Author: Will Smith + Mark Manson
Read In: 2022
Purchase: Bookshop.org (affiliate link)
“Stop thinking about the damn wall!” he said. “There is no wall. There are only bricks. Your job is to lay this brick perfectly. Then move on to the next brick. Then lay that brick perfectly. Then the next one. Don’t be worrying about no wall. Your only concern is one brick.”
For my entire career, I have been absolutely relentless. I’ve been committed to a work ethic of uncompromising intensity. And the secret to my success is as boring as it is unsurprising: You show up and you lay another brick. Pissed off? Lay another brick. Bad opening weekend? Lay another brick. Album sales dropping? Get up and lay another brick. Marriage failing? Lay another brick.
In many ways, Mom-Mom is the total opposite of my father. Whereas Daddio was the boisterous, charismatic center of attention, Mom-Mom is quiet and reserved; not because she’s shy or intimidated, but because she “only speaks when it improves on silence.” She loves words and always chooses them carefully—she speaks with an academic sophistication. Daddio, on the other hand, was loud, spewing the lingo of a 1950s North Philly hood rat. He loved the poetry of his profanity—I once heard him call a man a “dirty rat, cocksuckin’, low-down, mangy pig fucker.”
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As much as we all suffered under Daddio’s militaristic views of love and family, nobody suffered more than my mother. If two people being in charge meant everybody dies, then that meant my mother could never be in charge. The problem was that my mother wasn’t the type of woman to be commanded. She was educated, proud, and stubborn, and as much as we begged her to please be quiet, she refused. Once, when Daddio slapped her, she egged him on. “Oh, you’re such a man! You think that hitting a woman makes you a man, huh?” He hit her again, knocking her to the ground. She stood right back up, looked him in the eye, and calmly said, “Hit me all you want, but you can never hurt me.” I have never forgotten that. The idea that he could hit her body but somehow she was in control of what “hurt” her? I wanted to be strong like that.
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In acting, understanding a character’s fears is a critical part of understanding his or her psyche. The fears create desires and the desires precipitate actions. These repetitive actions and predictable responses are the building blocks of great cinematic characters. It’s pretty much the same in real life. Something bad happens to us, and we decide we’re never going to let that happen again. But in order to prevent it, we have to be a certain way. We choose the behaviors that we believe will deliver safety, stability, and love. And we repeat them, over and over again. In the movies, we call it a character; in real life, we call it personality. How we decide to respond to our fears, that is the person we become. I decided to be funny.
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My first impulse is always to clean up the truth in my mind.
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I think I like math because it’s exact; I like when things add up. Numbers don’t play games or have moods or opinions.
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When I say silly stuff, it makes the world lighter for her. But she needs me to say smart stuff, too. That makes her feel safe. She thinks that the only way I’ll be able to survive is if I’m intelligent. She likes about a sixty-forty ratio of smart to silly.
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Comedy is an extension of intelligence. It’s hard to be really funny if you’re not really smart.
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My consciousness was an infinite playground that I delighted in exploring.
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One year, during Christmas Eve services—Resurrection Hall decorated from entry to altar, adorned to a level that even Jesus may have thought was a bit too much—Gigi was peacefully swaying to the choir’s soothing rendition of “Blessed Assurance.” I watched her rock and hum, and I found myself becoming hypnotized by her tranquility. She was not quite smiling, but the soft rise in the corners of her mouth betrayed an invincible serenity. I would later come to recognize this look as the look that people have when they know things that the rest of us don’t. She caught me staring. “Yes, Lover Boy?” “Gigi, why you so happy all the time?” I whispered. Now she was fully smiling. She paused, like a gardener preparing to sow essential seeds. She leaned over and whispered in my ear, “I trust God. And I am so thankful for his grace in my life. I know that every single breath I take is a gift. And it’s impossible to be unhappy when you’re grateful. He put the sun in the sky, and the moon. He gave me you. And our whole family. And for all of that, he only gave me one job.” “What’s your job, Gigi?” “To love and care for all his children,” she said. “So everywhere I go, I try to make everything I touch better.” Then she reached out and touched the end of my nose. “Boop. . . . See?”
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I was raised to believe that I am inherently equipped to handle any problems that may arise in my life, racism included. Some combination of hard work, education, and God would topple any and all obstacles and enemies. The only variable was the level of my commitment to the fight.
