Book notes: Will by Will Smith

Will by Will Smith book summary review and key ideas.

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Will by Will Smith


“One of the most dynamic and globally recognized entertainment forces of our time opens up fully about his life, in a brave and inspiring book that traces his learning curve to a place where outer success, inner happiness, and human connection are aligned. Along the way, Will tells the story in full of one of the most amazing rides through the worlds of music and film that anyone has ever had.  

Will Smith’s transformation from a West Philadelphia kid to one of the biggest rap stars of his era, and then one of the biggest movie stars in Hollywood history, is an epic tale — but it’s only half the story.   

Will Smith thought, with good reason, that he had won at life: Not only was his own success unparalleled, his whole family was at the pinnacle of the entertainment world. Only they didn’t see it that way: They felt more like star performers in his circus, a seven-days-a-week job they hadn’t signed up for. It turned out Will Smith’s education wasn’t nearly over.” -Audible

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Opening thoughts:

I first saw this book when Will Smith was promoting it on his Instagram. This was an instant buy for me as I’m a huge fan of his work and also what he puts out. I’m not sure what to expect from this book, but I know it’ll probably cover the main points in his life and maybe lessons learned. Hopefully, I’ll be able to take good notes on this book.

Key notes:

The Wall

  • He learned that when you focus on the wall, the task seems impossible
    • But when you focus on the brick, it becomes much easier
  • He started to see that the difference between a task that feels impossible and a task that feels doable is merely a matter of perspective
  • No matter what challenges you go through in life, there’s always another break you can lay
    • The question is are you going to get up and lay it?

Chapter 1: fear

  • His mom taught him that the only thing people can’t take away from you is knowledge
  • Because of the unpredictable and fear-based environment created by his father, he learned at an early age how to read people and understand their emotions
    • This was a survival mechanism for him but would serve him well as an actor in the future
  • While his dad caused him so much fear, he was also his greatest champion and always had his back and provided for him and his family
  • His entire family were fighters except for him
    • He was the weak one without courage
  • In acting, understanding of characters fears is a critical part of understanding his or her psyche
  • The environment caused them to be a natural born pleaser and entertainer in order to placate others and keep everything happy to avoid pain
  • His father saying was that if two people are in charge, everyone dies
    • He vowed that one day he will be in charge and this will never happen again

Chapter 2: fantasy 

  • Two of his greatest gifts are his imagination and his work ethic. When combined, he can make money rain
  • Comedy is an extension of intelligence
    • It’s hard to be really funny if you’re not really smart
  • Living in your own rules and your own reality can be an advantage sometimes
    • But you have to be careful when you detached from reality because there are consequences
  • Unlike most people who grow up and choose reality over fantasy, Will never did that and chose fantasy to keep him safe
  • All fantasies eventually fail
    • No matter how hard you fight, the truth is undefeated
    • Reality remains the undefeated champ

Chapter 3: performance

  • His grandmother Gigi lived the gospel and felt like it was an honor to serve others
  • His parents and grandmother instilled in him three things:
    1. Discipline
    2. knowledge/education
    3. Love
  • His grandmother taught him that it’s hard to be sad when you’re grateful for all God has given you
    • He’s only giving you one job: to love all of his children
  • To the black communities, he wasn’t black enough because he wasn’t tough
    • But his music was considered soft and accessible enough for white audiences, but he was still the black kid
  • He was a classic class clown, using performance and humor as his sword and shield
  • He started to equate laughter with safety
  • He aspired to eventually create a life for his family where he could provide for everyone and make everyone happy

Chapter 4: power

  • When his grandma saw his rap book full of curse words, she taught him that intelligent people don’t need to use curse words, and that he should be using his blessing to uplift people with his words
  • During rap battles in high school he was invincible
    • He learned that no matter how good you were as a rapper or your style, you can’t beat funny
    • And he was the funniest
  • Learning becomes really easy when you know your teachers love you
  • Internal power and confidence are born from insight and proficiency
    • When you understand something or are good at something, you feel strong and it makes you feel like you have something to offer
    • Being good at some thing allows you to be calm during the storms

