Greenlights summary

Greenlights Summary | Matthew McConaughey

Raucous stories and outlaw wisdom from the Academy Award-winning actor

Life gets busy. Han Greenlights been gathering dust on your bookshelf? Instead, learn some of the key insights now.

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Matthew McConaughey’s Perspective

Matthew McConaughey is an American actor and producer from Texas. He was sprung into the limelight in his mid-20s during his breakout supporting performance in Dazed and Confused (1993). Since then, he has had a career of almost 30 years, starring in some of the biggest movies. McConaughey won an Oscar in 2013 for his portrayal in Dallas Buyers Club of Ron Woodroof, a cowboy diagnosed with AIDS. The following year, he was nominated for the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor for his starring role in True Detective. 


Greenlights is a collection of Mathew McConaughey’s journals from the past 36 years. He had put off delving into these journals for many years but he decided it was finally time to take himself and the journals to a desert with no electricity. Here is where he wrote Greenlights, which he calls an ‘approach book.’ By re-reading the thousands of pages held in these journals, McConaughey relived the core values that brought him success and happiness. Greenlights is filled with people and experiences and is described by McConaughey as an aspirational book. 

The Making of Greenlights

McConaughey has been writing a journal for a total of 36 years. Greenlights offered him an opportunity to read back through these journals and recall the fantastic adventures he has had along the way. Additionally, McConaughey wanted to be entirely focused on this memoir. So, he spent part of his writing period in the middle of the desert with no electricity. Specifically, he spent 12 days without electricity and another 40 in the desert with a small generator. 

What Is a Greenlight?

“This is a book about how to catch more YESs in a world of NOs and how to recognize when a NO might actually be a YES. This is a book about catching green lights and realizing that the yellow and the reds eventually turn green.”

– Matthew McConaughey

Matthew McConaughey describes a greenlight as a sign you should continue with what you are doing. You may believe these signs come from the universe, God, or by chance. All that matters is you pursue this greenlight when it emerges. 

Greenlights can be affirmations, approvals, support, praise, or gifts. There are obvious greenlights, like being given a job you never imagined you would be offered. Plus, there are also less obvious greenlights disguised as yellow or even red lights. A perfect example of a green light disguised as a red light is a setback or a challenge in life. When we experience these difficult times, it may feel like it is better that we do not pursue our goals or dreams. McConaughey offers the example of his father passing away, who was his biggest role model. Although this seemed like a red light, he now looks back at this time as a massive greenlight for his life. It encouraged him to think more about the lessons his father had taught him. Subsequently, he became the man he wanted to be. McConaughey explains that your own challenges could be a crucial part of your journey towards success and happiness. It is up to you to turn these challenges into advantages. Every red or yellow light will eventually turn green.

You can improve your chances of encountering greenlights by working hard and being prepared. That said, greenlights can also be the outcome of fortune, intuition, karma, or fate. The most important thing is you are ready when these greenlights arrive.

The Three Ways to Respond to a Red Light

Red lights will always be difficult to tackle and overcome. McConaughey explains that there are generally three ways you can deal with a red light. 

  1. Persist (push on)
  2. Pivot (change the way you do things)
  3. Concede (wave the white flag)

You should never concede when you are confronted by a red light. You might have to wait for this red light to turn green, but the change will eventually come. McConaughey describes noticing a red light as another example of a greenlight. So, either persist with your previous approach or use that time to think about your situation and pivot. Crucially, while pivoting, you must still stay true to yourself.

McConaughey’s Early Years

McConaughey’s family has its roots in the UK. Specifically, his ancestors migrated from Ireland to Liverpool in England. The family journey continued through West Virginia, New Orleans and finally Mississippi where his father was born, and Pennsylvania where his mother was born. Together, they settled in Texas, which is where Matthew was born and brought up alongside his three brothers. 

Although his parents were strict disciplinarians, they used this parenting style to teach Matthew and his brothers how to be honorable, responsible, and hardworking. Matthew’s father had particularly high expectations and would provide each son with rites of passage that challenged them physically, morally, or philosophically. If Matthew and his brothers passed these tests, their father would treat them as equals.

McConaughey’s Rite of Passage

McConaughey’s rite of passage was a physical and moral one. He defended his father in a fight at a bar without thinking twice. From this moment on, his father treated him as equal.