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Back then, hip-hop wasn’t what it is now. There had been a couple of hits, but for the most part it was still underground. There were no albums or singles, no radio play, no videos—you had to know somebody who knew somebody who could get you a cassette tape of one of the live performances exploding from the epicenter: New York City. People would literally go stand in the audience at a party and hold up a boom box over their heads to record the performers. That’s how mixtapes were created—people physically going to a party and holding a big-ass radio up in the air for an hour, two hours, then making copies of the tape and giving them to their friends. People in New York would cut a tape of some of their favorite hip-hop artists, make a copy, then take it to their friend in Boston, mail one to their brother in LA, or play one for their little cousin in Philly. These tapes got traded, sold, copied, and traded again. This hand-to-hand exchange across the country was what drove the rocket-fueled expansion of hip-hop. It was grassroots. It was viral before anyone knew what “going viral” was. It was straight from the street to the heart.
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With Paul’s tapes and encouragement, I became obsessed. I was already an incessant talker and performer. But now I was walking around all day, quietly babbling and rapping to myself, constructing new rhymes, reciting my favorite verses, trying to freestyle on whatever was going on around me. I went out and bought one of those black-and-white speckled composition notebooks and started writing down my rhymes and practicing them in my room in the mirror. My fantasy-driven mind would splash all over those pages, sometimes even surprising me by what came out. My creative river was raging. Rapping was the most natural thing in the world to me. And from the cocoon of a bullied, awkward kid, emerged a natural-born killer MC.
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My mind drifted to the time when Gigi found my first rap book. Like most young kids emulating their hip-hop idols, I had been writing verses full of curse words and slick, slangy vulgarities, and I had accidentally left my book out in the kitchen. Gigi found it and read it. She never said anything to me, but she wrote me a note on the inside front cover. Dear Willard, Truly intelligent people do not have to use language like this to express themselves. God has blessed you with the gift of words. Be sure you are using your gifts to uplift others. Please show the world that you are as intelligent as we think you are. Love, Gigi
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There were some guys who were cleverer than me, who had tighter flows or better voices, or more developed poetic sense. But nobody was as funny as me. Nobody could rock the crowd with a punch line the way I did. What nobody seemed to ever understand was that you can’t beat funny. You can spit all the tough gangster shit you want—you can rip rhymes about all the money and women in the world—but if your pants are just a little bit too far above your shoes, and somebody says, Look at you, homey, pretendin’ you all fly looks like your shoes went to a party and your pants got high and forty people laugh? You’re done. It’s over.
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In order to feel confident and secure, you need to have something to feel confident and secure about. We all want to feel good about ourselves, but many of us don’t recognize how much work that actually takes. Internal power and confidence are born of insight and proficiency. When you understand something, or you’re good at something, you feel strong, and it makes you feel like you have something to offer. When you have adequately cultivated your unique skills and gifts, then you’re excited about approaching and interacting with the world. And what I learned from Paul was that being good at something allows you to be calm in a storm, knowing that you can handle whatever comes. There is a great Bruce Lee quote that resonates with me. One of Lee’s students once asked him, “Master, you constantly speak to us of peace, yet every day you train us to fight. How do you reconcile these conflicting ideas?” And Bruce Lee responded, “It is better to be a warrior in a garden, than a gardener in a war.”
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She took easily to wonder and awe—everything was interesting to her. She was one of those people who could stop and look at a tree for ten minutes.
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There are rare moments as an artist that you cannot quantify or measure. As much as you try, you can rarely reproduce them and it’s near impossible to describe them. But every artist knows what I’m talking about—those moments of divine inspiration where creativity flows out of you so brilliantly and effortlessly that somehow you are better than you have ever been before. That night with Jeff was the first time I ever tasted it, the place that athletes call “the zone.” It felt like we already existed as a group and we just had to catch up to ourselves—natural, comfortable, home. Jeff could sense my rhyme style. He always knew when my jokes were coming, when to drop the track out so people could clearly hear the punch line, and I could tell by which hand he was using what type of scratch was coming. He preferred different scratches with his left hand than with his right. Sensing this, I could draw the audience’s attention to which scratch was coming by which hand he was transitioning to. He was choosing the tracks and adjusting the tempos based on what he felt best accentuated the narrative structure and the flow of my rhymes. And just as the music crescendoed, I’d throw down a dagger of a line and Jeff would drop the beat into the funkiest, hottest, party-rocking shit these Philly kids had ever seen in their lives.