Chapter 5: hope

  • When he met Jazzy Jeff and they spontaneously collabed at a party, it was magic and they were both in the zone
    • Will admits that he’s probably the only person in the world who has outworked him
    • All Jeff ever does was put in work and practice
  • A great concept from Jim Rohn: “look at the five people you spend the most time with because that’s who you are
  • When people give you advice, they’re basing it on what they would do, what they can perceive, and what they think you can do
  • His father deliberated between his mothers wishes for him to go to college and for Will’s dreams of pursuing rap
    • They compromised and gave well one year to pursue his dream but then after that he had to go to college that his mom chose
    • He revered his father for his leadership in this situation

Chapter 6: ignorance

  • Life and living is the journey from not knowing to knowing
    • From not understanding to understanding. From confusion to clarity
    • Life is learning. Overcoming ignorance is the whole point of the journey
      • You’re not supposed to know at the beginning
  • We have it backwards. Venturing fourth is how we get the knowledge, we can’t expect to have the knowledge before we venture
    • In school we learned a lesson then take the test
    • In life, life is the test and then it is our job to find the lessons
  • His dad taught him that it’s better to die than to walk around scared

Chapter 7: adventure

  • The double album that he and DJ Jazzy Jeff put out was the first rap group to win a Grammy ever as the category just started their year 
  • Russell Simmons was using them as the tip of the spear to pioneer Hip-Hop in the mainstream
  • At age 20 he was a world famous rapper, Grammy award winner, and freshly minted millionaire

Chapter 8: pain

  • He sensed and confirmed the truth that his girlfriend cheated on him. This devastated him even though he felt like he did everything right, how could this happen?
  • At this time he was still equating performance with love
    • His self-esteem was foundationally dependent upon whether his woman was happy
    • His self image was bound up with women’s opinion and approval of him
  • Your environment is critical
    • Choosing the city you live in is just as important as choosing your life partner

Chapter 9: destruction

  • It’s respectable to lose to the universe. It’s a tragedy to lose to yourself
  • Becoming famous is about as much fun as the material world has to offer
    • Being famous is a bit of a mixed bag. But fading-famous sucks ass

Chapter 10: alchemy

  • The universe is not logical, it’s magical
    • A major aspect of the pain and mental anguish we experience as humans is that our minds seek and often demand logic and order from an illogical universe
      • Our minds desperately want shit to add up
    • But the rules of logic do not apply to the laws of possibility. The universe functions under the laws of magic
  • Quincy Jones is the type of person who genuinely likes people and thinks they’re each a unique work of art
    • He genuinely finds something interesting about everybody
  • As soon as he met Quincy and told him he was from Philly, Quincy made the decision that the main character of this TV show would be from Philly and moving to Bel-Air, which was where Quincy lived 
  • Terror struck him as he realized that Quincy Jones was asking him to do an impromptu audition for the role at his party in front of NBC executives and a bunch of A-list celebrities
  • Quincy’s superpower was that he was a lightning rod for the magic of the universe and he prepared himself and the environment for brilliance to come in
    • Quincy Jones understood that magic demands awareness, faith, and preparation
  • Quincy orchestrated the magic at the party by having a deal drawn up and signed after his audition in two hours
    • And seemingly overnight, he gained a new family of extraordinarily talented actors
    • Alfonso even gave him one of the best pieces of advice which was to have his character name his own name Will Smith because people will call him that for the rest of his life
  • The production of the pilot for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was nothing short of magic
    • Shows don’t happen that fast but the turnaround was only a span of a few months
  • He really liked making music, but he loved acting
    • He felt like it was the thing that set him free and allowed him to fully express his creativity and imagination
  • Book reference: The Alchemist
    • Will say this was the first book he read cover to cover. It penetrated his soul

