Greenlights - Critical summary review - Matthew McConaughey

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Greenlights - critical summary review

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Biographies & Memoirs

This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: Greenlights

Available for: Read online, read in our mobile apps for iPhone/Android and send in PDF/EPUB/MOBI to Amazon Kindle.

ISBN: 978-0593139134

Publisher: Crown Publishing Group (NY)

Critical summary review

When he turned 50 years old, actor and producer Matthew McConaughey took his 35 years worth of personal journals, headed to the desert, and went through them to see what kind of person he had become. “Greenlights” is the result of this taking stock, and while McConaughey focuses on his own life and experiences in it, he hopes that the book will be helpful to others as well. He calls it an “approach book,” a way of seeing reality. So, get ready to learn more about McConaughey and the greenlights in your life!

What are greenlights?

McConaughey believes that to be happy in life, it is necessary to get comfortable with the inevitable. There is only one inevitability in life, and that is death. Death is the eulogy of life. Life is the only way to the inevitable: it is our résumé, the way we chose to live it.

We all have greenlights in life that tell us to advance or proceed. They can come in the form of encouragement, approvals, or gifts and are the kind of moments that “say yes and give us what we want.” Sometimes, a greenlight is disguised as a red or yellow light - signalling times in life when we are forced to stop and consider. But over time, these lights can turn into greenlights as well. Going through suffering often teaches us a lesson and gives us what we need. McConaughey says you can also learn to catch more greenlights in your life, it’s about timing and skill. You can plan your life to avoid red lights and catch more greenlights, and you can even create them for yourself.

When you accept that the outcome of a situation is inevitable, you are getting relative and you can choose how to act: you can persist, pivot, or concede. As McConaughey writes, “The secret to our satisfaction lies in which one of these we choose to do, when.”

The year 2020 has been one big, red light. Both the COVID-19 pandemic and the murder of George Floyd forced the American public and the world to turn inward and to reflect on life. But even the darkest moments in life will eventually create something positive. And using this time to turn toward a more value-driven society might mark 2020 as one of our finest hours, in the future.

Growing up

According to McConaughey, his childhood was defined by “tough love.” He always knew his parents loved each other and their children, but life was rough at times. He grew up in rural Texas to parents who had been married three times, and divorced twice. 

Their violent, yet loving relationship extended to their children. According to McConaughey, he was taught the most important values in his life through the beatings he received from his parents. He also got his mouth washed out with soap for saying certain words. He says these acts of abuse towards him taught him respect, accountability, courage, and a spirit of adventure and admits he is thankful to his parents to this day.

McConaughey grew up as the third of three children, and his conception was an accident - so much so that his mother believed she had a tumor until the fifth month of pregnancy. He has two elder brothers: Mike, a biological brother and Pat, who was adopted by their parents. 

McConaughey’s birth was so unexpected that his father went to the bar the night he was born instead of the hospital, believing that Matthew could not possibly be his. He kept jokingly saying to his wife, “That ain’t my boy, Katy, that’s your boy.” Matthew and his brothers deeply respected their dad. He was their role model, and while being able to hurt with his hands, he was also able to heal with them. 

In the summer of 1979, Matthew lived with his dad in a double-wide trailer in Longview, Texas, where he learned to dream. With them lived a pet cockatiel called Lucky, who was the apple of his father’s eye. One evening they both got home to find Lucky drowned in the toilet bowl. Tears streaming down his face, Matthew’s father slowly put Lucky into his mouth until only her tail feathers showed. Then he slowly breathed life back into her, so as not to burst her tiny lungs. He managed to resuscitate her, and Lucky went on to live eight more years!

Finding his identity

In his senior year at high school, McConaughey was a hustler. He had a truck, more girlfriends than he could count and was extremely popular. On the front grille of his truck he had a megaphone which he would use to flirt with girls across the parking lot.

One identity-forming event in his young life was when one day, he drove past a car dealer and saw the perfect red sports car, complete with T-tops. He immediately exchanged his truck for it and began parking outside school, leaning on his red sports car, believing that would automatically bring all the girls to him.

Instead, they lost interest: he had stopped being fun and had become too self-assured. So he went and got his truck back. This is what McConaughey calls the process of elimination, “The first step that leads to our identity in life is usually not I know who I am, but rather I know who I’m not.”

McConaughey’s first real trial in life came when he went to Australia as an exchange student after high school. He went with the Rotary Club who made it a condition that he could not return before his year was over. He was placed with the Dooley family, who told him they lived just outside Sydney, by the beach.