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He lived in his mother’s basement. It was his sanctuary, his magic workshop. When you entered, it felt like you were getting a sneak peek behind the curtain of the wizard.
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Jeff was the first friend I’d ever had who plain and simple outworked me. I think it would be a misrepresentation to say that he “practiced a lot.” It wasn’t that he was practicing—it was that he didn’t do anything else. You’d never catch Jeff in the kitchen or watching TV. You wouldn’t show up at his house and see him walking up the front steps coming back from the store. He didn’t go to the store; I guess wizards don’t do their own shopping. Jeff was standing in front of his turntables fourteen to eighteen hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. It’s literally the only image I can conjure of Jeff in his childhood home.
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Those early months in Jeff’s basement were among the most creative times I’ve ever experienced. Everything was cutting-edge, everything was hot; it was experimental and inspiring. I never wanted to leave. We were seeking our sound, but we found ourselves.
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Hope sustains life. Hope is the elixir of survival during our darkest times. The ability to envision and imagine a brighter day gives meaning to our suffering and renders it bearable. When we lose hope, we lose our central source of strength and resilience. My mother’s hopes for her kids had sustained her through the darkest years of her marriage. But now, I had developed hopes of my own. I had hip-hop hopes. I had hopes for albums and being onstage in front of fifty thousand people shouting “Hoooooo!!” when I told them to. These hopes were now empowering and sustaining me. I would have died if I had to give them up. I couldn’t; I wouldn’t.
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The thing I’ve learned over the years about advice is that no one can accurately predict the future, but we all think we can. So advice at its best is one person’s limited perspective of the infinite possibilities before you. People’s advice is based on their fears, their experiences, their prejudices, and at the end of the day, their advice is just that: it’s theirs, not yours. When people give you advice, they’re basing it on what they would do, what they can perceive, on what they think you can do. But the bottom line is, while yes, it is true that we are all subject to a series of universal laws, patterns, tides, and currents—all of which are somewhat predictable—you are the first time you’ve ever happened. YOU and NOW are a unique occurrence, of which you are the most reliable measure of all the possibilities.
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By universal design you are born into a perplexing situation, bewildered, and you have one job as a human: figure this shit out. Life is learning. Period. Overcoming ignorance is the whole point of the journey. You’re not supposed to know at the beginning. The whole point of venturing into uncertainty is to bring light to the darkness of our ignorance. I heard a great saying once: Life is like school, with one key difference—in school you get the lesson, and then you take the test. But in life, you get the test, and it’s your job to take the lesson. We’re all waiting until we have deep knowledge, wisdom, and a sense of certainty before we venture forth. But we’ve got it backward—venturing forth is how we gain the knowledge.
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Since we came off tour, Jeff had retreated to his mom’s basement. His reaction to the looming winter of our careers was to hibernate—
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Benny knew all about my music. We talked for a bit about hip-hop and the impact technology was having on the music industry, and the future of video on demand, and then out of nowhere, he asked, “Do you know how to act?” Act? You mean to perform actions in order to elicit joy and passion from those around me? You mean to warp my perceptions of myself as a means to hide myself? You mean to believe deeply in stories that don’t exist, that never existed, that could never exist? You mean to play the role of who everyone around me wants me to be, rather than who I actually am? As a general rule, if someone asks me if I can do something, the answer is always yes.
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Quincy Jones understands magic. He sees the universe as an infinite playground of magical possibilities. He recognizes miraculous potential in every moment and every thing and everyone around him. His superpower is that he has learned to present himself to the universe as a lightning rod, placing himself perfectly to capture and conduct the ever-present, ever-recurring magical flashes of brilliance surrounding us all. Quincy Jones is an intuitive, artistic storm chaser. He can sense the subtle flickerings of the impossible preparing to strike. He prepared himself for decades, studying music, playing thousands of gigs, learning from masters, surrounding himself with the most accomplished performers and artists. Quincy used to say, “Things are always impossible, right up until they’re not!” He learned how to prepare the environment and invited the energy in; he saw himself as the “conductor,” both in the electrical sense and the musical definition. His main job was to keep all of us from missing the miracle, from blocking the subtle magical opportunity that was obviously (to him) presenting itself.
