3 Deep Lessons from Greenlights (and Why You Should Get the Audiobook)

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3 Deep Lessons from Greenlights (and Why You Should Get the Audiobook)

Ironically, I’ve never been a huge fan of Matthew McConaughey. The only noteworthy thing I used to know about him was the insane number of “Murphs” he dropped in Interstellar

But then, I picked up his memoir Greenlights on a whim. (It was a long train ride, and I needed some soothing words in my ears). And I was shocked because I couldn’t stop listening. It was that good.

Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey turned out to be one of the best audiobooks I’ve ever listened to. In fact, here’s my bold recommendation: If you only listen to one audiobook this year, choose Greenlights.

What’s This Book About?

Have you ever mixed a few unpromising ingredients from your fridge into a surprisingly delicious meal? Well, I didn’t think self-help, memoir, and aphorisms would blend well. But somehow, Greenlights conjures the most delicious smoothie out of them.

So yes, Greenlights is primarily Matthew McConaughey’s memoir — from a Texan hotshot to a renowned Hollywood actor. But there’s more: profound advice, hilarious stories, and insightful maxims.

Now, before sharing the three most unique lessons from the book, here’s why you should pick up the audiobook rather than the print version.

Why You Should Get the Audiobook

There’s this trend that many authors speak their own books rather than hiring a professional orator. And that makes sense — provided they can deliver their message orally. The problem is, many writers can’t. I’ve seeped through too many audiobooks that were nothing but a dull string of sentences. No excitement. No enthusiasm.

Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey is different.

Matthew isn’t just a surprisingly skilled writer. He’s also a storyteller, entertainer, and, of course, actor. He gives every character along his journey their own voice, personality, and even accent. Plus, Matthew has this smooth, country-boy, Texan voice — it’s a balm for your eardrums.

These skills combined nearly made me listen through the whole book in one go. And the lessons and stories resonated all the deeper. Here are the three insights that impacted me the most.

Lesson One: The Silver Lining of Enduring Loneliness

Matthew didn’t have the perfect childhood. Duh. His parents broke up twice, used whippings to teach him lessons, and his mom convinced him that plagiarism is the best way to win a poetry contest. 

But still. By his senior year in high school, he had straight A’s and was dating the two prettiest girls from two different schools. Simultaneously. He’d also been voted “most handsome” of his class and was the proud owner of a truck.

Overconfident, Matthew looked for more excitement after graduation. He signed a deal to spend a year in Australia as an exchange student. And because many students returned early and homesick, he solemnly swore to make it through the entire year.

This erupted as one of the biggest challenges in his life.

His host family — the Dooleys — turned out to be unduly difficult people to deal with: possessive, patriarchal, and narrow-minded. The pinnacle was when, one morning, the couple decided Matthew should call them Mum and Pop for the rest of his stay. Trying to explain that he already had parents, Matthew refused, at which his host mother broke out in tears. 

In short:

The Dooleys drove him mad. He tried out all kinds of rituals and lifestyles (vegetarianism, abstinence, long letters, piety, etc.), but none of it could rescue him from the caverns of loneliness and alienation.

And yet, he found a silver lining — a greenlight — in this strange, almost abusive time:

“I was forced into a winter, forced to look inside because I didn’t have anyone else. I didn’t have anything else. … It was a year that shaped who I am today. A year when I found myself because I was forced to.”

 — Greenlights, Matthew McConaughey

I had more experiences like this than I’d like to admit (haven’t we all?). But I can confirm: As gruesome as these trials were, they molded my identity like soft clay. Ultimately, it’s adversity — not prosperity — that strengthens our values. It teaches us who we are and who we want to become.

In the rearview mirror of life, redlights can turn into greenlights.

Lesson Two: Be What You Want to Attract

As an established actor in Hollywood, romantic comedies quickly became Matthew’s brand. And from the outside, everything seemed great. He had a generous salary, virtually unlimited offers, and a stable life with his growing family.

Except, his work started feeling dull. Numb. Meaningless. He no longer felt challenged in his roles. They left him drained and unfulfilled.

And so, he made a radical gamble:

He phoned his agent and told him he would break up with rom-coms. This was an extremely risky move in Hollywood. There was a considerable chance that, by scorching this one genre, he’d never receive another offer. And indeed, Matthew endured two hard years without any acting.

But his bet paid off.

Thanks to the distance he created, he finally received the offers he wanted to get. He went on to star in Wolf of Wall Street, Interstellar, and other dramas. He also won an Oscar for Dallas Buyer’s Club. This period became famously known as the McConaissance. (Fun fact: this was a term he came up with to emphasize his career change, but he framed it as if a journalist coined it.)

