In His Own Words: Mark Wahlberg's Secret to Success
Hollywood movie premieres tend to follow a script: Tons of press and industry VIPs pile into a theater for a private screening and then migrate somewhere nearby for a blowout party. I was part of this scene in 2010, when the Mark Wahlberg movie The Fighter debuted. We watched the film, then went to a hip hotel, where elevators were to take us to a club on the top floor…except the hotel lobby was not equipped to handle all of us at once. Hundreds of people soon overwhelmed the place. We were crushed together, shoulder to shoulder, while a few measly elevators took small bunches of us upward. It took a while. People were annoyed.
Then we heard a booming voice. “Make way!” the voice shouted. “Make way!”
The voice, it turned out, belonged to a very large security man. He was carving a path through the crowd, from the back of the lobby all the way to the elevator in the front. And when he reached the front, he turned to the back of the room and yelled, “Right this way, Mr. Wahlberg.”
With that, everyone in the lobby turned to find Mark Wahlberg standing in the back. Wahlberg was startled. He clearly did not ask for this. “What?” he said. “No, no, no. Please.” Then he gestured for us to continue toward the elevators ourselves. The pathway in the crowd closed. And Wahlberg, stuck behind the crowd, presumably made his way upstairs last.
Those are the details as I remember them. I was a junior editor at a different magazine at the time, and it left an impression on me: Mark Wahlberg, the star of the movie, the man of the hour, the VIP among the VIPs, did not want the royal treatment. Was he humble, or just image-conscious? I hadn’t met the guy, so I didn’t know. But it struck me as a model for managing success. When you’re confident in who you are, you don’t need to flaunt your status.
Time passes. After repeating this tale to friends for the past decade, I am talking to Mark Wahlberg for Entrepreneur. So I decide to tell him the story, too. I want to know what he makes of it -- how he became a man with instinctual modesty.
But Wahlberg isn’t very philosophical. He doesn’t remember the scene, but he understands his response. “The whole idea of some guy barging through and pushing people out of the way, it just sounds obnoxious,” he says. “Like, it’s all good. We’re all going to the same place.”
As I was telling him the story, however, he started thinking about what else he was doing at the time. He was shooting a movie in Louisiana, so he’d flown into New York just for the screening. And while he was there, he would have had a ton of meetings to talk about the film’s marketing and release. The party was just another part of the job, one of many obligations that day. “I was probably just tired and over all of it,” he says. “I was getting done what I needed to get done, to get home to see my wife, my kids.”
Getting done what I needed to get done. That did not always come naturally to Wahlberg, just as it doesn’t come naturally to many. “When I was younger, I was able to focus on things I was interested in,” he says, “but I had no time and no desire to focus on or be disciplined about things I wasn’t interested in.” Those were the Marky Mark days, which included a lot of success, yes, but also a lot of partying and a short stint in jail for assault. “And I realized that I needed to be disciplined all around, in every capacity -- and that would allow me to become successful, or at least have the best chance to succeed.”
This is the core of what drives Wahlberg -- at the back of that hotel in 2010, but also in the front and back of so many ventures in 2020. He’s an actor, of course, but now also cofounder of the franchised burger chain Wahlburgers, which has 38 locations across the world; the production company Unrealistic Ideas; investor and adviser to the fitness studio franchise F45, a fast riser on Entrepreneur’s Franchise 500 list; and he’s involved in a number of other businesses as well. It’s all predicated on doing the boring stuff as well as the fun stuff, and handling each part with equal rigor.
So the big question is, how does someone make that change -- going from a person who focuses only on what they care about to one who can focus on it all? The answer is: discipline.
Today, Wahlberg’s discipline is legend. When training for a role, he famously starts days with a 3:30 a.m. workout. He’s either at work or at home, and rarely, it seems, anywhere else. When he’s on a movie set, he creates a routine that intersperses acting and business calls, and he prefers to never deviate from it. (When we spoke, for example, Wahlberg was in London filming a movie -- so to accommodate the time difference, he had a business partner on Eastern Standard Time wake up at 5 every morning to talk.) He’s able to knock out successive Hollywood blockbusters while still personally scouting future Wahlburgers locations. He’s detail-oriented enough that while appearing on The Ellen DeGeneres Show to promote a movie, he can also casually discuss the exact square footage of a car dealership he owns in Ohio.
What drives this? The morning workouts hold a key -- because truly, why get up that early? Is it because he loves working out? The answer is no.
“My favorite part about working out is when it’s over,” he says. The same is true for the movies he makes. “I mean, I love the process when the camera’s rolling, but all the downtime and everything else starts driving me crazy after a while.”
