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The Spectacular Unraveling of Will Smith

“What you have come to understand as “Will Smith,” the alien-annihilating MC, the bigger-than-life movie star, is largely a construction—a carefully crafted and honed character—designed to protect myself. To hide myself from the world... To hide the coward.” ~ Will Smith.

The more I engage organizations and coach executives - the more I realize how crucial self-awareness is to sustaining success. By filling in knowledge gaps related to how we are perceived by others, areas of vulnerability and talent we should bring to the fore, and hidden areas of potential that need more understanding, individuals and organizations become empowered to make the decisions that lead to greater prosperity. This process is known as the Johari Window:

As I watched and rewatched Will Smith initially chuckle at Chris Rock's bald joke at his wife's expense and then take to the stage and physically assault a fellow top-level entertainer in front of a room of the elite of the acting world and on live television it was like seeing a tightly fastened veil finally released, revealing the complete human being - in all his frailty, machismo, anger, and anguish. This unfortunate episode of the Will Smith saga would never have happened if not for the intense public deconstruction of his carefully cultivated image over the past three years. A journey that has forced him to reconcile with his failings as a son, father, husband, and professional entertainer. A quest to save the life of the human in the midst of the marvel of his own creation - a brand that has more often than not chosen measured restraint and image maintenance over his own roiling emotions.

Smacking a comedian after a bad joke has been construed by many as Will defending a black woman or standing up for his family. But it's far more complex than that. Will Smith has always been firmly in control of how he is being seen and perceived - and only recently has he begun to pull back the curtain on who he actually is while exploring further depths. The slap at the Oscars was far less about his wife's approval and far more about reaching a psychological breaking point between his happy go lucky persona (Uncle Fluffy), his rigid warrior spirit (The General), his brand (Will Smith), and a man caught between them who has had to claw and fight to keep his marriage and family together amidst entanglements, intense public scrutiny, and the pursuit of artistic perfection.

It was ultimate self-knowledge coalescing in real-time.

In this article, I endeavor to reconcile the Will Smith we bore witness to being born on live television during the Oscars and the Will Smith whose pursuit of image perfection led him to this very stage and this very moment. My principal argument is that Will Smith didn't slap Chris Rock at the Oscars. Will Smith (aka The General), enraged at all the times Will Smith (aka Uncle Fluffy) had to suck it up for the sake of Will Smith (the brand), took to the stage and smacked away our image of Will Smith to the extent that we have no choice left but to see and deal with this new man emerging before us. One who, in his own words, "wants to be an ambassador of the kind of love and care and concern Richard Williams demonstrated for his family."

The Coward

When Will Smith was a young child, he witnessed his father brutally beating his mother in front of him, his brother, and his sister. The trauma from this and other events like it during his childhood splintered off a section of his personality and manifested the entertainer we know today. In his excellent memoir, Will reconciles his conflicted feelings about his father (love/hate/fear/respect) and even reveals a murder fantasy in which he pushes his now elderly and vulnerable Daddio down the hospital stairs in his last days. Instead, he chooses love over hate and in this moment rises above how he was raised, the example of manhood he was given, and becomes a version of the man he has longed to be.

Fear has been a constant theme in Will's life as is manhood. A motivating and driving force keeping him sharp and at the cutting edge of his craft as one of the biggest entertainers the world has ever seen. As such, we can consider the coward as Will's shadow self - who he is constantly running away from in order to convince himself that he has transformed from that weakened state into something nearly divine. The best version of himself.

But at some point, Will realized that he had to stop running and confront the coward head-on. And as if that wasn't a big enough challenge, he also committed to getting back into superstar shape after delivering an Oscar worthy performance in the film King Richard and putting on weight for the role and sitting around after lockdowns initiated. This confrontation was years in the making - ever since his marriage to fellow actor Jada Pinkett-Smith collapsed after an over-the-top birthday celebration for her 40th that opened up all the festering fissures between them. Soon, thereafter, for the first time in decades, Will confronted what it meant to be alone.

In a very revealing anecdote, Will discusses being on a yacht away from everything and everyone he knows in Trinidad, while a group of recent acquaintances frolics in the water nearby, and becoming furious that their entire itinerary for the day was to literally do nothing - even in the presence of WILL SMITH. He realized the need to check himself after this incident because clearly the hamster wheel he'd been running on - the same one that had brought him astounding fame and success over the years, was no longer serving him. It seemed that the coward was as afraid of inaction as he was of swimming.