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When Jesus approached the tomb, he saw that the rock was still in place at the mouth of the cave, as was the burial tradition of the time. Jesus wept, perturbed, and said—and I paraphrase . . . “So, lemme get this straight. Y’all made me walk fifteen frickin’ furlongs—’ scuse my language—to hot-dag’on Bethany, where Pharisees and Sadducees is runnin’ around here like roaches just waiting for a chance to take a pop at me, to perform the miracle of raising your patriarch from the dead, restoring your family to blessed wholeness and light, and y’all can’t even move the rock from in front of the tomb? If I’m gonna raise this boy from the dead, the least y’all lazy jokas could do is move the dag’on rock!” This was an idea that Quincy understood fully. Magic demands awareness (faith—you have to believe in magic); preparation (move the rock—we must identify and eradicate the poisonous resistances and impediments within ourselves); then, surrender (stay out of the way and trust the magic to do what it does). Quincy helped people get their rocks out of the way of the blessed light that is always trying to shine in. The universe wants you to have the miracle! Move the damn rock! Quincy was moving furniture, but he was trying to get all of us—me, Brandon, Benny, even himself—to move our rocks out of the way.
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I mentioned that Quincy had been drinking, right? There was no reason for him to be saying everything as loudly as he was saying it—it wasn’t that big a room. We could all hear him perfectly well. But, maybe he knew he wasn’t speaking to our ears—he was bellowing to reach the caverns behind the rocks, simultaneously conjuring and welcoming the magic of the universe. I guess he wanted to be loud enough to make sure that the miracle didn’t miss the house. “NO PARALYSIS THROUGH ANALYSIS!” Quincy shouted again and again. He would intone this mantra nearly fifty times over the next two hours. It was the answer to every question, it was the response to every stutter, it was the solution to every legal problem.
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I found my thing. The world of acting unleashed all the artistic impulses within me. It was the first external canvas that felt big enough to hold the landscapes of my imagination. My musical expression always felt narrow and constrained by the limits of my skills and talents. Making music felt like living in a great neighborhood, whereas acting felt like being set free in an infinite universe. As an actor, I would get to be anybody, go anywhere, and do anything: world champion boxer, fighter pilot, tennis coach, galaxy defender, cop, lawyer, businessman, doctor, lover, preacher, genie—I would even get to be a fish. Acting encompasses all the things that I am—storyteller, performer, comedian, musician, teacher. Don’t get me wrong: I really like making music; but I love acting.
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Mom-Mom was an avid reader. Her every free moment was spent between the pages of everything from Edgar Allan Poe to Agatha Christie to Toni Morrison to Stephen King to Maya Angelou to Sherlock Holmes and Sidney Poitier’s autobiography. She would often talk about a book that “spoke to her soul” or “she just couldn’t put it down.” It had penetrated her and transformed her way of seeing or being, but I had never experienced that. I was well into my twenties before I actually read an entire book cover to cover. The Alchemist, a novel by Brazilian author Paulo Coelho, was my first literary love affair. The book spoke to my soul, and I just couldn’t put it down. It penetrated me and transformed my way of seeing and being.
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Change can be scary, but it’s utterly unavoidable. In fact, impermanence is the only thing you can truly rely on. If you are unwilling or unable to pivot and adapt to the incessant, fluctuating tides of life, you will not enjoy being here. Sometimes, people try to play the cards that they wish they had, instead of playing the hand they’ve been dealt. The capacity to adjust and improvise is arguably the single most critical human ability.
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I was hungry, focused, and excited about the new life I was being blessed to undertake. But my personal and professional crash and burn had taught me a harsh, universal lesson: Nothing lasts forever. Everything rises and falls—no matter how hot the summer gets, the winter is inevitable. I promised myself I would never get caught sleeping again. That during the good times, I would plant and nurture the seeds of the “next thing.” And if I was truly wise, and attuned to the movements of the industry, I would be able to time the harvest of the next thing impeccably, just before the death of the old thing. In the same way that my music career was scorching hot, then icy cold, I knew the same thing would one day happen in TV. I was about to be on blaze—but one day, I knew I’d be cold again. I asked myself: After television, what would be my next thing? There was only one answer: movies.