Chapter 11: adaptation

  • Change can be scary but it is 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
    • The capacity to adjust and improvise is arguably the single most critical human ability
  • Things can be perfectly useful and absolutely necessary during certain periods of our lives
    • But a time will come when we must put them aside or die
  • His personal and professional crash and burn taught him a harsh universal lesson: nothing last forever
    • Everything rises and falls
    • During the good times, he would plant and nurture the seeds of the next thing
    • He vowed to never get caught sleeping again
    • He felt that if he was truly wise, he could time the harvest of the next thing as soon as the current thing died down
  • He unfortunately came to the same conclusion about love
    • He would always be ready to chase the new thing and like Tarzan grab the next vine as he released the previous one
    • Therefore, he would never get hurt and could always enjoy the spring time of love
  • Friday night tapings of The Fresh Prince was so hype because everyone who is everyone tried to make it to their live tapings, and the entire cast was so talented and they could perform at any time
  • It’s amazing how skewed your vision can become when you see the present through the lens of your past
  • When he first heard the track for Summertime at the airport, his mind was blown
    • For the next two hours he channeled the creative energy flowing through him
    • It was the first and only song he wrote from start to finish without editing anything
    • Summertime hit #1 on the hip-hop charts, won another Grammy and an American music award
  • While on sets, he had an obsessive work ethic because he was afraid of failing
    • So he memorized the entire script including other peoples lines because if it failed, he didn’t want it to be his fault
  • He desperately wanted to win the approval of James Avery who was a master at his craft
    • He was his father figure on the show but slowly became one in real life as well
  • One of the most famous dramatic scenes of the entire series was with Will and James when his father bailed on him
    • James coached him through it and it became the actual cut

Chapter 12: Desire

  • Asking what a character wants is a portal into the essential truths of somebody
    • Once you answer the essential question of what do they want/their main motivation, the next question to answer is “why do they want it?”
  • The war between desire and obstacle is the heart and soul of dramatic storytelling
    • Sometimes the obstacles are internal
  • When JL asked him what was his main goal, will finally articulated some thing that he never said out loud before
    • He wanted to be the biggest movie star ever
  • Book reference: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey
    • There are only two human problems:
      1. Knowing what you want but not knowing how to get it
      2. Not knowing what you want. Clarity of mission is a powerful cornerstone of success
  • The 3 F’s of movie stardom:
    1. Being able to fight, being funny, and being good at sex
  • What do you think of as yourself is a fragile construct, just like the characters that actors play
  • Because of his method acting on Six Degrees of Separation movie, he lost his character on the Fresh Prince for 10 episodes 
  • He met Jada and they both knew they were meant to be
    • But he had a nervous breakdown when he met his wife Sheree for dinner because he knew he would never break his word or commitment to his wife

Chapter 13: devotion

  • Will couldn’t comprehend quitting or divorce. It’s either you accomplish your mission or you die
  • 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 is trying to seek pleasure, comfort, and the easy way inadvertently poisons it’s dreams
      • If it were easy, everyone would do it
    • The reason we make vows is because we know we’re about to do a hell walk
  • In his opinion, people get divorced too soon, before they were able to extract the lessons that will prevent them from doing the exact same things in the next relationship
  • The heart and soul of their union then and now is intense, luminescent conversation
    • If they begin a conversation, it is usually at a minimum of 2 hours and typically 5 to 6 hours
  • Before Will even met Martin Lawrence, he respected him, his artistry, and his street cred in the black community very deeply
    • He studied him incessantly
  • Martin came to him and asked him to be a part of Bad Boys
    • Martin eventually took over the production but was telling everyone that he wouldn’t do it without Will
    • Martin was taking a shot on him despite Hollywood being skeptical about Will
  • Near the end of the divorce process, Sheree proposed to Will to keep the family together to do it’s best for their son
    • Will told Jayda everything, and through her tears and devastation, agreed that they should try everything they can to keep their family together for their son

