Book notes: Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey

Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey book summary review and key ideas.

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Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey


From the Academy Award-winning actor, an unconventional memoir filled with raucous stories, outlaw wisdom, and lessons learned the hard way about living with greater satisfaction.

“Unflinchingly honest and remarkably candid, Matthew McConaughey’s book invites us to grapple with the lessons of his life as he did – and to see that the point was never to win, but to understand.” (Mark Manson, author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck)

I’ve been in this life for 50 years, been trying to work out its riddle for 42, and been keeping diaries of clues to that riddle for the last 35. Notes about successes and failures, joys and sorrows, things that made me marvel, and things that made me laugh out loud. How to be fair. How to have less stress. How to have fun. How to hurt people less. How to get hurt less. How to be a good man. How to have meaning in life. How to be more me. 

Recently, I worked up the courage to sit down with those diaries…I found a reliable theme, an approach to living that gave me more satisfaction, at the time, and still: If you know how, and when, to deal with life’s challenges – how to get relative with the inevitable – you can enjoy a state of success I call “catching greenlights”… It’s also a guide to catching more greenlights – and to realizing that the yellows and reds eventually turn green, too. Good luck.” -Audible

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Opening thoughts:

I heard about this book when Matthew was doign interviews for the late night comedy news shows I watch like Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah. From the interviews, I’ve seen of him, he’s a very thoughtful and intelligent person, someone I’d probably enjoy reading about. I only know about the movies he’s done and the success he’s had, but it’ll be interesting to read about his backstory. At least I think that’s what this book is about. I love biographies about notable celebrities so hopefully it’ll have nuggets of wisdom and insight on how he’s achieved his success.

Key notes:

  • He says this is an “approach book”
  • He’s here to share stories, insights, philosophies that can be objectively understood, and if the reader chooses, to be subjectively adopted by either changing reality or chaning how you see it

To Life


  • Sometimes you gotta go back to go forward
    • To see where you came from, where you’ve been, and how you got here

How Did I Get Here?

  • This is the first 50 years of his life, his resume so far on the way to his eulogy

What’s a Greenlight?

  • Greenlights mean go, advance, continue
    • In our lives, they are an affirmation of our way. Approvals, support, praise, cash, health, success, sustainability, etc
    • Greenlights can also be disguised as yellow or red lights
  • Sometimes red lights give us what we need
    • Catching greenlights is about skill. We can catch more green lights by simply identifying where the red ones are and changing course to avoid them
    • We can also earn greenlights, engineer, and design for them 
  • Catching green lights is also about timing, the world’s timing and ours
    • It can also be about sheer luck and fate
  • Navigating the autobahn of life in the best way possible it’s about getting relative with the inevitable at the right time
    • Inevitability of the situation is not relative. When we accept the outcome of a given situation as inevitable, then how we choose to deal with it is relative
  • The problems we face today eventually turn into blessings in the rearview mirror of life
    • In time, yesterday’s red light leads us to a greenlight

Part one: outlaw logic: a Wednesday Night, 1974

  • His parents were divorced twice and married three times to each other
    • Two adages in life people generally use are the golden rule and everything in moderation
  • His parents taught him not to hate, not to say I can’t, and to never lie
    • Words are momentary. Intent is momentous
  • His parents didn’t hope they followed their rules, they expected them to
    • Denied expectation hurts more than denied hope, while fulfilled hope makes us happier than a fulfilled expectation
      • Hope has got a higher return on happiness
  • His mom’s philosophy of seeing a thing, owning it, and signing your name to it was prepping him to become an actor long before he became one
    • Knowing the truth, seeing the truth, and telling the truth are all different experiences
  • We need discipline, guidelines, context, and responsibility early in any new endeavor
    • It’s the time to sacrifice, to learn, to observe, to take heed
    • Once we get knowledge of the space in the craft, then we have the freedom to create
      • Creativity needs borders. Individuality needs resistance. Without them, there is no form or art, only chaos

