Unbranded — 5 Life Lessons as Told by Matthew McConaughey to Tim Ferriss
There is a reckoning of sorts that happens in your 40s. It’s not the same as a mid-life crisis, but it is as awareness that you’re mortal, that the work you do matters, and if you want to have a certain kind of life, either you must be all-in on making it happen, or accept what you have now, because time is running out.
“McConaughey is a talented actor and a fine writer, but a total genius at living.” — Lawrence Wright
I’ve written twice about Matthew McConaughey because his journey resonates. There’s a portion of McConaughey’s interview with Tim Ferriss at about the 30-minute mark when he discusses how it feels to be a new parent, how it made him question his work, and what happened next.
It’s been so refreshing to hear a male perspective on struggling with work-life balance and managing the tension of wanting to be in the moment for your family, but feeling the responsibility of anticipating their needs.
McConaughey’s story is compelling but a little unrelatable too. For that reason, I’m going to share the highlights through insights of my own. The takeaway from both of us is it is possible to find a second chapter that’s even more amazing than your first.
“My rom-coms are doing well.”
Tim Ferriss: You start to turn down, say, action film opportunities with big paychecks, things like that. Was that hard to do? Did other people say that you were doing the right thing and encourage you? Could you walk us through and just tell a story about that experience?
Matthew McConaughey: Yeah, love to. So this is around — I don’t remember the year, I’m guessing it’s around 12, 13 years ago. I was rolling with romantic comedies. I had taken the baton from Hugh Grant and was the male lead rom-com go-to guy.
Rom-coms are mid-level budgets, 30, 35 million. They offer a good front-end paycheck to me. They go make 60 million. I mean, the studios don’t have to overspend and spend hundreds of millions of dollars to make them.
You get a good female and a male lead that have good chemistry. People love to go escape to them. My rom-coms are doing well. They were my bank. They were what Hollywood banked on me to be in. At the same time, I’m living in Malibu, learning to surf, got my shirt off, and the paparazzi are documenting this, and I’m like, “Your damn right document it. This is the life I’m living. I love it. I worked and earned to get this life.
It was like, “McConaughey is the shirtless rom-com guy.” And I was like, “Yeah, I am, and I’m — ” But only I could answer that second question of, “And I’m — ” No one else could. And really Hollywood, for sure was like, “No, nothing else,” and so any dramas I wanted to do or other pictures, no one wanted to make them with me.
And I remember Camila and I just had our first son, and my life was so vital. Man, I had just had a newborn, I’ve met the woman that I love and want to spend the rest of my life with. I’m laughing harder. I’m crying harder. I’m happier than ever. Life is very vital and I’m in it. My real life is, but my work feels like, “Yeah, I can do that tomorrow morning. Just give me the script tonight, let me look at it. I can do it tomorrow morning.”
It wasn’t really challenging me, and the rom-coms weren’t challenging me, and my lifestyle was one big green light. And to me, if it’s all green lights, if it’s all sugar and candy, well, that’ll make tyrants out of anybody.
1. You will likely have to choose between your life or your job.
So, around eight years ago, I was a Director at HBO. I was a rising star when I was presented with a significant opportunity in New York City — we were living in Denver — the very same month I found out I was pregnant with twins.
My husband grew up in Texas; I grew up in Colorado; we envisioned a big yard, a big dog, commuting by car, raising our children in the suburbs. We anticipated hiking on the weekends and bike rides at sunset, the mountains as our backdrop.
But I had fallen in love with New York City too; I’d been visiting monthly for nine years. I loved the restaurants and oh how I loved the hotels! The Andaz at the Library steps, the Plaza for its storied past, the Royalton’s rooms, the posh Carlyle. It’s a stunning city in which to enjoy an expense account.
The energy, opportunities, creativity, spontaneity, and synchronicity were undeniable — so many crazy, cool things that happen when you cram that many aspiring people into the same place.
Where was I going with this? Ah yes, my rom-com chapter. I enjoyed it; I thought I was a big deal because someone was paying me to travel, explore, and learn, which is what I wanted to do anyway, which is what I would have done at my own expense.
But when I looked forward, I couldn’t say how my current life connected to my future self. I knew I wanted kids, and how would that fit? And I saw the roles above mine on the org chart, but rom-coms weren’t enough anymore.
I faced a crossroads: move up or move on. Becoming a mom was the catalyst for deciding to go in a different direction.
When we had our twins, my life was so vital. My husband and I were deep in it, laughing harder, crying harder, happier, more exhausted, and more vulnerable than ever. We were living deliriously.
