Book Notes: Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey

Reading Time: 14 minutes


Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey

Publisher : Crown

ISBN-13 : 978-1472283535

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

Table of Contents

💡 3 Main Ideas

  • Greenlights are an affirmation of our way, things that give us permission to proceed, make a decision or pursue a given path. They’re approvals, support, praise, accelerants and gifts that set you up for success.
  • Less impressed, more involved. You live a more present and meaningful life when you’re less impressed with yourself and your accomplishments, and more involved with your relationships with other people and your community. Being less impressed and more involved enables you to live according to timeless principles, live your values and chase your dreams.
  • The art of living is to be alright with life no matter how it plays out. Focus only on what you can control. And however it plays out, you are responsible for your decisions, choices, and outcomes. It’s your hands on the steering wheel, no one else. And it’s up to you to engineer your own greenlights.

    “I believe everything we do in life is part of a plan. Sometimes the plan goes as intended, and sometimes it doesn’t. That’s part of the plan. Realizing this is a greenlight in itself. …It’s a matter of how we see the challenge in front of us and how we engage with it.”

🔑 Five Key Takeaways

  • “The arrow doesn’t seek the target, the target draws the arrow….sometimes we don’t need to make things happen.” Sometimes, we don’t have to actively search for something or make things happen. Sometimes, we will attract what we need at the right time. Things will happen at the right time, and sometimes good things happen when you stop actively looking for them. Be patient, and put yourself in a position to receive it.
  • Put yourself in a position to be lucky or successful. You can engineer your own greenlights. It is important to own your choices, and make yourself responsible for your own actions, rather than placing sole responsibility on God, or fate or luck. You need to work hard, be patient, and make no excuses for your actions.

    I didn’t as much cease believing in God as much as I doubled down on self-reliance and the responsibility of my free will. I was done with the excuses that fate allows, I was ready to be the boss of me, the one to blame and acquit, I needed to own that it was my hands on the steering wheel.

  • You must sacrifice and persevere in order to achieve or acquire something that is really important to you. You must be disciplined and patient enough to forego something you want for another thing that is even more important to you. To be successful, you must be willing to forgo immediate pleasures for things that are even more important to you, things that are more meaningful and valuable. And when you decide to do something, “don’t half-ass it.” Give it your all; your best shot. Put your whole self into it. Do your best and make sure you engineer enough greenlights to succeed. And even if you do fail, it won’t have been because of lack of trying or persistence. The real failure is never trying.
  • Live your life in such a way that you can look back fondly upon it. You can do that by making goals and beginning with the end in mind. Envision what you want to achieve, and work backwards from that north star to achieve it. “Relatively, we are livin. Life is our résumé. It is our story to tell, and the choices we make write the chapters. Can we live in a way where we look forward to looking back?”
  • By being “less impressed, more involved”, you more vividly live your best life and chase your dreams. Paradoxically, by being less impressed with your accomplishments and achievements, and more involved with your life and your relationships, you will be more satisfied with your life. The chase is pleasurable, and important, but even more important are the people and relationships you make along the way.

✍️ Top Quotes

  • I believe everything we do in life is part of a plan. Sometimes the plan goes as intended, and sometimes it doesn’t. That’s part of the plan. Realizing this is a greenlight in itself. …It’s a matter of how we see the challenge in front of us and how we engage with it. Persist, pivot, or concede. It’s up to us, our choice every time.
  • We cannot fully appreciate the light without the shadows. We have to be thrown off balance to find our footing. It’s better to jump than fall.
  • We have to prepare to have freedom. We have to do the work to then do the job. We have to prepare for the job so we can be free to do the work.
  • The arrow doesn’t seek the target, the target draws the arrow….sometimes we don’t need to make things happen.
  • As I’ve navigated the weather in my own life, getting relative with the inevitable has been a key to my success.
  • When you can design your own weather, blow in the breeze. When you’re stuck in the storm, pray for luck and make the best of it. We all have scars, we’ll get more. 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.

📒 Summary

Greenlights is a memoir by Oscar-winning actor, Matthew McConaughey. It’s about the first fifty years of his life; the experiences and lessons learned, and the philosophy that animates and guides his actions throughout his life and career.

At age 50, McConaughey has been keeping diaries for the past thirty years, and “Greenlights” is the culmination of those notes, with the lessons and philosophies derived from those diaries processed through the filter of time. As he puts it, “I never wrote things down to remember; I always wrote things down so I could forget.” (5)

It’s not a book of advice, as McConaughey himself notes.