When he arrived, it turned out that they lived several hours away from Sydney and nowhere near a beach. And throughout Matthew’s six-month stay, the incidents with his host family got ever more disturbing. On one of his first nights, when he expressed he preferred cheeseburgers over hamburgers, his host dad Norvel replied, “In your time here with us, you will learn to appreciate fine wines, fine cheeses, and NOT to voice your opinion for the masses.” McConaughey tried to explain these incidents away for a long time as cultural differences, but he also started to feel lost. 

To reestablish his own identity, he tried to become a vegetarian. This meant he ate a head of iceberg lettuce with ketchup every evening and started running long distances. He also contemplated a career as a monk. But finally, when his host parents insisted he call them “mum and pop” he decided he had had enough and managed to get placed with a different family.

Although the stay with the Dooleys was a torturous time for him, McConaughey still considers this one of the most important years of his life. It was a red light - since he could not return home - so he endured. Even though he was going crazy, he still firmly believed there was a lesson to be learned and a reason for why he was going through the difficult time.

Acting career

After returning from Australia, McConaughey had made up his mind to study law. On his father’s entreaties, he enrolled at the University of Texas in Austin, but even towards the end of his first year, he realized that his true calling was to go to film school. When he told his father, his only reply was to not “half-ass it.” And McConaughey didn’t.

In 1992, McConaughey introduced himself to casting director Don Phillips in a bar. After realizing they had a lot in common, such as playing golf, Don offered Matthew to audition for the role of Wooderson in ”Dazed and Confused.” Reading the script, McConaughey discovered his “launchpad” line: what he would later describe as a line in a script that sent him flying, allowing him to exactly envision the character. 

While shooting ”Dazed and Confused,” a tragic event hit McConaughey hard when his father died of a heart attack. As a way of coping, he carved the following words into a tree, “Less impressed, more involved.” He regards the death of his father as his own passage into manhood.

In 1994, McConaughey signed a contract with the William Morris Talent Agency, and against all odds, his film career immediately took off. His self-assurance landed him a role in Disney’s “Angels in the Outfield.” After starring in ”A Time to Kill” in 1996, the offers began pouring in, and McConaughey even started his own production company.

But he had always loved adventure. To get closer to himself again, he embarked on a 22-day solo trip to Peru. This decision was actually spurred on by one of his dreams in which he saw himself floating down the Amazon river, wrapped in anacondas and pythons, while crocodiles, piranhas and sharks surrounded him. From the banks, African tribesmen were watching him. He did end up swimming naked in the Amazon in real life as well, however, not surrounded by any dangerous animals.

McConaughey has always been fascinated by people and cultures. That is why he became the minister of culture of the University of Texas’ new basketball and entertainment facility in 2019. He strongly believes that in this position, he can preserve and promote values and competence across cities.


McConaughey’s biggest dream in life had always been to become a father. In his mid-thirties, he was looking for the woman to spend his life with and who would make his dream come true. But then he had another spiritual wet dream, in which he appeared as an unmarried bachelor with 88 children.

So, he stopped looking for “the one,” because he realized he could become a father without a wife. And then he met Camila. In late 2006, he saw her for the first time at a bar, where, according to him, she did not walk but floated over the ground. She had a drink with him, and that was the start of their long-term relationship which eventually culminated in marriage in 2012.

Much to his mother’s horror, they only decided to get married after having had two children already. McConaughey grew up in a religious family, but nevertheless the prospect of marriage scared him. He was finally prompted to take the step by his three-year-old first-born son Levi, who directly asked him if he was scared of marrying his mother.

Eventually McConaughey realized though that far from stealing his sense of self or independence, a marriage with Camila would enlighten it. Both, from the start, had fiercely independent personalities. He knew he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her, so they had a three-day wedding feast including a Catholic priest, a pastor, and a Candomblé priest. By this point, Camila was pregnant with her third child.

Happy in his personal life, his career also took off and culminated in winning the Academy Award for Best Actor in 2014 for his role in ”Dallas Buyers Club.” McConaughey describes the résumé of his life at that point as the following, “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.”

Final Notes

Matthew McConaughey is someone for whom life is easy. Opportunities come his way, and he has an incredibly positive outlook on life. He believes that to live life to its fullest, we should take the opportunities that are given to us and enjoy the journey. 

The book includes many parts of McConaughey’s journals, ranging from his cherished bumper stickers to short stories, love letters, bits of poetry and photos. So in that sense, it is a must-read for any fan of Matthew McConaughey!

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Who wrote the book?

Matthew McConaughey is an Academy Award-winning actor who starred in films such as “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Interstellar.” He founded the ”just keep livin Foundation” in 2009 with his wife Camila, which encou... (Read more)

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