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I quickly grabbed my rhyme book from my backpack, and the next two hours was nothing short of divine intervention. I didn’t write “Summertime” as much as I channeled it. My mind collapsed into the bliss of summertime in Philadelphia. I felt myself floating through my childhood summer memories and my hand was just along for the ride, trying to keep up. “Summertime” is the only song I’ve ever written from beginning straight through to the end and didn’t edit or change a single word. The lyrics, as they appear on the final cut, are exactly as they came through. It was a pure stream of consciousness. I would later learn a term that resonated deeply with my experience at O’Hare that night: psychography, or automatic writing, is a theoretical psychic ability allowing someone to produce written words without consciously writing. (Skeptics call it self-delusion; I call it “another Grammy” and “my first #1 record.”)
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My vocal delivery on “Summertime” shocked the hip-hop world.
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A perfect example of this phenomenon is in season 1, episode 5, “Homeboy, Sweet Homeboy.” Don Cheadle plays my boy from Philly, Ice Tray. If you look closely, you’ll see that I’m mouthing Don’s lines. But even though I’m front and center, mouthing away like an idiot, you didn’t notice at home because your attention was focused on the actor who was speaking: inattentive blindness. Feel free to pull up that episode and watch me nincompoop my way through the scene.
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He was demanding and always pushing me to “master my instrument” as an actor. “You can do jokes with your eyes closed,” he’d say. “You have that naturally, and it’s beautiful to watch. But you have deeper talent in there,” he said, tapping on my chest emphatically, “that you can’t even imagine yet. And you’re never going to find it if you don’t reach for it. There’s a difference between talent and skill. Talent comes from God—you’re born with it. Skill comes from sweat and practice and commitment. Don’t just skate through this opportunity. Hone your craft.”
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What does he want? As an actor, this is the single most important question to ask of the character you are preparing to portray. His “want”/ dramatic quest is the first pillar of behavior. What someone desires is a portal into the essential truth of their personality. If you want to understand why someone did something, you need only answer the question, What did he want? An actor’s overarching focus is to unearth the “system of wants” that intertwine and sometimes collide within the mind of a character to create their psychological driving force. Acting is like building out a new personality for yourself from scratch.
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What’s true about movies is also true about life: You tell me what you want, and I’ll tell you who you are.
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Stephen Covey, in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, said there are only two human problems: (1) knowing what you want, but not knowing how to get it; and (2) not knowing what you want. Clarity of mission is a powerful cornerstone of success. Knowing what you want gives direction to your life—every word, every action, every association, can be accurately chosen and harnessed to precipitate your desired outcome. What you eat, when you sleep, where you go, who you talk to, what you allow them to say to you, who your friends are, can all be corralled and launched toward your wildest dreams.
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This character was so drastically different from who I was, and his life experience was so foreign to me, that I felt impelled to employ method acting (something I knew absolutely nothing about). I memorized the words of the entire screenplay, verbatim. I vowed that I would not miss a single line while I was on set. During the months of my preparation, I would spend four or five days at a stretch without breaking character. Not once, not one moment. I would go to a jewelry store or a bakery and try to discern what Paul’s likes and dislikes were. I wanted to get comfortable in real life and real situations, not only thinking as Paul would think, but learning to involuntary feel the way that he would feel. It was fun . . . at first. But then slowly, and imperceptibly, I lost touch with my own likes and dislikes, I lost access to the intonation and rhythm of my own speech—I lost touch with Will Smith. Sheree started to say things like, “Why are you looking at me like that?” and “Stop talking like that.” I was totally oblivious—I couldn’t figure out what she meant. In my mind, I was going back and forth between Paul and me, but Will Smith had quietly slipped away. Sheree was suddenly living with a stranger. We tend to think of our personalities as fixed and solid. We think of our likes and our dislikes, our beliefs, our nationalities, our political affiliations and religious convictions, our mannerisms, our sexual predilections, et cetera, as set, as us. But the reality is, most of the things that we think of as us are learned habits and patterns, and entirely malleable, and the danger when actors venture out to the far ends of our consciousness is that sometimes we lose the bread crumbs marking our way home. We realize that the characters we play in a film are no different than the characters we play in life. Will Smith is no more “real” than Paul—they’re both characters that were invented, practiced, and performed, reinforced, and refined by friends, loved ones, and the external world. What you think of as your “self” is a fragile construct.
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I began to lean more into structure and order, but Sheree was an artist: she cooks by feel, not by recipe; she was much more fluid, intuitive, and less structured.
