Terry Crews knows a thing or two about creating success: He went from broke and in debt in college to playing in the NFL to sweeping floors for $8 an hour to Hollywood stardom. Today, he stars in NBC shows “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and “America’s Got Talent,” and he hit the big screen in popular flicks like “Sorry to Bother You” and “Deadpool 2.”
Crews says his journey was painful at times, but it taught him priceless lessons about work, life and what money can’t buy. He sat down with CNBC Make It’s managing editor, Jenna Goudreau, to talk about that journey.
CNBC Make It: Only 1 in a million make it as a pro athlete or in Hollywood, and you’ve done both. If you could credit your success to one thing, what would it be?
Terry Crews: Perseverance.
You know it’s funny you would say that phrase. … I told my my father I wanted to be a pro football player. I don’t have the best relationship with my dad, and he said, “You know what Terry? Only 1 in a million ever get to make it to the pros.” And I was like, “Dude. I’m 1 in a million.” That’s me.
And it hit me that the only way to make it was to think of yourself that way. Because you truly are. People tend to think that that means someone else, but I was like, no, I choose to think that’s me. And that changed everything.
How did you have the belief in yourself and then maintain it through all the hardships?
I told my wife when I met her, I said, “Look, first of all I’m going to play in the NFL. And then after we play in the NFL, we’re going to move to Hollywood. We’re going to make movies.” And she was like, “OK!” I meant every word.
I think we face many many obstacles but then you start to realize, OK, we don’t have any money, but if you’re going to be broke, why are we broke in Michigan? Let’s be broke in LA, where we’re at least around what we want to do. And that changed everything. You start to get shots and get chances and you’re humbled and you come back.
I have a story, do you mind if I tell you?
When I retired from the NFL and I was about to make that move into Hollywood, I had a friend who gave me many, many loans. He was my best friend … Ken Harvey. He played on the Redskins.
I kept coming back, asking him like, can I get another loan? And he was like, “Yeah, here you go, man.” Probably 10 loans, maybe 15, might be more than that. You’re talking about bad financial management. I mean, I’m literally depending on this guy to support me. But in my mind, that’s what friends do.
So finally, I call him up and I’m like, “Hey man, I need another loan.” He was like, “I can’t do it.” When I hung up the phone, I was mad at him. I was like, “How dare he.” He is supposed to be my friend.
And then all of a sudden a little voice hit me, and it said, “Terry, why are you mad at the only person that helped you in the first place?”
This is the deal: To find success, it’s in those moments, the moments when you’re off. You don’t see it, you don’t know it, you’re alone. But you hear a little voice that says, you know what? Maybe it’s me. Because any time you point out that someone else is the cause of your problems, you’re wrong. It’s you.
I went the next day and got a job. At a place called Labor Ready, where you basically go there and show up and they give you a job to do with manual labor for the day. They gave me a broom. I was sweeping a factory all day long for $8 an hour. I’ll never forget it.
My wife was telling me the whole time I needed to get a job, but I was like, “I’m super cool, I’m a pro football player.” Let me tell you something, I was so humble. I was sweeping that factory thinking, “Oh my God, my life is over.” Because you think if you go that low you’re going to fall apart.
I just kept sweeping, kept doing it. I had $64 at the end of the day. I went, “Oh my God, I actually made this money on my own.” I was never broke again. I never stopped working.
That was the turning point because you realize you’re willing to do what it takes.
Did you pay him back?
Oh yeah. He was already rich and the loans were really minimal. But to me they were giant. Because he was a real friend to me. He really taught me a lesson.
So in your early 20s you were dead broke and you were spending beyond your means. How has your life changed now that you have money?
I was always broke when I was trying to do things for money, always chasing money. Everything changed for me when I stopped doing [that]. So I would take a job that I looked at as a brilliant wonderful opportunity and I didn’t care what they paid me.
One of the big opportunities that really got us out of debt [was when] I started doing security for movies and TV. It was a very satisfying job because I was in the business. I was making like $12 an hour and I was happy.
One thing I discovered is that there is really no such thing as money. There’s only equity and honor. Equity is value given for value received — if you are really pleased with a service that I’m giving you, you give me money to represent that. And the honor part is for a job well done.
So there’s a lot of things that have no equity or no honor but make money. And the deal is, are you truly rich? I always have to go after equity and honor. Just do really really good things.
Even after last year when we I had my #MeToo moment and I came forward with my story [of being molested by a Hollywood agent]. I said [to my wife] Rebecca, Hollywood’s over. We’re done.
You thought that was the end.
People were like, “Your career is over.” I was like, “It is, but I have my equity and I have my honor.”
[Now] I have more money now than I ever had in my entire life. More jobs, more opportunities. I have to turn down tons of opportunities because I just can’t even fit them in the schedule. Because people understand equity and honor.
People make money but if they don’t have any equity or honor, it all falls away and that sounds real existential or spiritual but it’s for real.
You have a lot of jobs: On NBC, “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” is coming back and you’re hosting “America’s Got Talent.” You have a furniture line, a book coming out. How do you fit it all in?
I’m going to get real, real deep. When I gave up pornography [about 12 years ago], I had more time than you could ever believe. I was like, I got three more jobs! When I got rid of that addiction. I was wasting so much time and you don’t get that back. It made me a better person.
I used to do security outside of bars. I watched guys come right out of work and spend the whole evening in the bar. They could have a whole other job, a whole other life. But they sit in the bar and complain about the job they just spent eight hours in. And I was like, I can’t do that. And I’d watch and I’d say that’s something I can do.
Change your habits, change your life.
That’s it, that’s it. I’m preaching now! It was a big big deal because it had a big impact on my family and my life. I wrote all about it in my book, “Manhood.”
It was basically all my mistakes but because we’re talking about money, it all relates. When I look at African-American culture, a lot of times it was, “Let’s wear the gold, let’s buy the most expensive thing.” Because there are lots of deep, deep psychological things. And then the moment you do feel recognized, you don’t need the jewelry anymore.
That is the trick. because a lot of this stuff is all based on how you feel about yourself. I realized for 30 years I was buying all this stuff to feel like I was a human being. But I was already. You qualify. You’re priceless.
Where did that epiphany come from?
My wife has been so brutally honest with me.
Unless you have someone in your life who can tell you the real truth, I don’t think you can ever get it. Especially the guy because men are the most delusional human beings on the face of the Earth. I have to say, women deal with themselves in a more real way. But we live in an action movie. If you let us go, we’d have a whole other narrative that we can live and think it’s great. “You are like, “No I’m great, I’m wonderful. I’m going to jump off the building now.” You’re like, “No! Don’t do it.”
My wife is always like, “No, you can’t jump off the building. No, you can’t do that.” And she’s like, “You see how you wrecked yourself?” Yeah, I get it.
So our audience watching today, they want to make it. They want to achieve their potential. They look up to you. What is your best advice for them?
My best advice is that you are already enough. Now knowing that, go get it. You don’t have to prove anything to anybody. You don’t have to compete. You don’t have to fight. Just be creative. But go now, do it now. Do not hesitate. And work on your endurance, work on the fact that you need to do it faster, better. And do it all day without being tired. But also know that you are enough. You’re good. Now just go as far as you can. Every day. And you just keep getting farther and farther. And I’m telling you, you’ll wake up. And you’ll have made it. You will have made it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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