My work didn’t have that appeal; in contrast, it seemed impossibly sluggish, bureaucratic, and nonessential. I faced the same compromise McConaughey did: If I had to choose, then life over work.
“I don’t work for them; I work for you.”
Matthew McConaughey: So I said, “That’s a good thing.” I said, “But jeez, could I just get some work that might challenge the vitality of my life and the man I am in it? Where I can get some work, where I can be more me in it?” Well, those roles were not being offered to me. Nothing, nope, not a chance.
No studio will bank you in this drama role, or this other role you want. So I decided that if I couldn’t do what I wanted to do, and what I wanted to do was not being offered to me, it would be prudent for me to just stop doing what I had been doing and what was in the pipeline continually coming to me, which were the romantic comedies.
I called my money manager, I said, “All right, look, I’m going to stop doing the only work I’m getting offered. And I don’t know how long it’s going to be till I work again. How am I doing with my money?” He says, “You’ve invested well, conservatively. You’re fine. You can take time off.”
I remember calling my agent, Jim Toth. I would say, “Hey, Jim, I don’t want to do romantic comedies anymore.” I remember this conversation, he goes, “Great.” And I go, “Wait, woah, woah, woah. What do you mean, great?” He goes, “Great.” And I go, “How do you say that so quick? What are you going to say Monday morning when you go into your superiors in the office and say, ‘McConaughey’s not doing romantic comedies,’ and McConaughey has been bringing a nice chunk of 10 percent commission into you guys with these romantic comedies for years now. And he said the coolest thing to me, he goes, “I don’t work for them; I work for you.”
Tim Ferriss: That’s a good line.
2. It always takes courage to pivot.
What do you do when you have something that works, but it’s not what you want anymore? How do you pivot? How do you find something better? And crucially, what if what you had is as good as it gets?
That’s what holds us back, isn’t it? The idea that we could throw away good enough for something better, only to realize that something else isn’t better at all.
When I left Corporate America, I didn’t have a plan. I knew it was time to go, but I hadn’t made a plan, and not because I’m reckless (I’m not), or because I’m not a planner (I am). I didn’t have a plan because it’s so freaking hard to know what else is out there when you are in so deep where you are.
I was 13 years in; it was seductive. I had no idea what else was happening in my industry or other industries, no idea about anything outside of Corporate America and television and cable and streaming media. I invested singularly in my network, my experience, my expertise, my feed, my climb, my time, my family.
To be fully present is a gift, but cutting off other options is a liability, and I didn’t know my options.
“How long will this be a desert?”
Matthew McConaughey: And then I went to Camila, my wife. And I’d shed quite a few tears with her going through this. Am I feeling fraudulent in my work? Do I feel a lack of significance in my work? Do I feel like — is it ok to be feeling this? I mean, remember as we said earlier, I’m tired of going running downhill. Why would you sabotage not doing the work you’re getting offered when you can get paid so handsomely to do it? But she understood that my soul was shaken and needed some recalibration and that the work I was doing wasn’t the true expression of who I was in my life. I told her, I said, “I want to hold out for some work that can challenge the vitality of the life that I’m living with you and our son Levi.”
And she repeated the lines to me. She goes, “Ok. You’re going to get wobbly. I’ve been around you, you’ve got to work, Matthew, and you love to accomplish. You’re going to get wobbly. You might start reaching for a little sip of something to drink earlier in the day too.” And I’m like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” She’s like, “Me, too.” She goes, “Days are going to be longer. We don’t know how long this will last, how long we’ll be in this” — she called it a desert — ” how long this will be a desert?”
She goes, “But if we’re going to do this, if you’re going to do this, we’re not going to half-ass it.” She repeated my dad’s line to me. And I went, “Yes, ma’am.” Gave her a hug, put some tears on her shoulder, and we said, “Starting today, no more rom-coms.” Well, rom-com offers came in to my agent for about the next six months, but nothing but rom-com offers.
Unless it was a major offer, I just said no. “No, thank you.” I remember feeling sort of emboldened and strengthened by saying, “No, thank you. Great. Sticking to my guns. No rom-coms. Six months into this drought. No, I’m not caving in now. Don’t half-ass it, McConaughey.” So they come back with a $10 million offer. “No, thank you.” They come back with a $12.5 million offer. Now I go, dot, dot, dot ellipsis, ellipsis, “No, thank you.” Now they come back with a $15 million offer.
Tim Ferriss: Wow.