Chapter 14: boom

  • When the box office numbers for Independence Day came back as record-breaking, his dad called him at 3 AM to remind him about how he always told Will that there’s no such thing as luck
    • That it’s all about preparation and opportunity
    • Then his dad said he’s the luckiest dude alive, and they both irrupted in laughter
  • The next 10 years of his Hollywood career was astonishing with so many hit movies and records
  • The theme song to The Fresh Prince, which is technically a record, is apparently the biggest rap song in history
  • He became the first person in history of Pennsylvania to pay for his own child support when he paid his dad to pay his mom for child support after finally sending in divorce papers 20 years later
    • She then cut him a check back to Will, being the first person to ever do that
  • He met Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, the three biggest movie stars and three wise men in Hollywood
    • He asked them with an audacious question of “how to become the biggest movie star
    • Arnold answered for the three of them and said to become a biggest movie star, he had to be known around the world, and be big in all markets not just the United States
  • He saw that the only person who is better than him, rather the best at global promotion, was Tom Cruise
    • He had an insane promotional schedule and work ethic 
  • However, the one thing that he could do the others couldn’t was using music, and so he started to have promotional concerts
    • They moved him out of entertainment and into news which made his promotion a cultural phenomenon
  • When Independence Day dropped, it became the highest grossing film at the time and he was only 27 years old
    • But he had felt this on top of the world feeling before and was ready for it this time
  • There are clear differences between music fame, TV show theme, and movie fame
    • TV fame – people will think you are like close friends and will be offended if you don’t interact with them
    • Music fame makes them associate you with whatever vibe of music you’re attached to
    • Movie fame is like worship

Book reference: The Hero of a Thousand Faces

  • The human mind is a storytelling machine. The creation of narrative is hardwired into us
    • What we call memory and imagination are essentially just stories that we programmed into our minds as a survival mechanism to protect ourselves and to help us thrive
  • Great stories illuminate truth
  • After meeting with Steven Spielberg, he decided to do Men in Black
    • He mentioned that there’s nothing in entertainment more combustible than a hit movie with a hit record as they feed off of each other

Chapter 15 : inferno

  • After men in Black came out, and the accolades and records came in, he was the most bankable movie star in the world
    • He was indisputably the biggest movie star in the world
  • How can we pursue and fully realize our visions while at the same time cultivating love, a thriving family, and fulfilling relationships?
    • The harsh reality for everyone who loves a dreamer: everything come second to the dream
    • Being a great father was central to his vision for his life
  • He and his ex-wife started to undergo a custody battle of Trey
    • He called his dad and took his advice to not fight with Trey’s mom and let her do her thing or else his son will hate him for the rest of his life
      • Just like his dad said, Trey reached out after he turned 13 and wanted to move in with Will
  • Will’s mom had an accident in Turkey and ultimately had to amputate part of her leg
    • Three days after she left turkey there was an earthquake that killed a lot of people

Chapter 16: purpose 

  • When he came across the offer to play Muhammad Ali in the upcoming movie, he initially was not up to the challenge and the risk of portraying such a distinct and living legend
  • He met with Ali and was graced with his warmness
    • Ali told Will that he would be honored if we would play him in the movie and that he’s been telling people now for years 
  • The one year training to become Muhammad Ali was intense but he was committed to the process of becoming a real fighter
    • Dreams are built on discipline
      • Discipline is built on habits
      • Habits are built on training
      • And training takes place in every single second in every situation of your life
        • You better do your best all the time or you won’t
        • If the behavior has not been trained and practiced then the switch will not be there when you need it
  • The power of Ali’s purpose and his lifelong commitment to his principles and service moved people to help with the production of this film to tell the story properly
  • Purpose and desire can seem similar but they are different. Sometimes even opposing forces
    • Desire is personal, narrow, and pointed, and tend towards self-preservation, self-gratification, and short term gains and pleasures
    • Purpose is wider, broader, a longer-term vision encompassing the benefit of others
      • Some thing outside of yourself you’re willing to fight for 
    • Desire is what you want. Purpose is the flowering of what you are
      • Desire tends to weaken overtime whereas purpose strengthens the more you lean into it
        • Desire can be depleting because it is insatiable
        • Purpose is empowering. It’s a stronger engine 
  • Reference to Viktor Frankl: “In someways, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning such as the meaning of a sacrifice
    • A noble aim engenders positive feelings
    • When we pursue what we believe to be a profound and valuable goal, it stirs the best parts of ourselves and others
  • He’s not really a man of regret, but one of his greatest regrets was not taking Nelson Mandela up on his offer to spend more time with him
    • Deep down he was probably afraid that he wouldn’t live up to the impression that he felt Mandela held him to