This is an approach book. I am here to share stories, insights, and philosophies that can be objectively understood, and if you choose, subjectively adopted, by either changing your reality, or changing how you see it. (5)

This is a book about how to catch more yeses in a world of nos and how to recognize when a no might actually be a yes. This is a book about catching greenlights and realizing that the yellows and reds eventually turn green. (13)

McConaughey tosses off concepts and ideas for living in his own lighthearted way. He has had a charmed life and career, with probably more greenlights than most people. But his upbringing in small-town Texas instilled a strong emphasis on family, religion, duty, and responsibility.

I’d recommend this book to people who want to learn some useful life lessons from a Hollywood celebrity told in a refreshing and charming way. McConaughey is a born storyteller, and his stories keep you interested and entertained.


What’s a Greenlight?

  • Greenlights mean go – advance, carry on, continue. [Greenlights] are an affirmation of our way.
  • Catching greenlights is about skill: intent, context, consideration, endurance, anticipation, resilience, speed, and discipline.
  • We can catch more greenlights by simply identifying where the red lights are in our life, and then change course to hit fewer of them.
  • We can also earn greenlights, engineer and design for them….We can create more and schedule them in our future – a path of least resistance – through force of will, hard work, and the choices we make. We can be responsible for greenlights.
  • Catching greenlights is also about timing. The world’s timing, and ours. When we are in the zone, on the frequency, and with the flow. We can catch greenlights by sheer luck, because we are in the right place at the right time.

Yellow and Red Lights

  • Red and Yellow lights are “a caution, a detour, a thoughtful pause, an interruption, a disagreement, indigestion, sickness, and pain”
  • Greenlights can also be disguised as yellow and red lights….We don’t like yellow and red lights. They slow us down or stop our flow. They’re hard. They’re a shoeless winter. They say no, but sometimes give us what we need.

Part 1: Outlaw Logic

This is about McConaughey’s family and early childhood in Texas. McConaughey’s parents married each other three times (they divorced each other twice). McConaughey is the youngest of three brothers. He has two older brothers, Michael, and Patrick (who is adopted). Despite the turbulence and violence in his parent’s marriage, there was also shared love and humanity, and his small-town upbringing provided him with an appreciation for traditional values, hard work, discipline and responsibility.

  • My parents taught me that I was named my name for a reason. They taught me not to hate. To never say I can’t. To never lie.
  • My parents didn’t hope we would follow their rules, they expected us to. A denied expectation hurts more than a denied hope, while a fulfilled hope makes us happier than a fulfilled expectation.
  • I come from a family that might penalize you for breaking the rules, but definitely punished you for getting caught. Slightly calloused on the surface, we know that what tickles us often bruises others—because we deal with or deny it, we’re the last to cry uncle to bad luck.
  • It’s a philosophy that has made me a hustler in both senses of the word. I work hard and I like to grift. It’s a philosophy that’s also led to some great stories.

Part 2: Find Your Frequency

This is about his experiences in high school, and a difficult year spent abroad as a foreign exchange student in Australia.

  • Only later did I come to realize that the suffering and loneliness I experienced would be one of the most important sacrifices of my life.
  • Before my trip to Australia I was never an introspective man. On that trip I was forced to look inside myself for the first time to make sense of what was going on around me….Forced to look inside myself because I didn’t have anyone else. I didn’t have anything else. I’d lost my crutches.
  • It was a year that shaped who I am today. A year when I found myself because I was forced to…A year that also planted the seeds of a notion that continues to guide me: Life’s hard. Shit happens to us. We make shit happen.
  • And while I was going crazy, I kept telling myself that there was a lesson I was put there to learn, that there was a silver lining in all of it, that I needed to go through hell to get to the other side, and I did. We cannot fully appreciate the light without the shadows. We have to be thrown off balance to find our footing. It’s better to jump than fall.

Part 3: Dirt Roads and Autobahns

While attending University of Texas-Austin (UT Texas-Austin), McConaughey comes across “The Greatest Salesman in the World”, a book written by Og Mandino. After reading the book and absorbing its message of persistence and positivity, he realizes attending law school is no longer what he wants. Instead, he decides to attend film school. His 3.82 GPA gets him into the film school Honors Program at UT-Austin.

While attending film school, he meets Don Philips, a casting director, in a chance meeting at a hotel bar. Philips gives McConaughey his film debut as “Wooderson” in “Dazed and Confused” directed by Richard Linklater. The film is a hit and launches McConaughey’s career.

McConaughey also talks about how his father’s death spurs him to become “less impressed, more involved”. It teaches him that we need to become less impressed with ourselves and our accomplishments, and more involved with our actual lives and with our relationships.