Matthew McConaughey: And I said, “You know what? Let me have another reread of that script.” And I reread that script. And you know what? At $15 million, the same script that I’d been offered for $8 million, the $15 million offer script, which was the same exact words as the $8 million offer script, the $15 million offer script was better, it was funnier. It had possibilities, it had angles, I had ideas, I could make this work. I mean, this could work.
Tim Ferriss: Now I’m imagining at this point, Jim is like, “Man, this saying no thing is really working out!”
Matthew McConaughey: But I said, “No, thank you.” Well that got the signal across Hollywood that McConaughey was taking a serious sabbatical. And so don’t even send him a rom-com. It got around.
And it became clear. So for the next 12, 14 months, nothing came in, nada, zilch, not an offer for anything. So now we’re 20 months into this desert period. I do have my son to raise, which being a father has always been the most important thing to me.
So that’s got my compass at least directed in a place that I go, “Just trust in this, if it has something to do with raising your son and being here on the land with your family, even if you start to wander, just trust that that’s always going to be in the asset section, McConaughey, you can’t go wrong with that.”
So I stuck to that. And I was now fine with not doing any work. I didn’t know what I was going to be, I didn’t know if I was going to change my career, if I was going to become a teacher, or a coach or go back to being a lawyer, I didn’t know, I didn’t think so, but I was writing more.
3. You need someone in your corner to remind you who you are.
When I came back after my second maternity leave, I remember saying to my husband, “I can do this for six months tops before we need a back-up plan. I need an exit strategy.”
He didn’t respond, F you, I gave up my career to be a stay-at-home dad for the last four years so you could change your mind. He didn’t say, that’s the hormones or emotions talking or mommy brain; he said, ok.
Ok, and I exhaled for the first time in a long time because it took more than six months to work up the courage to say that. Ok.
“Fuck the bucks; I’m going for the experience.”
Matthew McConaughey: So what happened was that 22 months or whatever, that drought, that desert, I unbranded. I didn’t rebrand, I unbranded. Me being away, me being in Texas, not being on a beach getting pictures of being shirtless on a beach, not being in rom-coms, I was out of the world’s view.
I was out of the industry’s view, I was not in your living room, I was not in your theater, I was not in any of the places that the world had become expectant to see me and how to see me. Where was I? I was gone. Where is McConaughey? When you’re gone long enough, all of a sudden, I became a new, good idea. All of a sudden things came to me that I wanted to do and I remember saying, “You know what? Fuck the bucks, I’m going for the experience. If I read a role that shakes me in my boots, and challenges the vitality that I feel in my own real life, and challenges me, the man I am in my own real life, that’s what I’m going after.”
And man they came in. Camila and I looked at each other, shed some more tears, and we said, “Let’s get after it.” And I just started hammering them. The family came with me everywhere I went, and just started laying down work that really, really turned me on.
I was doing some soul-searching and my family did support me. I’ll say this, this helped. That, coupled with my son’s being raised. It’s a brand new day for him every single day, he’s getting to know me, how awesome is this that I get to have this time, because I know I’ll go back and do some work somewhere, somehow, later.
And we’re not going to have this time, so let’s lean into the assets of being forced here with your son, you’re building a home with the woman you love.
So I was finding purpose in all of that. And as it usually happens, as it was getting to the point where, “Well, I don’t care, if anything comes in, I’m not even thinking about it. If any work comes in, I don’t really care.” Of course, that’s about the time that the work comes in.
4. Always choose experiences over money.
Over 13 years, I watched many people come and go at HBO, and those that left fell into oblivion. But what do I know? Maybe their personal life was the vital part, and HBO was just the work?
When I left, I thought I had something to prove. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, I didn’t know if my next work would be more vital, but I wanted to find out.
So, I decided to unbrand myself too. I cut ties. I let shit go. I disentangled from my corporate executive identity and my network and my ambition. I took some meetings with other players in the biz, but my heart wasn’t in it.
And when I started doing work, it was work that I loved. It was writing and coaching and learning, and it felt vital. I loved it, not for the money, not for anyone else, not for where it would lead. I trusted my instincts.
But let’s be real, I’m so incredibly grateful that my personal life was vital because, without that to come home to, I might have been lost. It wasn’t hard in McConaughey’s way — no one was presenting irresistible offers that tested my resolve. It was hard because, for a while, we had no income, save the severance money, and it would eventually run out too, and I was questioning myself a lot.
Who am I to take this time for myself at the expense of my family’s financial security? Who am I to risk trying something new when we have a mortgage and tuition and healthcare expenses? What if this sabbatical jeopardizes retirement or worse?