McConaughey’s First Greenlight

McConaughey explains that he encountered his first greenlight during his childhood while spending a summer living with his father in a trailer park. He describes this as the best summer of his life because it was his first experience of real accomplishment. On this summer break, Matthew snuck into the local lumberyard and stole planks of wood and some supplies which he used to build himself a treehouse in a large tree. This was Matthew’s first experience of life giving him a greenlight and him running with it. The effort of spending 90 straight days working on this treehouse provided him with huge satisfaction. As he sat in this 13-storey high treehouse, he had learned what it meant to dream and the importance of persistence for fulfilling those dreams.

Dreams of Becoming a Father

The one thing that was constant throughout McConaughey’s journals was that he wanted to become a father. This dream was never in any doubt and something he found in his journals from the age of eight. When he was a young boy, his father told him to always shake the hand of older men. McConaughey noticed that every one of these men was a father. From then on, he believed that you have made it in life once you’ve become a father, like these men. 

McConaughey’s dreams of becoming a father were also inspired by his own father. He looks back at his father as a huge influence on his life. James McConaughey taught his children to be honorable, good, responsible, hard-working, persistent, and humorous. Plus, he taught them to help those who are less fortunate.

The First Time McConaughey Met His Wife

McConaughey reveals how amazed he was the first time he saw his wife. In 2006, Matthew decided he was ready to settle down and find his life partner. He explains most people would ask ‘Who is that?’ when they see a beautiful person. Instead, McConaughey asked, ‘What is that?’ In his mind, she was gliding rather than walking. His imagination ran away with the sheer beauty of Camila. Later in the book, he explains Camila exceeded these expectations the more he got to know her. She was beautiful in every way. She was another one of Matthew McConaughey’s greenlights. Camila told Matthew that she would never leave him unless he changed. From there on, Matthew decided to never let himself change. 

The next greenlight associated with his marriage was Camila becoming pregnant with their first child. He used this greenlight as a catalyst for focusing more time on his family, charity, and becoming an actor. At this time, Matthew was running a production company and music label. He closed both of these down, so he could pursue this greenlight.

The next greenlight was the birth of that child, Levi Alves. Soon after his birth, Matthew had to return to Texas for a family crisis. During this trip, Matthew realized how much he missed Texas. He also knew he wanted to raise Levi there. They moved back to Texas and closer to his mother and brothers. The birth of Levi was the greenlight Matthew needed to help him reconsider what he wanted out of his life.

Swapping a Red Sports Car for a Truck

McConaughey describes his teenage years as being a hustle. He drove a truck and would give girls lifts to concerts. At these concerts, he would be the one working hard to help everyone get a space at the front of the crowd. Plus, he was always the life of the party. If there was a dance floor, McConaughey would be on it. McConaughey made the silly decision of trading this truck in for a red sports car. After this trade, his whole demeanor changed. He lost his hustle and expected people to like him. This attracted girls for about a day. Then, everybody started asking him why he had become so boring. Straight after this, McConaughey decided to return the red sports car and get another truck. Ever since, he has adopted this truck mentality of hustling and working hard. He hasn’t let fame change this.

McConaughey’s Student Exchange in Australia

After high school, Matthew did not know what he wanted to study so he decided to go on a student exchange to Australia. This exchange lasted a year and he promised himself that he would stick out the entire year. The year was extremely challenging and McConaughey experienced severe homesickness, but he kept his promise and this experience of perseverance helped make him the person he is today. He learned to appreciate that life will be tough at times and you need to push through these moments. This was another of McConaughey’s greenlights. 

McConaughey Swapped Law School for Film School

When Matthew was younger, he dreamed of becoming a lawyer. After applying for several pre-law schools across the country, he settled for a cheaper public university because his father was struggling for money. During his second year at UT Austin, Matthew started to question whether law was right for him. He realized it would take him at least six years to even start making a mark in the world as a lawyer. Matthew wanted to have an immediate impact. So, he decided to pivot and go to film school. Crucially, though, he would not have made this decision without another greenlight. To Matthew’s surprise, his dad was fully supportive of his suggestion of going to film school. This encouragement was a greenlight.

While at film school, Matthew met his first movie producer, Don Phillips. They drank together at a bar one night and Don decided to invite Matthew to audition for a tiny part. This tiny part was a launchpad for his career. Matthew was in an improvised scene where he had to pick up a girl. It was in this scene that McConaughey’s famous “alright, alright, alright’ line was created. This line proved to be Matthew’s next greenlight, as it helped him get more substantial roles in movies.