  • “Well…Don’t half-ass it.” [remark from his father upon hearing his decision to drop law school for film school]
  • Good looks don’t cook the dinner, but they’ll get you a seat at the table, and I was determined to take advantage of any seat I could get.
  • We are not here to tolerate our differences, we are here to accept them. We are not here to celebrate our sameness, we are here to salute our distinctions….As individuals, we unite in our values. Celebrate that.

Part 4: The Art Of Running Downhill

McConaughey talks about finding almost instant success in Hollywood, and the opportunities and challenges that fame and success can bring. Fame brings wealth, but it also strains his relationship with his mother (who is overeager about celebrity), and makes it difficult for McConaughey to find peace and focus amidst the chaos.

  • We have to prepare to have freedom. We have to do the work to then do the job. We have to prepare for the job so we can be free to do the work.
  • Sometimes we don’t need advice. Sometimes we just need to hear we’re not the only one.
  • One of my strengths has always been that I can find an angle on anything, but now, with the ability to do almost anything, that strength was a weakness. Every project looked possible to me. …I needed some starvation.
  • I had crossed a truth. Did I find it? I don’t know, I think it found me. Why? Because I put myself in a place to be found. I put myself in a place to receive it.
  • I believe the truth is all around us all the time. The anonymous angels, the butterflies, the answers, are always right there, but we don’t always identify, grasp, hear, see, or access them — because we’re not in the right place to. We have to make a plan.

Part 5: Turn the Page

McConaughey talks about indulging in the seedier side of fame (although he is very discreet in the retelling). He recounts the infamous naked bongo incident. He talks about the succession of rom-coms that he is cast in, his growing professional restlessness and a desire for more serious acting roles. He visits Mali on a search for meaning and wrestles with one of their local champions, who later becomes a lifelong friend.

  • Nobody gets in trouble for what they do, they only get into trouble when they get caught. The art is in gettin away with it. The outlaw don’t live on the edges, he lives in the center, cruisin through the slipstream.
  • You know how it is, when you’re up to nothin no good’s usually next…. I took a lot of showers in the daylight hours, rarely alone. I partook.
  • I didn’t as much cease believing in God as much as I doubled down on self-reliance and the responsibility of my free will. I was done with the excuses that fate allows, I was ready to be the boss of me, the one to blame and acquit, I needed to own that it was my hands on the steering wheel.
  • I practiced being less impressed, more involved once again.

Part 6: The Arrow Doesn’t Seek The Target. The Target Draws The Arrow

McConaughey talks about finding his partner, Camila Alves, and becoming a father, a lifelong dream of his. His first child is born in 2008. He describes his continuing desire for more challenging acting roles that provide professional growth and satisfaction. No longer content with rom-com roles, McConaughey desires for his acting career to reflect the vibrant personal life he is leading as a husband, father, and philanthropist.

The Right Time

  • It was a spiritual sign, a message to surrender, to quit trying so intentionally to find the perfect woman for me, and rather, concede to the natural selection process of finding her, her finding me, or not. …So I quit looking for her. Then, she came.
  • The arrow doesn’t seek the target, the target draws the arrow….sometimes we don’t need to make things happen.


  • I had five things on my proverbial desk to tend to daily: family, foundation, acting, a production company, and a music label. I felt like I was making B’s in all five. By shutting down the production company and the music label, I eliminated two of my five commitments with plans to make A’s in the other three.
  • I told my lawyer that I wanted to take care of my family, my foundation, and be an actor for hire. Simplify, focus, conserve to liberate. Alright, alright, alright.


  • Death, family crisis, and newborns—the end of a life, trying to keep a life, and welcoming in a new one—these are three things that will shake your floor, give you clarity, remind you of your mortality, and hence, give you courage to live harder, stronger, and truer.
  • We find the belief that our choices matter, that it’s not all for nothing, it’s all for everything.

The Need for Professional Fulfillment

  • My life was full. Wild. Dangerous. Essential. Consequential. Lively…I wanted to be in stories that at least challenged the vibrancy of the life I was livin, and play characters that at least challenged the liveliness of the man I was.

Part 7: Be Brave. Take The Hill

McConaughey’s second child is born in 2010. He vows to not take any more rom-com or comedic roles. After two years of abstaining from acting (due to no interest in rom-coms), he starts to be offered dramatic acting roles.

When Facing A Crisis:

  • Recognize the problem
  • Stabilize the situation
  • Organize the response
  • Respond

Discipline and Sacrifice

  • I’ve always needed work for my own sense of self-significance…My need for immediate personal accomplishment had me fighting against the temptation to do what I had always felt privileged to be able to do in the first place, while fighting for the necessity to have my art, my work, more resemble myself and my life.
  • Voluntary obligations … are faith-based responsibilities that we make on our own, the ones that define our constitution and character. They are secrets with our self, personal protocols, private counsel in the court of our own conscience, and while nobody will give us a medal or throw us a party when we abide by them, no one will apprehend us when we don’t, because no one will know, except us.

