Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey | 14 Lessons on Livin'

Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey | 14 Lessons on Livin'
Background Photo by Davis Sanchez from Pexels

I ordered Greenlights because of the rave reviews I saw it getting (which isn’t always a great indicator of a book’s quality, but it was in this case). Through riveting storytelling, McConaughey takes the reader on a journey through life’s mysteries and truths, and with refreshing candor, he dives into the many beautiful and the many ugly aspects of being human. I want to share some key lessons from the book that resonated with me.

1. Know who you’re not to find who you are

It’s hard to figure out who you are. It’s too broad an endeavor. What’s easier is to figure out who you’re not first. Remove everything that you’re not, anything that pulls you further from yourself.

Having too many options isn’t always a good thing. Keep getting rid of excess, nonsense, and noise until you get to the truth, to what really matters.

Strip away enough of who you’re not and eventually you’ll just be left with who you are.

2. Earn your Saturdays

Pull yourself together Sunday through Friday so you can feel good about your Saturdays. Overcome what Steven Pressfield calls the resistance now so you can unashamedly rest later.

“Create structure so you can have freedom.”

“Clean up so you can get dirty.”

“Earn your Saturdays.”

3. Biology and giddyup

To reach your full potential, you need both. You need to follow your inclinations while understanding it won’t be easy. Some people tap into their innate abilities, but never work to develop them. Others work like there’s no tomorrow but never tap into their natural gifts.

You need the combination. One or the other will get you far, but both will get you farthest. Biology and giddyup. DNA and hustle. Genes and hard work.

4. Constraints breed creativity

When you’re starting a new project, job, or adventure, discipline and structure are a must. To create the magic you want to create, you have to learn the tools of the trade. Once you understand the space you’re trying to enter, then you can let yourself loose and explore.

Although it sounds counterintuitive, creativity needs guidelines, boundaries, and constraints. Creativity isn’t about creating mess, but bringing order to chaos and making sense of confusion. Yes the world is your oyster, but the whole world is too big to wrap your head around. Confine yourself to the canvas, to the screen, or the page. Figure out where you’ll leave your mark first. Then, fire away.

5. Made for the moment

Why do we choke at the most inopportune times? It’s because we make the moment, the experience, whatever’s in front of us bigger than ourselves. It happens when we give something or someone more credit than what they deserve by putting them on a pedestal.

You were made for every moment you encounter. It isn’t bigger than you. The outcome is irrelevant. Just here. Just now.

Don’t let if only stop you from getting what you want. So often, what we want is just out of reach and all we have to do is push a little harder and not quit so early to grasp it. Ignore the initial “no.” Push past the resistance. Stop saying if only. Remember, the moment’s not bigger than you, so go and get what you want.

6. Even if you can, should you?

Sometimes we’re so focused on pushing for more that we never stop to ask if more is actually better. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Just because someone is offering doesn’t mean you have to take it.

Abundance is wonderful, but too many options will choke you. Take the time to figure out what you actually want. Don’t lose who you are in all the opportunities that come your way. Some will be beneficial. Some you won’t even want. In order to discern between the two, slow down and ask yourself, “Even if I can have it, is it what I actually want?”

“I’d never thought to ask myself if I wanted my jeans pressed before because for the first time in my life I could have them pressed.”

7. Take a walkabout

Our souls need some solitude, some time alone, and some space to digest life. We need room to slow down, to be more aware, and to see the big picture. Time alone forces you to get acquainted with the only person you’re stuck with for life: you.

When you’re stuck in the everyday rat race, it’s easy to absorb all the hits, bruises, and stresses life throws your way without ever addressing them. You’re too busy moving on to the next thing that you don’t realize the anger, frustration, and grief that has built up inside you. So you take it out on other people. The pain lets itself out at the most insignificant slights.

To process the pain, take a walkabout. Get away from people. Get away from other’s ideas. Sometimes physically—always mentally. Step away from it all. Meditate, pray, go for a walk. When you come back to your life, you’re a little more present, stand a little taller, think a little clearer all because you took a walkabout.

“God, when I cross the truth, give me the awareness to receive it the consciousness to recognize it the presence to personalize it the patience to preserve it and the courage to live it.”

8. Understanding > Being Right

A more harmonious, truthful existence doesn’t come from always being right. It comes from seeking to understand the person you think is wrong.

There’s this very American attitude that winning an argument should be the goal. You need to prove that you’re right and the other person is wrong.

