is to yell. But you’re too proud to yell, so you die in the pit, which is horrifying.

If you yell out, you’re going to be ridiculed. People are going to come along and say, “Why’d you fall in the pit? You’re dumb. You didn’t understand. You should’ve gone the other way.” You’re going to hear all kinds of things and reasons why you shouldn’t be there and how you should’ve jumped over it, like Superman. But the thing is, you fell in.

You’ve got to yell, and you’ve got to let people know that you need help, because that’s the only way you’re going to survive. A lot of Black men don’t, because they’re too proud to ask for help. I wanted to be that person to lead the charge and to say, “Help. I need help. There’s stuff I don’t get. Help me understand this.” In society today, sometimes you’re shamed for asking for help. This is where coming forward about these issues and telling my story helps me to stop the fear of being embarrassed and get what I need.

You’ve got to yell, and you’ve got to let people know that you need help, because that’s the only way you’re going to survive. A lot of Black men don’t, because they’re too proud to ask for help. I wanted to be that person to lead the charge and to say, ‘Help. I need help.’

How did your experience as an advocate for sexual-assault survivors inform your writing of Tough?

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I start off the book with an example of me beating a man up on the street, and this used to happen a lot because of all the anger I had. In this instance, it was simply because I thought my wife had been disrespected. I felt the need to put this man down physically, and I did. But my wife, in her wisdom, saw this, and she made me promise to never be violent again, to walk away, to take a higher road, to transcend it. And it was hard. To me, it was like going against the notion of being a man. But that move—her telling me to do that, and me promising her I would do that—actually saved my life when I was assaulted by my agent at William Morris. It totally saved my life.

I write extensively about this experience in the book, about what happened and how my family and I not only survived but transcended it, and we helped so many other people deal with their trauma at the same time. Going to Congress to talk about the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Bill 1 is one of the top five greatest things I’ve ever done in my entire life. I could feel the millions of people who were not able to tell their story talk through me. And I was able to represent male victims. One in six men has been sexually molested. That’s a fact. But given our notions of what it is to be a man, a lot of men would never admit it.

That’s something I really wanted to get out in the open. And I’ve had thousands and thousands of men reach out to me and thank me for being honest about it and putting it out in the open so that they could get free. Because that’s what we’re talking about here—freedom. These kinds of traumas can lock you up and develop into so many other issues. When people read this book, they may realize that there were times when their own lines were crossed. They may not have acknowledged it publicly or to themselves. But they might realize, “Wait a minute, that wasn’t right.” Establishing that in your life allows you to get past it. It allows you to be free.

Watch the full interview

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Terry Crews on opening up

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