Life Advice from Jim Brown

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What adventure most changed your life?

When my great-grandmother died, I left St. Simons Island in Georgia and joined my young mother in Great Neck, New York. I went from this foundation of a segregated island community to being the son of a domestic in a Jewish family’s home, sleeping in a suite over the garage and going to school, sometimes in a taxi. That was the biggest change of my life. The conditions were very lonely, very isolated, but dealing with that made me independent and gave me great work habits. So it was not a bad thing.

What should every man know about women?

That he don’t know a damn thing about women. And if he thinks he does, he’s a fool.

What should every man know about money?

That it’s not the most important thing in life. What is? Man’s humanity to man.

When is it OK for a man to lie?

When there is no standard. Because then a lie is no long­er a lie. I’ll tell you what I mean. America says we are a great democratic society and other people should follow our example. Well, I say we benefited from slavery and as a nation we never faced that, because the people in power chose not to. Therefore, there is no standard other than the one you decide for yourself. To lie to an enemy is not a lie. I’ll give you another example: The NCAA is a hypocritical operation, asking these kids to stand up to the standards of amateurism, keeping them starving while they’re making money for somebody else. So in that case it’s open season when anybody wants to lie.

What book should every man read?

The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I’ve used it to demonstrate racial attitudes to people who I thought needed a better understanding of all human beings. Malcolm was not a racist. He was not looking for revenge. He realized that kindness and goodness did not come from any one kind of person.

What’s the best way to motivate other men?

I would never try to motivate anyone to follow me. I would motivate him to follow certain principles. No human being should be a role model. We all have flaws.

What’s the best way to intimidate other men?

Outthink them.

How does a man know when it’s time to retire?

The most sorrowful, pitiful thing in sports is to see someone lose their skills and stay too long. I wanted to finish under my terms, and I did. A sports background was actually great preparation for Hollywood. You’ve already tasted fame, but it’s real fame based on what you’ve really done. In Hollywood, so much of what you’re famous for has nothing to do with you.

What article of clothing should every man own?

A pair of pants.

What article of clothing should a man never wear?

Well, I don’t think I can answer that. My natural brain is to say, all right, a man should never wear women’s underwear. But maybe there are certain situations where he should. You know, some of these things are tricky.

What trait should every man have?

Integrity. And it has nothing to do with what anyone else thinks. It has to do with knowing the truth about yourself.

How should a man handle getting older?

Main thing is, never let age take away your relevance.

What advice would you give the younger you?

Be more patient. Don’t impose your standards on everybody else.

What’s the best way to survive in prison? [In 2002, Brown served four months for smashing his wife’s car window, rather than accept counseling and community service.]

When I got to jail, I looked at my options and developed a plan. First, I adhered to all their rules. I put up no resistance, no attitude. The work assignment I was given was taking care of the laundry. I did it better than it has ever been done.

I wanted to put a condition on myself that only I had control of, so I went on a fast. I didn’t eat for about 28 days. I told them it was not a protest; it was just something for me to accomplish. I also read a lot, and thinking was my way of dealing. When I came out, I came out feeling that I had accomplished my goals.

This story originally ran in the September 2011 issue of Men's Journal.