Here’s one of my favorite quotes from the book:

“The arrow doesn’t seek the target, the target draws the arrow. We must be aware of what we attract in life because it is no accident or coincidence. The spider waits in his web for dinner to come. Yes, we must choose what we want, seek it out, cast our lines in the water, but sometimes we don’t need to make things happen. Our souls are infinitely magnetic.”

Although Matthew said this in the context of looking for a partner, it applies equally to his radical career change. Not only that, I dare to say it’s a universal truth of life. A very similar approach is the concept of Wu Wei — the philosophy of not forcing. It teaches us to be like water, to apply an effortless quality to everything we do. 

If we miss all the arrows we shoot in life, perhaps we simply need to choose a different target. Perhaps we need to think with the target in mind, not the arrow.

Lesson Three: The Life-Changing Power of Journaling (+ 3 Prompts)

Even more fascinating than the contents of the book is how it came into existence.

Matthew began journaling when he was 14 and sticked to it ever since. And so, writing his memoir is the product of decades of reflection. In fact, he wrote the entire book after spending 52 days in the desert, wading through all his entries.

So, as you can imagine, this man has some experience penning his thoughts into a journal. He harnessed the full might of this tool. And as a long-time journaling evangelist myself, I found a few powerful prompts between the lines.

Here are the three that I still revisit regularly in my journal.

What do you value?

In film school, Matthew was an outcast. He was the only frat guy, dressed in boots and tucked-in button-downs (whereas everyone else was wearing gothic-style black).

Every week, the class was instructed to see a movie to talk about it in class. While Matthew proudly went to see the newest blockbusters, his classmates went to see indie art films. So obviously, everyone laughed at him when he talked about Die Hard in front of the class. That’s shit, man. Corporate America sellouts.

But one day, he punched back. “Wait a minute,” he said, “tell me why it’s shit. Tell me why it sucks, what you didn’t like about it.” The response of the class?

Uhm… well, you know… I didn’t say I actually saw it.

They bashed him without even having seen the blockbusters. They flipped him off just because it was popular.

There’s a paradox here: We should defend what we believe in but also be open-minded to the values of others. But the beauty is, the more you’ll investigate your values, the more you’ll realize how connected humanity is. Deep down, we all value love, family, community, and hope. We’re divided in interests but united in values.

So, what do you value?

What are you not?

Surprisingly, Matthew didn’t always want to be an actor. For a long time, he didn’t even consider it. Instead, he wanted to be a lawyer.

But after two years of law school, he realized an uncomfortable truth: By the end of his twenties, he would have barely graduated. His career wouldn’t flourish until his late thirties. And so, a couple of unlikely coincidences — a friend’s advice, meeting a director, getting his first role — got him to ditch law school and embrace acting.

Even though he didn’t know exactly what to do, he knew what he didn’t want to do. It’s counter-intuitive, but often the wisdom of exclusion is more valuable than knowing your path.

To find yourself, strip away the clutter first. Ask yourself, “What are you not?”

What’s your definition of success?

It’s so easy to believe that people like Matthew McConaughey have it all. Money. Fame. Success. Love. Happiness.

But of course, no amount of external currency guarantees internal wealth. Heck, at the height of his rom-com era, Matthew lived at the Chateau Mormont hotel, running a $120,000 bill, driving a Triumph Thunderbird motorcycle, and losing himself in flings and affairs.

But this drained his soul like a vampire sucking blood vessels.

It wasn’t until the McConoissance that he explored a more worthwhile approach. He defined success for himself. He wanted to be a good father more than anything. He craved meaningful work — not for the paycheck but for fulfillment. He pursued travel to unveil the subterranean connections of humanity.

The point is, you need to pinpoint your own metrics of success — no matter the amount of shiny things the world offers you. Internal wealth often precedes external one. It’s rarely vice versa. 

What’s your definition of success? It’s a question worth pondering daily.

Greenlight?

Lastly, let’s talk about the most important element of the book: its title. What’s a greenlight? Technically, it’s a term to express the approval by a film studio for your project. But, of course, it goes beyond that. Greenlights — the signs that we’re on the right track — are everywhere in life.

That is, if we dare to look. 

What stuck most with me from the book is that life will never be easy — not even as a wildly renowned Hollywood actor. But we can (re-)tell our own story, and choose our own road. With the power of embracing shadows, drawing arrows, and filling journals, we’ll dash down a highway of greenlights.

And perhaps, down the road, we can realize that all the red and yellow lights were, in fact, green ones. These lessons make Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey the best audiobook I’ve listened to this year — and maybe ever.