The Icon

One of the most simultaneously comforting yet disconcerting things about Smith's memoir is how fundamentally flawed and human he comes across while at the same time realizing how high he has flown on his talent, discipline, dedication, calculation, and good fortune. He stumbled into a love of rap music as a teenager and had the extremely good fortune of becoming friends with Jeffrey Allen Townes (aka DJ Jazzy Jeff). Prodigiously charismatic even as a youth, Smith leveraged his talent and charm into a career that has now spanned over 35 years as an entertainer and public figure.

Will Smith, the global icon, is big on the concept of deciding, dedicating, and following through with rigorous discipline. This version of Smith made a decision early on that he wanted to be the world's biggest movie star (in the hopes that it would help him put the coward to rest once and for all) and then put all his dedication and discipline to bear until he stood alone at the top of the box office sales mountaintop in the early 2000's after completing a cinematic run between Bad Boys and Hancock that may never be repeated. Along the way, he carefully cultivated an unrivaled image of individual, familial, and business success. He became, as the kids today say, #lifegoals.

Failure became as foreign a concept to him as unscheduled time. Everything was meticulously mapped out and executed. Within his sphere of control, it seemed he could do no wrong. This was a direct result of the persona he named The General - the aspect of his personality responsible for intense discipline and achievement. But as it does for everyone, collapse came for him in the most insidious of manners - through his children. Pushing his kids into the spotlight as manifestations of his own brand of perfection blew up in his face. After Earth, the film he shot in the hopes of building out son Jaden's burgeoning film career was a disaster and his daughter Willow called off a global music tour. And further on the home front, he and his beloved wife Jada were having significant marital challenges. His family was being forced to deal with the dizzying dichotomy of living with the coward and icon simultaneously - something like watching your fifty-year-old father/husband Helo jump over the Grand Canyon in front of a global audience.

Having failed to fully weaponize his celebrity as a force for global good, despite pithy quotes, charitable contributions, political involvement, and launching a sustainable water brand; Smith, in this latter stage of his life, realized he needed to do some important reconciliation between the icon and the man. He needed to murder Uncle Fluffy and The General and then deal with whoever was left. And he needed to do it in front of a global audience.

The Man

On his 2021 television show - The Best Shape of My Life, Smith begins this public deconstruction of his well-crafted image that culminates with Chris Rock being smacked during the Oscars. Out of shape, ornery, and uncomfortable - we witness Will, fresh off playing Richard Williams, as he confronts the interstitial and existential weight of his fifty-plus year existence - reconciling what the world expects of Will Smith and what Will Smith expects of himself in this stage of his life. His psychologist on the show asks the insightful question, "how the heck does this guy cope, when he's not winning?"

How does someone with such an image of perfection deal with what could be perceived as a public character assassination orchestrated by his own wife on her platform as she stated by way of rationale for seeking a relationship outside of their marriage, "I just wanted to feel good - it had been so long since I felt good." Will Smith, the man, was never more vulnerable than during the episode of Red Table Talk where Jada revealed that during a short breakup in their marriage, she had a romantic "entanglement" with an R&B singer. He looks visibly ruffled and disheveled as they get deeper into the conversation - his ego noticeably deflated with the icon nowhere in sight.

From that low moment, we can trace a straight line from the Red Table to the Oscars slap. We collectively witnessed Smith's version of rock bottom. Rock bottom for someone as needy for approval as Will Smith is not the same as rock bottom for other people. All it takes for him is to cross a bridge and then leave that structure irrevocably damaged in his wake due to the honesty and reality of the moment. And today, at the time which should be a celebration of his greatest career achievement, the world is discussing exactly who Will Smith is.

By focusing on reconciling his self-awareness and deconstructing his internal self and states, Will Smith has found an endless supply of inspiration and objectives to pursue beyond just being universally beloved, revered, and respected. With a global bestselling memoir, a choice of movie roles on deck, and finally an Oscar - Will Smith is not yet finished with winning. The real question is what he will do with his winnings. How will he make his life meaningful for others beyond merely entertaining us? The answer, ironically, is entangled in his very name and identity - will. His relentless focus has now met its match in terms of his increasing awareness of his human frailty and limitations. Allowing himself to feel, be real, be vulnerable, and be seen for who he actually is while living in service of his broader mission will be this man's greatest challenge yet.

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