What he loves is being fit, and having made the movies. So he focuses on the outcome of his time, not the minutiae of it. And he’s learned that he can grow that outcome by staying in stride. “It’s never too late to start over, which I get,” he says. “But it’s a lot easier to stay in shape than it is to get in shape. So why fall out of it? If you keep grinding, you’re always ready to go.”
Consistency breeds discipline. Or maybe discipline breeds consistency. Either way, one feeds the other.
Though entrepreneurship will challenge both.
Every experienced entrepreneur will run up against their own abilities. In the course of building a business, they’ll discover what they’re good at…along with what they only thought they were good at. They’ll believe they’re good leaders, until their company culture tanks. They’ll believe they’re good builders, until profits stall. Then they’ll be forced to make a choice -- to bulldoze their way through a problem they may not be equipped to solve, or to shift their focus onto their strengths, and surround themselves with complementary people.
Wahlberg has felt this himself as he has transitioned from actor to entrepreneur. “Every business I had been in, I started as a novice,” he says. “And so I’m still learning as I go along.” His instinct is to get into the weeds, to a level that sometimes isn’t helpful. (Try scouting a restaurant location as Mark Wahlberg; it doesn’t take long before being mobbed by selfie takers.) So in each case, he’s trying to understand what he’s good at and what he’s not.
“Like, I’m not going to get into a situation with my brother Paul, arguing about how he makes a specific sauce for the restaurant fresh to order,” he says. (Paul Wahlberg is the chef of the family and is a co-owner of Wahlburgers.) “But I am going to have a conversation with him if those costs of goods are becoming a problem.”
Wahlberg has another way of solving these problems: He doesn’t enter a relationship if he doesn’t understand his role. “If I don’t think there’s real value I can bring to it, then more than likely I’m not going to get involved,” he says. He wants to know up front where he’s useful -- and where he’s not.
That’s the story of how he got involved in the fitness franchise F45. Though it took longer than F45 cofounder and CEO Rob Deutsch would have liked.
F45 is a fitness studio franchise that began life in Australia in 2013 and has become popular for its high-intensity, ever-changing 45-minute workouts. It expanded easily throughout its home country and New Zealand. But in 2015, as it expanded into the United States, it wanted a partner to help build awareness. “Obviously, it needs to be someone who lives and breathes health and fitness,” says Deutsch.
Deutsch knew someone who knew Wahlberg, who mentioned him as a possiblity. So Deutsch tried to send a message to the movie star.
“I wasn’t really interested,” Wahlberg admits now. People are always asking him for one thing or another, so he keeps his guard up. But over time, he started to hear more about F45 -- not just from Deutsch’s people but from friends and contacts in the fitness world. “So I said, You know what, let me go and check it out,” Wahlberg says. There’s an F45 a few miles from his home, so he arrived unannounced and took a class. He enjoyed it -- and frankly, he says, he probably liked it more because he’d gone on his own, rather than at the company’s invitation. After that, he visited F45’s Los Angeles headquarters. A conversation developed from there.
The way Wahlberg remembers it, F45 wanted to sign him to an endorsement deal. (“We weren’t sure exactly how it was going to work,” says Deutsch.) But after doing enough due diligence, Wahlberg wanted more. This, he thought, was the kind of company he understood how to help. “I said, ‘Well, I’d be much more interested in putting a group together and bringing people who bring real value to the business,’” he says.
An investment deal was drawn up. Wahlberg’s team then provided help on everything from marketing to real estate, and Wahlberg himself has been an active promoter of the brand -- particularly on Instagram, where he’s regularly posting clips of his workouts.
Deutsch has been thrilled with the results. As of September 2019, F45 has opened more than 1,000 units, and it earned a giant bump on Entrepreneur’s annual Franchise 500 list. But above all, Deutsch has been amazed at how accessible Wahlberg has been. “Every time I contact Mark, every time I need anything or just want to have a chat, he always has time,” Deutsch says. “That’s the thing that just shocks me about someone who’s so busy. I think it comes back to the fact that if you really want something in life, you’ll always find the time.”
For Wahlberg, this is by design. It’s the outcome of all that diligence, and the years of refining his focus. When he was younger, he says, “anytime something didn’t go the way I wanted it to, I realized that I didn’t give it the effort and the focus I should have.” Learn that lesson enough, and it sticks. Successes become self-reinforcing. “And now,” Wahlberg says, “it’s like, even with all the stuff I have going on, I still feel like there’s enough time in the day to do other stuff.”
That’s the miracle of discipline: In strictness, you create freedom.