Part 8: Live Your Legacy Now

McConaughey marries his long-time partner Camila Alves.  They have a third child in 2012. He wins the Best Actor Oscar in 2014 for playing HIV-positive AIDS activist Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club. He starts thinking about legacy, and decides to write his memoirs.

  • Afraid no more and in pursuit of a new mystery, I committed to the commitment, and for the first time in my life felt I could tumble and not fall.
  • I was finding inspiration everywhere, but now in truths, not ideas. Unimpressed with my success, I was involved in it, wanting what I needed and needing what I wanted. The more successful I became, the more sober I got; I liked my company so much I didn’t want to interrupt it.
  • I won the Oscar for Best Actor. I was extremely honored to receive this award representing the pinnacle of excellence in my profession. It was also validation that my choices as an actor were translating as a highly competent craft. I was not half-assin it.
  • There’s a difference between art and self-expression. All art is self-expression. All self-expression is not art. 

Decision to Write A Memoir

  • Time to get rid of the filters. Make my life my favorite movie. Live my favorite character. Write my own script. Direct my own story. Be my biography. Make my own documentary, on me. Nonfiction. Live, not recorded. Time to catch that hero I’ve been chasing, see if the sun will melt the wax that holds my wings or if the heat is just a mirage. Live my legacy now. Quit acting like me. Be me.
  • I wrote this book so I could have a written record to hold myself accountable to. I wrote this book so you can hold me to task and remind me of what I forget. I circled back to prior times; lessons learned, repeated, and revisited. I noticed that the realizations arrived quickly, the learning took time, and the livin was the hardest part. I found myself right where I left me.

Lessons Learned in his 20s

In his 20s, he “learned the value of values”.

  • Through discipline and deep affection, I learned respect, accountability, creativity, courage, perseverance, fairness, service, good humor, and a spirit of adventure in ways that some people might consider abusive, but I remember as tough love, and I wouldn’t give back one ass whupping I ever got for the value of the values my parents impressed upon me.

Lessons Learned in his 20s and 30s

His 20s and 30s were “contradictory decades”, where he “eliminated conditions and truths that went against my grain.”

  • I was often more concerned with not running red lights than I was with investing in the greenlights. I did what I wanted, I learned to live. I survived.

Lessons Learned in his 40s

  • My forties were a much more affirming decade, years when I started to play offense with truths I had learned and put them into action. An era where I doubled down on what fed me.
  • It was a time when I not only cruised through more greenlights because I had eliminated more red and yellow ones, but a time when I created more greenlights to travel through. A time when past reds and yellows finally turned green, as old hardships revealed themselves as good fortune, a time when the greenlights beamed brighter because I gave them more power to shine. I did what I needed, I lived to learn. I thrived.


  • Rather than cover their eyes from ugly truths, I want to cover their eyes from fictional fantasies that will handicap their ability to negotiate tomorrow’s reality. I believe they can handle it.
  • When we have kids, there is no intellectual discussion or philosophy as to how or how much to love, protect, and guide them, it’s an instinctual commitment, an immediate, infinite, and ever-growing responsibility. A privilege. A greenlight.


  • Bipartisan and nondenominational, values are not only guiding principles we can all agree on, they are the fundamental ethics that bring people together. When we are competent at our values and place more value on competence, we create a more valuable society—and that means more return on our investment, us.
  • Inevitably, we are going to die. Our eulogy, our story, will be told by others and forever introduce us when we are gone….The Soul Objective. Begin with the end in mind. What’s your story? This is mine so far.


McConaughey wrote these goals in his diary on September 1, 1992. He hadn’t looked at them since, and found these notes while writing this book, published in 2020.

  • Notice the date. Two days after finishing my first-ever acting role as “Wooderson” in Dazed and Confused. Fourteen days after my dad moved on. (Like I said, I guess I remembered more than I forgot.)

10 Goals in Life

  1. Become a father
  2. Find and keep the woman for me
  3. Keep my relationship with God
  4. Chase my best self
  5. Be an egotistical utilitarian
  6. Take more risks
  7. Stay close to mom and family
  8. Win an Oscar for best actor
  9. Look back and enjoy the view
  10. Just keep livin

⭐ Recommended Reading

You may also enjoy the following books:

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (Habit Two: Begin with the End in Mind) by Stephen Covey


Have you read this book? What did you think? Share your thoughts and ideas with me!

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