Matthew McConaughey: How to bring joy back in work

“Alright, alright, alright.” Matthew McConaughey was raking in the dough! $8 million per movie. Directors were clamouring to cast him in their next romcom. You cast McConaughey and your movie earns an easy $100 million.

To cash in on his popularity, McConaughey did what every other star was doing. He extended his brand. He started a company called “J.K. Livin.” And just like Jennifer Lopez and P. Diddy and other stars, McConaughey started his own clothing line. His best selling tshirt? Simply a shirt that had his famous catchphrase on it: Alright, alright, alright!

McConaughey also started a music label. He produced a reggae album for Mishka. Very eclectic and different from what other music labels were focusing on. And yet the album stayed second on the record charts for 7 weeks!

It seemed natural and obvious to start his own movie production house too. McConaughey started working as a producer for all the movies he acted in. He hired 9 people to help him make other movies. Seemed like he could do nothing wrong.

Unhappy success

One day, his office called him. As McConaughey went to pick up the phone, his hands froze midway. Why did he pause? He realized he didn’t want to pick up the phone. Imagine hesitating to pick up a call from your own office!

McConaughey realized that he hated his life. He was always dealing with one fire after another. So he called his lawyer and asked him to help shut down the music label and the movie production. Pay everyone a severance and shut it down even though it was making a profit.

That day, McConaughey decided to focus on 3 things only.

  1. His family
  2. His non-profit charity.
  3. Acting in movies others made.

You know how this ends, don’t you? McConaughey’s life satisfaction went way up. But paradoxically, so did his earnings. Because a few years later, he won the Oscar for his acting!

Wouldn’t he have won the Oscars anyway? According to McConaughey himself, he went from making B’s in five things, to making A’s in three! His craft improved. 

The art of pruning

Ask a gardener how to save a struggling tree. And he will recommend you cut off a few of its branches and leaves. Prune the plant and it becomes stronger!

Do less, and you can do better.

Tim Ferriss of 4-hour workweek fame had become a prolific angel investor. He had invested in Uber, Shopify, and Twitter at the ground level. Because of his network, he had some amazing deal flow.

But one fine day, he decided to completely quit angel investing. Why? Because of one conversation with investor Kamal Ravikant. Ferriss asked Ravikant for his advice on if he should start his own VC fund now that he was a successful angel investor. Ravikant shined some light on what made Ferriss unique: “I’ve been at events where people come up to you crying because of your books… You’ll never have that same impact as a VC. If you don’t invest, they’ll just find another VC. You’re totally replaceable.”

Because of Ferriss’s decision to prune investing, he has been able to double down on what he does best: finding those 20% things that have 80% impact. And spreading it through his writings and podcasts.

So how do you know what to prune?

Derek Sivers has an easy heuristic: “If you’re not saying ‘Hell Yes!’ about something, say No.”

Your activities should energize you. If it’s low energy yes – it should be a no.

That’s fine when taking up new tasks. But when you’re in the middle of things, giving up an activity feels very hard. FOMO kicks in. You need a framework to help you focus on your key competencies.

David Perell helps. He teaches that a personal monopoly is built at the intersection of skills, interests, and personality traits. So how do you find that? Ask:

  • Is the task giving you joy?
  • Are you winning compliments from others?
  • Does the task captivate your mind and keep you going for hours?

If the answer is Yes to all 3, keep the task. Otherwise prune it.

It’s when McConaughey pruned things that sucked away his joy and failed to keep him captivated – that he could focus and become an even better actor. Which ended up helping him win the Oscar!

Action Summary:

  • Do less to do better. Prune to grow. 
  • Only do things that give you joy, keep you captivated (even during the hard parts), and win you compliments from others.