How Does McConaughey Stay Grounded?

McConaughey explains that keeping yourself grounded should be daily work. The way he remains grounded is by ensuring he has a firm grasp of his values. If he feels he is losing his grasp, he takes some time to reconnect. He aims to get his heart and head communicating clearly. 

Additionally, McConaughey recommends you look back at where you were before success. Understanding the hard work needed to achieve your success will also help keep you grounded. For example, McConaughey recalls being rejected from several dramatic roles in big movies during a large portion of his career. He had become known as the Romantic Comedy guy, which prevented directors from seeing his potential in other genres. He didn’t get a job for almost a year at one point as he was rejecting roles in multiple romantic comedies. He had decided to take the risk of diversifying his type. The risk paid off. McConaughey’s decision allowed him to move away from Rom-Coms and achieve the success of winning an Oscar in a big movie. Even after this success, though, he did not let his ego take over. Instead, he reminded himself of the hard work and risks he had to take to get there.

Prescribes Guide Us

McConaughey talks in the book about what he calls ‘prescribes.’ Prescribes are prescriptions for your life. They are decision-making paradigms and compasses that help keep us on our path. Prescribes are most useful when dealing with a tough time in your life or when you are experiencing new successes.

Find Your Frequency

One prescribe that McConaughey describes in the book is finding your frequency. He explains this prescribe has become increasingly important during the Coronavirus pandemic. We are living in a very disruptive time. So, we have to find our frequency again. McConaughey suggests that finding our frequency is a personal adventure. It involves looking in the mirror and encouraging ourselves to be more responsible and empathic. 

How to Respond to Success

McConaughey highlighted that success should always be enjoyed. Celebrate your successes in life as they won’t last forever. You need to be ready to enjoy your next success when it comes around the corner. 

Additionally, success will not solve all your problems. Instead, success merely changes your problems by creating new ones. New problems require us to learn and create new solutions. 

Finally, success can also be overwhelming. So, ensure you have a space you can retreat to when you feel success impacts your grasp of your core values. Take time to process your success. McConaughey’s personal success required him to engage with introspection, isolation, and meditation. Subsequently, he decided to travel to the Amazon river to reconnect with himself. The result was a renewed McConaughey who was ready to face the oncoming challenges and successes. 

Preparation Is Key to Success

“We must learn the consequence of negligence… it’s not just what we do, it’s what we don’t do that’s important as well. We are guilty by omission.”

– Matthew McConaughey

Preparation is fundamental to all success. Preparation provides us with the confidence required to perform well. This confidence allows us to impress others. Finally, impressing others bestows us with fantastic opportunities to obtain success. This loop then keeps going as long as we remain prepared. 

McConaughey would always turn up to his auditions exceptionally prepared. This preparation provided him with the confidence to ask for the roles he wanted within the films. People were willing to listen to him when he did this, as he had earned their respect through his preparation. 

Take Action

“Sometimes which choice you make is not as important as making a choice and committing to it.”

– Matthew McConaughey

Action leads to opportunity or failure. Opportunities will almost always take you towards your goal but failures can also help you with your goal. Failures teach you valuable lessons, while inaction leads to nothing happening. McConaughey would rather jump than fall. 

McConaughey’s 10 Goals in Life From 1992

Greenlights is formatted a bit like a scrapbook. As well as typed words, there are also excerpts from his journals like written poems, drawings, and lists. One of these excerpts is a list from 1992. McConaughey provides readers with the 10 goals for life that he wrote back in 1992, when he was 23. This was two days after finishing the filming of Dazed and Confused. It was also soon after McConaughey’s father had passed away.

  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 living.

Final Summary, Review and Rating of Greenlights

Life is filled with red, yellow and green lights. Red and yellow lights are setbacks that will require you to wait but they are also a crucial part of your success. The importance of these lights is that they will eventually become greenlights if you are willing to be patient, prepared, and take your chances when they come. Greenlights are a sign that you must push forward. Your life will be filled with several greenlight moments. Taking advantage of these moments will be key to your success.


We rate Greenlights 4.3/5.

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  1. Nicely Written!
    It’s an autobiographical snapshot of Matthew McConaughey’s early upbringing in Texas. His early career in Hollywood and ultimately where he is today. And it is told through stories and also journal entries from McConaughey from back in 1992. During the course of this book, the author Matthew McConaughey always brings up the term “Greenlight,” which is also the title of the book.

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