Chapter 17: perfection

  • During their hot streak his entire team collectively strove for excellence in everything they did in order to support the team effort
  • He is a dreamer and a builder
    • He pictures grand visions and then he builds systems to make them real in the world. That is his love language
    • He wants to help the people he loves build extraordinary lives for themselves
      • But it demands that they be willing to grind and sacrifice, but most importantly, they have to trust him
  • It is impossible to build a thing of a higher quality than the quality of the people around you
  • There’s only one fear worse than the fear of not obtaining the object of your desire
    • And that is the fear of losing the object of your desire 
  • Will was a masterful monopoly player
    • But he eventually realized his fault of thinking he needed to be a perfect warrior around his family when he should have been bonding with them
  • Jaden for casted as his son on The Pursuit of Happyness and this situation was perfection for Will
    • He could parent at work and teach his son
  • His unprecedented Hollywood success made him realize that he conflated success with being loved and being happy, which were 3 separate things
    • The pursuit of material success is insatiable and leaves you always wanting more, but never happy
  • He got invited onto Oprah to showcase his family, and Will felt like his successful family empire was complete

Chapter 18: mutiny

  • After Willow’s tour, she asked him “does it matter to you how I feel?
    • He realized it was such an earth-shaking and existential human question to him and to us all
  • He realized that in that moment, his worldview put his and everyone else’s feelings a lower down the priority list, below doing what was necessary to survive and thrive, despite their feelings
  • Feelings are like fire that are useful and productive
    • But when unchecked, they can destroy your dreams and goals
  • He had the shocking realization: people don’t give a shit about anything except how they feel
    • Feeling good is the most important thing to everyone everywhere at all times
  • He cared more about peoples well-being than their feelings because he believed feelings were skewed and not always true
    • People don’t care about what you think and feel
      • They care about what they think and feel
  • Movie reference: After Earth
    • This would be his family project to save his family and bring them together
  • For the movie, his main focus was to consider his son’s feelings
    • The result was that he wasn’t as focused on the production and quality of the film, which ended up being a box office failure
  • Will and Jada came to the understanding that nobody can make someone else happy
    • They needed to be responsible for their own individual happiness

Chapter 19: retreat

  • He realized he was addicted to the approval of others and he got that through winning, hard work, and obsessively pursuing perfection
    • He also saw downtime as the enemy where you lose things 
    • He realized that his need to be busy and active was a way to prevent himself from feeling and being alone with himself
  • Memory is not a flawless recording of what actually happened
    • It’s not a video or even a photograph
    • It is your psychological artistic rendering. It’s more like an abstract impressionistic painting of what happened
      • It is also not fixed as it can change over time
  • He did a 14-day silent retreat cut off from everyone else in his Utah cabin home
    • He read a lot of books and learned about meditation and self reflection
    • He realized when he was alone with his thoughts that he didn’t want to be with himself
    • And if this was true, why would anyone want to be with him?

Chapter 20: Surrender

  • What would make you happy?
    • If you could snap your fingers and have any life you wanted, what would it look like?
  • A freestanding man is self-aware, self-reliant, self-motivated, self-confident, and utterly unswayed by people’s approval or disapproval
    • He knows what he is, what he wants, and because of this he surrenders his considerable gifts into the service of others
    • Control is just an illusion
      • He discovered that surrender is infinitely more powerful
  • Act when the universe is open and rest when she is closed
  • He did a spiritual ceremony where he had an epiphany that he was beautiful internally and didn’t need anyone’s external approval