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I would never have gotten married if I thought divorce was an option. If quitting is a possibility, everyone will pick that—it’s the easiest one. Who wouldn’t pick not running at 5: 00 a.m. over running at 5: 00 a.m.? If quitting is an option, you’ll never finish anything hard. The only way an imperfect mind can be forced to achieve is by removing all of its other options. To me, the heart of all successful human interactions is we look at each other and we know we’re about to attempt something that is difficult/ impossible. And we look in each other’s eyes, and we shake hands, and we both vow to die before we quit. And that’s what I thought we did. This is such a simple idea to me. The vows are “til death do us part”—God agrees with me. The vow is not to your partner—the vow is to the weakest part of yourself. How could you not quit if that’s one of the options? The reason you say you’re gonna do it or die is because death is what happens when you don’t do it. Your mind is trying to protect you from hard things, to defend you from pain. The problem is, all of your dreams are on the other side of pain and difficulty. So, a mind that tries to seek pleasure and comfort and the easy way inadvertently poisons its dreams—your mind becomes a barrier to your dreams, an internal enemy. If it was easy, everybody would do it. The reason we make vows is because we know we’re about to do a hell walk. You don’t have to vow to do easy things. No one ever said, “I vow to eat every ounce of this crème brulee—I swear to the wide heavens that I will not leave one speck on my plate! And I vow to skip my run tomorrow morning, and I vow to sleep in!” We wouldn’t need to make vows if it was easy. The reason the vows are so extreme—“ in sickness and in health, till death do us part”—is because life is so extreme. Nothing else can keep us there. That’s the point of devotion. I’m not against divorce, and I’m not against surrendering in a battle, but it has to be at the end of the battle—not while you’re putting your armor on, not the first scary moment, not the first casualty. In my experience, most people get divorced too soon, before they’ve extracted the lessons that will keep them from doing the exact same things in their next relationships.
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I never really bought into the whole “past lives” thing. I would hear people say, “We must have known each other in a former life.” I always thought that was corny. But those first couple of months with Jada transformed me from a disbeliever to an agnostic. We fit together so naturally, and our energies combined exponentially in a way that felt like old friends more than new lovers. We had an unspoken language, and everything we focused on flourished.
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But the heart and soul of our union was then, and is still today, intense, luminescent conversation. Even to the writing of this very sentence, if Jada and I begin a conversation, it is a minimum two-hour endeavor. And it is not uncommon that we talk for five or six hours at a stretch. Our joy of pondering and perusing the mysteries of the universe, through the mirror of each other’s experience, is unbridled ecstasy. Even in the depths of disagreement, there is nothing in this world that either of us more cherishes or enjoys than the opportunity to grow and learn from each other through passionate communication.
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The Hero with a Thousand Faces became my second literary love affair. It would not be an overstatement to say that I bet my entire movie career on this book.
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That first week was brutal. I had just finished a thirty-minute footwork drill, and I was exhausted, so I laid down in the ring. Darrell saw me from across the gym and snapped. “Hey! Get the fuck up!” I stood as he made his way over to the ring. “Do not get comfortable with your back on that canvas,” he said. “You fight how you train.” You fight how you train was one of Darrell’s central axioms. “You do everything how you do one thing,” he’d say. Darrell didn’t want me to get comfortable with my back on the canvas in case I ever got knocked down. He wanted lying down in a boxing ring to feel utterly foreign to me, just in case I ever found myself lying down in a boxing ring. His position was: dreams are built on discipline; discipline is built on habits; habits are built on training. And training takes place in every single second and every situation of your life: how you wash the dishes; how you drive a car; how you present a report at school or at work. You either do your best all the time or you don’t; if the behavior has not been trained and practiced, then the switch will not be there when you need it.
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Memory is not a flawless recording of what actually happened. It’s not a video of your experience. It’s not even a photograph. It is your psychological, artistic rendering. It is more like an abstract impressionist painting of what happened than it is a pure, unfiltered depiction. And it’s not fixed—the painting morphs, it fades or expands over time. Sometimes you add colors to a memory that weren’t there a year ago, or five years ago, or even collapse multiple memories and paint them into one. The problem is that most of us trust our memories implicitly. Our memories are the basis for our perception of reality. We then commit to these conclusions, unlocking the requisite emotions and the corresponding actions and behaviors. We move into the world clinging to our flawed assumptions, unleashing upon ourselves the cosmic consequences of wrong ideas.
