It’s hard to believe that there’s more to Lewis Howes, renowned for his top 100 podcast “The School of Greatness.” He’s inspired millions with his extraordinary comeback story from an injury that landed him on his sister’s couch and ended his pro sports career and his childhood dreams. He’s proved that learning disabilities and stereotypes don’t have to define you. He’s been recognized by President Obama and the White House as one of the top 100 entrepreneurs in the country younger than 30. He’s been featured in The New York Times, Fast Company, and Men’s Health and has appeared on ESPN, “Ellen” and the “Today” show. (And he’s a USA Team Handball athlete, too.)

“The School of Greatness” is a platform for Howes to help each of us understand and then share our authentic greatness in the world. But the entrepreneur, revered by peers and followers alike, says that despite success fueled by personal experience, Lewis Howes, the person, remained behind a mask. It wasn’t a shield or a persona that he maintained to keep people out. Instead, it was a filter for emotions that he—and other men, and arguably, women—have not learned to communicate.

In fact, Howes realized that he’d worn a different mask at different points in his life, and while those masks had served a purpose, they also held him back.

Written for men, relatable for women

In “The Mask of Masculinity” (Rodale Books, 2017), Howes is candid about the athletic stereotype that was his first mask. It was his ticket to success—and it was also his undoing. He came to the realization four years ago: “After talking to my friends and family about stuff that I went through as a kid, I opened up about a lot of things I was going through, on my podcast.”

He continues, “The more I talked about it, the more I realized that other people were going through similar things, and it was really helpful for them to hear a guy who looked like me, a big jock-looking white, straight male. Other people who looked like me or who grew up like me never had permission to do the same themselves.”

Recognizing that suppression meant that he channeled his energy into succeeding at sports and in business, Howes also acknowledges the cost for men—and women. “I wrote the book for men,” he explains. “But as I was writing it and going through this, I realized that women are struggling to connect with men because [masks make it] hard to connect and relate. And I wanted women to be able to understand the men in their lives better.

“Women have a massive influence on the way men show up in the world—by the things they say to men, by their reactions”—and when men have been hurt or made fun of, picked on or bullied, it’s hard to open up and be vulnerable. To Howes, understanding means awareness about fathers’ silence and stoicism, awareness about why husbands may get angry, why sons don’t look us in the eyes. Understanding leads to compassion, and Howes says that’s the start of a conversation that is about connecting rather than changing—and the start of a deeper relationship.

The mask takes several forms

Howes speaks from experience with a couple of familiar masks. “In the fitness world and just playing sports, in general, I was told to not show emotion,” he explains. “I was told that if I showed any weakness, I wasn’t going to be successful as an athlete.” This meant he wouldn’t get the love and acknowledgment that comes with winning—and any evidence of sensitivity or vulnerability would mean rejection by his team. So Howes put on his athlete mask.

When he landed on his sister’s couch, he found the material mask. “The material mask was something I needed to put on when I was broke and didn’t have any money,” he says. “I was living on my sister’s couch. I told myself, ‘I don’t want to feel like my sister has to take care of me anymore, so I’m going to do whatever I can to figure out how to build a business and earn an income.’”

Howes discovered both masks served a purpose. While they got results, he paid a price. “When I wore the athlete mask, it got me big results,” he says. “I was an All-American in a couple of sports. I played professional football. But I obsessed over it, and I wasn’t able to turn it off or take it off. I had to win at everything. [The mask was on] for six hours of training, three hours of practice of competing every single day, [and] I couldn’t turn it off afterward. In my relationships, I had to be right. I had to win at everything because I was a competitor, I was an athlete driven to be right and driven to win.”

His material mask also brought success that was valuable in some respects and costly in others. “It made me a lot of money, so it wasn’t a bad thing,” Howe says. “But it got to the point where all I did was obsess over making money. I never slept because I was so afraid that when I lost money, I would be broke again on my sister’s couch. I was pulling all-nighters every single night, eating whatever I wanted to eat, gained 60 pounds. I didn’t have any intimate relationships and something was off.”

What healing looks like

Howes found that when he used healthier forms of communication instead of burying his vulnerability in frustration, anger and beating himself up, he was able to heal. The impact was tangible: He finally got a good night’s sleep.

“It wasn’t until I started to open up about all the trauma that I’d been through, to look someone in the eyes and tell them what happened, that I was able to fall asleep,” he says. “Before that, it would take me hours to go to bed—every single night.” Now, Howes says he can count on peaceful sleep in 10 or 15 minutes. And with more subtle shifts Howes noticed in himself, it occurred to him that “this was a responsibility to start encouraging other men to open up with their loved ones, their family, their friends, their partners.”

Howes says that for men, healing begins with identifying the masks that men tend to wear, and the process is never finished. “I still wear [masks], but I’m much more aware of it when it happens and I’m able to take them off quicker,” he says. “That can mean noticing a tendency toward aggression or just a sense of something not being right. For example, Howes says that he gets that sense when he’s “only thinking about money and not thinking about impact and serving people”—which is his vision. He says he knows because “it just doesn’t feel right.”

For women, Howes says healing starts with understanding and asking why. “The Mask of Masculinity” provides simple steps to begin to work with those masks by starting a conversation. And with daily reminders of violence in the world, Howes says that from his perspective, no matter who begins the journey, it’s crucial to start.

Photo credit: Mark Kuroda,
Grooming: Chanel