Tom Shadyac Had It All, and Gave It Away

Morgan Freeman, left, and Steve Carrell in Evan Almighty.

Morgan Freeman, left, and Steve Carell in Evan Almighty.

Imagine you own a 17,000-square-foot mansion, your movies have grossed more than $2 billion and you are worth close to $50 million.

Now imagine you sell the house, give it all away and move into a trailer in a mobile home park.

The movie director Tom Shadyac told me that’s precisely what he did. Mr. Shadyac is a friend of a friend. I wanted to meet him after watching his documentary I Am so our friend introduced us. 

Mr. Shadyac directed Ace Ventura (discovering Jim Carrey in the process), The Nutty Professor, Liar Liar, Bruce Almighty and more. “I made about $5 million on Liar Liar, and I owned a piece of Bruce Almighty, and it ended up grossing over a billion, so I made over $30 million on that one,” he told me.

Then he got into a bicycle accident in 2007. His concussion symptoms wouldn’t go away, he had a constant ringing in his ears, and he had to sleep in a darkened closet in his house. The condition lasted for six months, and doctors weren’t sure if it would ever go away.

“I felt suicidal at points. It was a disaster. The worst thing you could do to someone is sentence them to solitary confinement, and that is what this felt like.”

When he got out of it, he sold everything, gave up on the movie business and made the documentary. He wrote about his experience in Life’s Operating Manual.

“Would you have done this if you hadn’t had the concussion?”

“I was already reevaluating the dissonance between making all this money and being on the set with people, the crew, many of whom couldn’t afford the basic needs of their families. It didn’t seem fair to me. So I don’t think the concussion did it, although it was definitely a crisis, and crisis will often trigger things like this.”

He continued: “I didn’t give up everything to be happy. In fact, I’m not even sure what happiness is. Happiness comes from the word ‘happenstance,’ which relates to things going on outside of you. What was happening to me was definitely on the inside. But after I gave up everything, I felt a lot more joy in my life, a lot more contentment.”

“There’s nothing wrong with making a lot of money,” I said.

“No, this is not a judgment on anyone at all,” he said. “I was just taking in a lot more than I needed, and this wasn’t good for me.”

We talked about what changed in his life as he went from crisis to contentment. Tom identified three things.

1. Relationships: “The key source of contentment is having many positive relationships in your life.”

2. Service to others: “Once you find more contentment in your life, you are automatically going to want to provide service to the people around you.”

3. And I reminded him of what Morgan Freeman (in the role of God) said to Steve Carrell in Evan Almighty (another Shadyac film): “The key is to do acts of random kindness each day.”

A realization that everyone is connected—we spoke about how the world has been getting more and more unified, from cities to states to kingdoms to empires to the Internet. This leads to more compassion for others as we break down barriers.

I wonder sometimes about all of my own stresses—the times when I feared I couldn’t feed my family or when I was anxious about work. Would it have been so easy to get rid of all of my belongings?

But as I write this, I remember I did give away all of my belongings, although in my case I was forced to. I had gone from having a lot of money to dead broke. I had nothing. I had to sell everything to survive.

I had to rely on my positive relationships to find opportunities. I had to get rid of my negative relationships in order not to waste time chasing bad opportunities.

I had to deliver value to other people in order for value to be delivered back to me. And this was like a virtuous cycle. Delivering value to others created more positive relationships for me.

And every day I had to focus on my health in order to maximize the value and service I was providing to these relationships.

In turn, this let me feed my family, let me build more businesses and opportunities, and to survive without the fear that had been plaguing me.

Every day, I had to figure out not only where to do random acts of kindness but planned acts of kindness.

Sometimes, society is at fault for creating this fear in us, for training us from an early age to be goal-driven instead of values-driven, instead of cooperation-driven. These goals separate us and make us feel competitive.

Either you get the goal or I get it. Only so many people can get it, we’re trained to believe.

And when our goals inevitably don’t happen, we get upset, scared, paranoid and nervous. At least, that’s what happens to me—until I take that step back and once again focus on relationships, coming up with ideas to help those relationships and creating value that gets spread throughout the relationship. And then I survive and flourish and feel contentment.

It feels silly to keep quoting Mr. Freeman just because he plays God in two of Mr. Shadyac’s movies, but I will. 

At the end of Evan Almighty he says:

Let me ask you something: If someone prays for patience, you think God gives them patience? Or does he give them the opportunity to be patient? If they pray for courage, does God give them courage, or does he give them opportunities to be courageous? If someone prayed for their family to be closer, you think God zaps them with warm, fuzzy feelings? Or does he give them opportunities to love each other?

I didn’t pray, but I was zapped anyway. Bad stuff happened, and then good stuff happened. And now I write about that stuff.