In other parts of the world, right or wrong is irrelevant. The goal of a discussion is to understand. To empathize. To come to a point where you can see how someone else could think like that, act like that, believe like that. It’s not about taking sides, but about seeing the validity of both.

Understanding trumps being right. Seeing is better than knowing.

9. Simply turn the page

It’s easy to feel self pity when you’re stuck in a rut. It feels like no force in the world could pull you out of your bad habits, your emptiness, or your sin. Sometimes, however, it really is just as simple as turning the page. If you feel stuck, you can simply turn the page on your life. It’s your life and it’s your choice.

Own your mistakes and move on. Don’t let guilt and regret keep you stuck forever. Your book still has blank pages for you to fill, so turn the page.

10. Spiritually sound

There’s this beautiful phrase McConaughey uses: spiritually sound. There’s plenty of ways to define success: money, relationships, health, happiness, fame, etc.

But spiritually sound? I had never heard it in the same sentence as “success” before, but I like it.

Whatever you use to define success, “don’t choose anything that will jeopardize your soul.” Don’t pick which hill you’re going to die on based on what hills other people are standing on.

Your character matters. Who you are matters. Popularity doesn’t. Don’t look for other’s approval to define how well you’re doing. You’re the one who has to deal with your conscience when your head hits the pillow.

“An honest man’s pillow is his peace of mind.”

Stay spiritually sound. The rest will fall into place.

11. Your story doesn’t have to look like others

There are a plethora of narratives out there telling you what your story should look like: the struggling actor, the uninspired cubicle dweller, the insatiable entrepreneur.

Just because there are narratives that exist doesn’t mean you have to follow them.

McConaughey wasn’t the typical struggling actor in Hollywood. He hit a ton of greenlights. Life was kind to him. You might not need the same advice as everyone else because your life is different than everyone else’s.

Who says you have to be uninspired because you work a 9-5? Who says you have to be an insufferable entrepreneur? Why should you listen? It’s your life, so choose your path. It doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s.

12. Red lights to Greenlights

I was everything I wanted to be in high school: straight A’s, prom queen, class president, plenty of friends. Senior year, I was accepted to college within two days of submitting my application. One could say, I was hitting a lot of greenlights.

Then, I got to college. Take a guess at how many friends I made freshman year. crickets chirpingYou guessed it—zero. At best, I can claim to have made a few close acquaintances, but even that might be a stretch.

Most of my days went like this: wake up before 8:00, hit the gym before it gets crowded, shower, go to class, eat lunch, go to another class, do some homework, eat dinner with the few friends I still had from high school, walk back to my dorm, study, watch the Bachelor if it was on, sleep, repeat. College life wasn’t exactly living up to my expectations. Keep in mind, I went to a Partay school with a capital P. It’s not as if there was nothing going on.

I had hit, for perhaps the first time in my life, a red light. It sucked. Without any new friends, I had lots of alone time to read more, write more, and reflect more. It was uncomfortable.

I was sad, frustrated, confused. I was self-conscious about not making any friends. I saw everyone else thriving, yet there I was in my dorm room, on a Friday night, alone thinking, so this is what it feels like to be a loser.

But I needed that red light because I was missing something in my life: empathy. Up until that point, I had never experienced what it felt like to be an outsider. I never truly empathized with people. I like to think I was a pretty friendly gal in high school, but I didn’t really see people.

Now, I move through the world differently. I see more. I feel more. Life is more full, all because I hit a red light. If you only ever hit greenlights, you’ll never see the missing pieces.

Red lights, even the long ones, eventually turn green.

13. Less impressed, more involved

This is my new mantra.

So what if you’re “doing great things?” Your last book won’t write the next one. Your last project won’t finish the next one. Your last win won’t earn the next one.

Note to self: stop being so impressed with yourself. It’ll make you delusional, fragile, and arrogant.

Stop being impressed. Involved. Involved. Involved.

14. Just keep livin’

Life is painful and hard and confusing, but it’s mystical and beautiful and sweet. You don’t have to take all of it so seriously.

Let the realization of death make you present in life.

Take some risks. Do the unexpected. Dance with the uncertainty. Remember the finish line is imaginary. The glass ceiling can be shattered.

“So rather than struggle against time and waste it, let’s dance with time and redeem it, because we don’t live longer when we try not to die, we live longer when we’re too busy livin.”

Favorite Quotes

I’ve never felt like a victim. I have a lot of proof that the world is conspiring to make me happy.

I believe the truth is only offensive when we’re lying.

The more successful I became, the more sober I got; I liked my company so much I didn’t want to interrupt it.