We didn’t have anyone to bail us out, but I couldn’t quiet my other half, who also had something to say, Look, you’ve been on this path, since college, for 18 freaking years. If you don’t take a moment for yourself, you’ll be swallowed by motherhood and responsibility, and whatever shit job you take in a moment of panic, and then what? Then you’re going to be 50 or 60. You’ll be 65 and retired, looking back, wondering how you let your life pass you by.
That voice was scarier. It was unmerciful, and it voice won.
So for two years, 2016–2018, neither of us worked. We made it work. We stretched the severance, applied for unemployment benefits, signed up for Obamacare, dramatically cut our expenses, and heavily dipped into savings.
It wasn’t pretty, but every time I felt scared, uncertain, or irresponsible, I reminded myself, we will never have this time again: all five of us, together, young, healthy, in love, just open-ended freedom to savor life, to deepen our relationships, to be a family. This is what we saved for.
The freaking point of a rainy day fund is to improve the weather, and we lived in the sunshine for almost three years.
And thank God we did because a pandemic hit. If we wouldn’t have had the courage to pivot when we did, if we would have chosen fear instead, a pandemic would have come anyway, and we would have missed some of the best years of our lives.
We traveled to see grandparents in Wisconsin and Colorado, and visited friends in Charleston. We took family dog walks every day, and we played outside and watched movies and snuggled and cooked together.
We read stories and went to Hawaii and Fiji and Australia and Disneyland and the mountains as often as possible.
It wasn’t perfect, and because we knew it was finite, it was a tinge bittersweet. But that’s life, right? Finite? Isn’t that the point?
It’s a bit like adopting a dog. You know it won’t last forever, but it brings you immeasurable joy, so what can you do but love your time together? Shedding, pooping, getting up in the middle of the night to bark at something in the backyard — what’s not to love?
I became a different person, a mother who trusted herself, a more forgiving daughter, a more fully accepting sister, a wife who didn’t hold back. In all the ways I was guarded before, I surrendered. I wasn’t in a hurry for reasons I couldn’t explain.
“A lot of people think I just wing it.”
Tim Ferriss: You’ve traveled a very unorthodox path in many respects. What are some of the biggest misconceptions, if any, what are common misconceptions about you that you hope, or that you could clarify either right now, or through the pages of this book? Are there any misconceptions, positive or negative?
Matthew McConaughey: Yeah. I mean, look, one misconception, I think, which it used to concern me more so than it does now is that — a lot of people think that I sort of just wake up in the morning and go, roll out of bed and say, “All right, where’s my mark? What are we doing today? What’s the scene about? What’s life about? What’s the responsibility here, today? What is it? Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Ok, yeah.”
A lot of people think I just wing it. And the truth is, like I was telling you earlier about me being a studier and loving my As, I am a preparer. I know a lot of my success and satisfaction has come from being majorly prepared. And when I’m majorly prepared, I prepare so it’s not work when I get in the game.
I prepare, so that’s the work. My work is pregame. When I’m in the game, I am. When I’m best at being in the game, I am that guy that looks like I just woke up in the morning and just, “Hey, what’s up?” To make it look easy comes from the preparation.
So I daily prepare, whether it’s work, or trying to be the best man I can, or be the best husband, or the best father, I’m constantly trying to work on that. I mean, that’s some recalibration that I inherently and instinctually, I don’t know if I say, or practice them, but that’s where my head and heart goes. Does that answer your question?
5. Don’t wing it; bet on your future self.
Life seems haphazard, but it isn’t. Our choices define us and chart our course, more than our opportunities, talent, or thoughts. We don’t need a guarantee to risk going all-in on what we really want; we simply need to choose our highest vision, over and over again.
I wasn’t winging it; I was working my ass off even before I knew where it was leading. I was dipping my toes in subconsciously even before I made any moves. I was always investing in myself, getting better, taking care of my family, even though I didn’t know for sure what would happen or where it would lead.
I haven’t arrived. It hasn’t paid off. That’s not what it’s about anymore. I’m in it for the experience of living my most vital life. I’m continually trying to be the best version of myself: the best mom, the best wife, the best coach, the best writer. I’m working on that.
Hear this — you get to change your mind at any time — you get to reinvent yourself.
Whether you are working in obscurity or have millions of fans, you get to shift gears or reimagine what you want, try something new, or start over. You get to decide how to live, when to stay the course or go for more.
You get to trust that voice that says, there is more to life than this, and you get to make it happen. But if you want to have a certain kind of life, either you must be all-in or accept what you have now, because time is running out. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.