Chapter 21: love

  • Death has a way of transforming the mundane into the magical
    • Every moment spent with his dad in the last few weeks of his life was deep and meaningful
  • What are the most central and critical tenants of filmmaking is: know your ending
    • The end of the film is similar to the punchline of a joke. You want the meaning to irrupt in the hearts and minds of the audience
    • Imagine beginning to tell a joke without knowing the punchline. Life is like that
  • There’s nothing that you can receive from the material world that will create inner peace or fulfillment
    • The truth is the smile is generated through output
    • It’s not something you get, it’s something you cultivate through giving
      • In the end it will not matter one single bit how well they loved you. You will only get the smile based on how well you loved them
    • The sweet paradox is being fulfilled by giving
      • Allowing the best within you to serve and unleash the best within others is the most intense of human pleasures 
  • He defines love as discovering, cultivating, and sharing your unique gifts for the purpose of uplifting and empowering your loved ones
    • The smile is a combination of the recognition of the unique treasure within you and the realization that the treasure is multiplied through giving it away
      • Loving, giving, helping, serving, protecting, nourishing, empowering, and forgiving are the secrets of the smile
  • Will and Jada realized that what they needed from each other was 100% unconditional support
    • Not judgment, not punishment, but total, unbending devotion to each other‘s growth and well-being
    • They came to see their marriage as a spiritual discipline
      • We are learning to cultivate care, concern, and compassion in the most intimate and difficult of circumstances
  • There are a few things in life as difficult as being married
    • Love is hard. It takes enormous courage to open a wounded heart over and over again to the possibility of love’s bliss
    • Loving unconditionally is very hard because it’s easier to love someone if they act exactly as you want them to
      • But how do you behave when they step outside your picture? How do you treat them when they hurt you?
  • Love demands bravery, a willingness to risk it all
    • Bravery doesn’t mean absence of fear
    • Bravery is learning to continue forward even if you’re terrified 

Chapter 22: the jump

  • He realize that for some reason God placed the most beautiful things in life on the other side of our worst terrors

Closing thoughts:

Wow. I haven’t read an autobiography of this caliber in a long time. Even after a couple months, it still has an impact on me.

Honestly, I wasn’t expecting to get this much from this book. While I generally love reading the memoirs of famous and successful people, I especially enjoy those works by figures I personally respect or at least thoroughly appreciate the work they put out. However, I got a lot more than I thought I would by the end.

It’s great when a book makes me go back to pop culture references that I’m personally familiar with. Several times during my listening of this book, I stopped to Wikipedia a movie he was in, some clips of his show, and listen to his music. Knowing the backstory and process of making something creates such a new experience when revisiting that piece of work.

Not only is the story behind the persona Will Smith captivating from start to finish, but his insights on artistry, career success, relationships, love, and life are deeply profound. Will does a great job pulling back the curtain on what it’s really like on the other side of mega-stardom, which is something only a privileged few will ever experience. And for that, I’m extremely grateful. Moreover, his vulnerability with his struggles make the lessons even more profound for the reader.

Overall, I highly recommend this book. If you’re a fan of Will Smith, or just like reading great memoirs, you’ll definitely enjoy this book.

One Takeaway / Putting into practice:

As with any great book, there are many valuable insights that someone could apply to their lives and drastically change for the better. Even for myself, there are 3-4 “one takeaways” that I could choose that would be equally impactful. This is because Will covers so many different aspects and categories across the major themes I typically write about.

I guess my one takeaway from this book should be the biggest struggle Will has had for most of his life: the need for the approval of others.

  • Nobody can make you happy. You are 100% responsible for your own happiness

I’ve heard and seen Will speak on this topic on the internet and on different platforms over the years. However, it was a more comprehensive and personal look at this concept in the context of his life story. It’s more impactful to hear this insight when Will takes you through how he came across this conclusion, after years and years of struggling with it despite his immense, worldly success.


Will Smith pulls the curtains back on his mega-star persona and outward success by sharing his personal struggles and lessons learned on his journey to where he is today.

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Rating: 5 out of 5.


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