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take a deep breath, and I sit. The sea is almost translucent, and as warm as bathwater. The waves are knocking and jolting and tossing me around. “Don’t fight it, man,” Scoty says. “It’s a flow. It’ll carry yuh out, but it’ll bring you back.” Scoty is calmly floating in complete harmony with the rhythm of the sea, and I’m bangin’ around like a monkey fuckin’ a football. And while I never got fully comfortable, I began to understand the human relationship with the ocean. Reconnectin’ and limin’. The ebb and flow of the tide is the heartbeat of the planet. When they sit in the ocean all day, they are tuning themselves in to the frequency of the earth. This alignment, to Scoty, was the highest human experience. When he spends time with anyone he loves, he wants to spend it in the ocean—surfing, fishing, boating, water-skiing, swimming, reconnectin’, and limin’.
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Why are you so afraid of silence? Silence is the root of everything. If you spiral into its void a hundred voices will thunder messages you long to hear. —Rumi
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It’s weird how people can feel when you’re seeking—higher curiosity seems to emit energy at a different frequency. As soon as you truly open to something different, it’s like a cosmic shout into an energetic megaphone: YO! Where y’all at? You see I’m strugglin’ over here?
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If you drew a timeline that stretched from that day I met Melanie, when I was fourteen, all the way to my marriage today, I have only been single for a total of fifteen days. I hated being alone.
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This was the first time in my life I had ever read a whole book in one day: Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart.
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This time alone in Utah launched the greatest period of reading in my life, a period that would last for the next several years. As a very partial list, I devoured The Autobiography of Malcolm X; Bhagavad Gītā As It Is; The Road Less Traveled; Don Quixote; The Untethered Soul; Teachings of the Buddha; The Odyssey; Moby-Dick; How to Win Friends and Influence People; The 5 Love Languages; As a Man Thinketh; Oneness; Zen in the Art of Archery; Plato’s Republic; The Way of the Superior Man; Iron John; Aspire; I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; The Power Path; Man’s Search for Meaning; and on and on and on and on. I must have read at least one hundred books over the next few years.
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Day ten was the first time I tried to meditate. Day eleven, I gave up meditation. It literally felt like my mind was attacking me. Day twelve, I gave meditation another shot. I read Chödrön’s How to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends with Your Mind. I like making friends, I thought. I began trying to listen to and observe what was going on in my head, and a painful realization washed across me: I wasn’t enjoying being with myself. In fact, I wanted to get away from myself as fast as I could. And it dawned on me, If I don’t want to be with me, why the fuck would anybody else wanna be with me?
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She repeated over and over again, “Explore. Experience. Experiment. Expand.” She set free the wild-minded pathfinder within me, whose vision had been narrowed by the obligations and expectations of being “Will Smith.” Michaela encouraged me to “try new things” and “meet new people”—rekindle my spirit of exploration and adventure. I began to take a fresh sampling of the fruits of the human experience.
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But Michaela’s most important initiative came when she found out that I couldn’t swim. “Not on my watch,” she said, in one of the only times I managed to surprise her. When I’d told her I wanted a harem she didn’t flinch—but me not being able to swim sent her to feverishly texting my publicist, Meredith O’Sullivan-Wasson, who is friends with the four-time Olympic gold medalist in swimming Janet Evans. “You are going to develop a relationship with the ocean, the Big She,” Michaela said. “The ocean is the ultimate woman, a magnificent feminine environment. If you can understand her, you’ll understand us all. The ocean holds all the chaotic glory of Mother Nature, and no amount of power or intellect will ever be able to control or manipulate her. She doesn’t care how you’re feeling, or how you want her to be. All of the things that happen in a woman’s psyche and body are analogous to the ocean. The beauty, the storms, the nourishment, the danger, the moods and weather patterns, birth and death. The Big She will not be conquered or subdued; your only hope to truly enjoy her is to love her, respect her, and surrender. “I really like this for you because you will be forced to have a beginner’s mind. You’ll have to navigate her moods and emotions, and you’ll have to know when to bow out.”
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I began to see the personality of the Big She as an instructive embodiment of the flow of life. I realized that if I am to enjoy her beauty and her bounty—and avoid being destroyed by her—she demands that I’m fully attuned, attentive, and committed to understanding her. I settled into the acceptance of my powerlessness, which strangely liberated me. “Surrender” had always been a negative word for me—it meant losing or failing or giving up. But my burgeoning relationship with the ocean was exposing that my sense of control was actually an illusion. Surrender transformed from a weakness word to an infinite power concept. I had had a bias toward action—thrusting, pushing, striving, struggling, doing—and I began to realize that their opposites were equally as powerful—inaction, receptiveness, acceptance, non-resistance, being. Stopping was equally as powerful as going; resting was equally as powerful as training; silence was equally as powerful as talking. Letting go was equally as powerful as grasping. “Surrender” to me no longer meant defeat—it was now an equally powerful tool of manifestation. Losing could be equal to winning in terms of my growth and development. I began to understand a perplexing phrase that Gigi used to use: “Let go and let God.” That had always seemed wrong to me. It felt like absolving yourself of your responsibilities, like something that people say when they’re too lazy to do what’s necessary to build the life they want. But all of a sudden, it took on new and magical meaning. There is an energy that’s at work while you’re asleep—the energy that fires the sun, that moves the ocean, that beats your heart. You don’t have to do everything; in fact, most of the things that get done, you didn’t have anything to do with them. Actually, it’s a great thing that you were asleep, because if you’d been awake, you would probably have messed it up. And then, a new wording of Gigi’s axiom came into my mind: It’s not just “Let go and let God”—it’s “Let go and let God work.” The surfer and the ocean are a team; the mountain and the climber are partners, not adversaries. The Great River is going to do 99 percent of the work—your 1 percent is to study it, to understand it, to respect its power, and creatively dance within its currents and its laws. Act when the universe is open, and rest when she’s closed.
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I had just finished shooting Collateral Beauty. It is a film about a father who has to cope with the death of his daughter. As a part of my character research, I had spent the last five months doing a deep dive on the spiritual, psychological, cultural rituals and healing practices that help people face the profound suffering of losing someone. I met with priests, imams, shamans, rabbis, gurus; I read a ton of books on death: On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross; The Tibetan Book ofLiving and Dying by Tibetan Buddhist teacher Sogyal Rinpoche; Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom; The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. Going into the role, I felt totally prepared and confident that I could accurately depict the triumphant arc from tragic loss toward perfect healing. I had been trying to find the solution to the agony of loss for my character, but now I was being forced to find it for myself.
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The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying lays out the most critical tenets to supporting and soothing the transition of a dying loved one. The first idea that jumped off the page for me was that a dying person often needs “permission to die.” The book posits that sometimes a dying person will fight and struggle to stay alive if they don’t have the sense that you are going to be OK without them. This can create horrific and painful final days. In order for our loved one to let go and die peacefully, they need to be explicitly reassured that we’re going to be OK after they are gone, that they did a great job with their life, and that we can handle it from here.
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I came to see him every week for the next month and a half. There is something strangely clarifying and cleansing about looking into the eyes of someone who has accepted their pending death. The awareness of death bestows profundity and clears all the bullshit out of the way. The finality of it all makes every moment feel infinitely significant. Every hello felt like a gift from God. We were both overwhelmed with gratitude that we got to see each other one more time. And then, every goodbye was complete and perfect because we were saying goodbye with the full knowledge that this might be our last. Every laugh, every story takes on weight and meaning in that simple fact. Death has a way of transforming the mundane into the magical. Hellos and goodbyes should be that way in our everyday lives because the reality is tomorrow is not promised. I began to embrace every hello with gratitude and to never take a goodbye for granted. The level of devoted focus, honesty, and compassion that Daddio and I shared became the aspirational model for love in my life.
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One of the central and most critical tenets of filmmaking is “know your ending.” When you understand the emotional, philosophical, and moral conclusion of your movie, you can better craft everything that leads up to it. The comprehension of the physical plot and thematic endpoints allows you to reverse engineer a more resonant and enjoyable journey for the audience. The end of a film is similar to the punch line of a joke—you want the meaning to erupt in the hearts and minds of the audience. Imagine beginning to tell a joke without knowing the punch line. Life is like that. You’re born into a bunch of characters, everyone’s looking at you, you can’t communicate, you can’t walk, you can’t feed yourself, yet everybody seems to be excited to see what you’re going to end up doing. So, you begin telling your joke, with no fucking clue what the punch line is going to be. You’re watching the audience—sometimes they chuckle, sometimes they boo, but deep down inside they hope you land the punch line.
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We came to see our marriage as a spiritual discipline—what Bhakti Tirtha Swami called the ultimate “school of love.”