Part 2: find your frequency: spring 1988

  • In high school he was the fun popular guy. He hustled, made an effort, and engaged
  • Note to self: Process of elimination and identity
    • The first step that leads to our identity in life is usually “I know who I’m not”
    • We should get rid of the excess in our lives that keep us from being more of ourselves
  • Prescribe: Boundaries to freedom
    • We need finites, borders, gravity, shape and resistance to have order
    • This order creates responsibility which creates judgment, which creates choice
    • In the choice lies the freedom, to create the weather that gives us the most favorable win we must remove that which causes the most friction to our core being
      • This process of elimination creates order by default
  • He found out from the other members of the Rotary club families that the Dooleys were in fact insane and they couldn’t believe Matthew had stayed with them that long. It was an Australian prank
  • He realized his suffering with that family was invaluable because they forced him to become an introspective person and look inside himself to make sense of what the hell is going on around him
  • He learned that life’s hard. Shit happens to us. We make shit happen
    • He made a commitment to himself so there was no turning back, but he got relative in order to survive
  • Note to self: The monster
    • The future is the monster, not the boogeyman under the bed. The past is just something we’re trying to outrun tomorrow
    • The monster is the future, the unknown, the boundaries not yet crossed. The potential not yet realized.
  • Note to self: Sometimes we find our frequency by holding onto a moral bottom line in the midst of chaos. Sometimes we find it by breaking the rules and running the red light to get our ass home
  • He referenced a quote that says “Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn. To have style, you have to have these in this order. Knowing who you are is the base that everything else comes from

Part three: dirt roads and autobahns: July 1989 

  • Note to self: When we know what we want to do, knowing when to do it is the hard part. Get them early so you don’t have to get them as often. Prevent before the cure
  • He knew he needed to stop lying to himself about wanting to become a lawyer.
    • He knew he wanted to tell stories. He told his dad he didn’t want to go to law school, and his dad’s response was “don’t half-ass it”
  • Note to self: Biology and giddy up. DNA and work. Genetics and willpower. Life is a combination
  • Bumper sticker: I’ll take a little common sense with that knowledge.
  • Prescription: Tribes
    • We want lovers, friends, recruits, soldiers and affiliations that support who we are
    • Individuals want to survive and have more of ourselves
      • We learn to measure people on the competence of their values that we most value 
  • We all want to believe in and be believed in. We almost earn belief in ourselves first then for each other
  • Travel and humanity were his biggest educators because they have help him understand the common denominator of mankind: values
    • Engage with yourself then engage with the world
      • Values travel
  • Note to self: We are not here to tolerate our differences, we’re here to accept them
    • We’re not here to celebrate our sameness, but to salute our distinctions
    • We’re not born into equal circumstances or with equal abilities, but should have equal opportunity
      • As individuals, we unite in our values
  • Note to self: Cool
    • Cool is a natural law. If it was cool for that time then it is cool for all time
    • Cool stands the test of time because cool never tries. It just is
  • His first three lines recorded on set were his now-infamous, “all right, all right, all right” he would be known for 28 years later
  • Note to self: One in a row
    • Any success takes one in a row. Do one thing well and then another, over and over until The end
  • Note to self: Days of prosperity
    • Days of prosperity can make us forget about adversity
  • The sooner we become less impressed with our accomplishments and more involved, we get better at them 
  • Note to self: The genie is in the steam
    • You need genetic talent and hard work, but the magic is in the steam, the juice
  • Note to self: Hollywood – Want her, don’t need her
  • He and his friends rented motorbikes and rode all over Europe. It was the best trip of their lives and they had so many more stories of their adventures. Afterward, he returned to Hollywood 
  • Prescribe: Dirt roads and autobahns
    • Sometimes the road less traveled is the autobahn. Robert frost was right, taking the road less traveled can make all the difference, but that road isn’t necessarily the road with the least traffic. It may be the road that we personally have traveled less
      • Just like how the road less traveled may be different for introverts and extroverts

Part four: the art of running downhill: January 1994

  • Bumper sticker: Most of the time it’s not stolen, it’s right where you left it
  • Note to self: When you can, ask yourself if you want to before you do 
  • Note to self: The intellect is not meant to surpass the apparent so much as to conceal it or make it more confusing. It is meant to expose the truth more clearly and make it more obvious
    • It should simplify things not make them more cerebral
  • Lesson learned: 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 then we can be free to do the work
  • Note to self: 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
  • Note to self: If only
    • It means you wanted something but did not get it. More often than not we don’t get what we want because we quit early or didn’t take the necessary risk to get it
  • Note to self: Made for the moment
    • We are all made for every moment we encounter, whether the moment makes us or we make the moment
    • Whether we are helpless in it or on top of it. The predator or the prey
  • Prescribe: A roof is a man-made thing
    • Don’t create imaginary constraints. Or a way to think we don’t deserve these fortunes when they are within our grasp? Who are we to think we haven’t earned them?
      • If we stay in process within ourselves, in the joy of the doing, we will never choke the finish line because we are not thinking about the finish line
        • We are performing in real time in which the approach is the destination
  • Note to self: Sometimes you have etc., sometimes etc. has you 
  • Prescribe: Why we all need a walkabout
    • We are more constantly bombarded by unnatural stimuli. We need to put ourselves in places of decreased sensory input so we can hear the background signals of our psychological processes
  • Sometimes we don’t need advice, sometimes we just need to hear we are not the only one
  • Prescription: Both are true
    • He does everything for him but also for everyone else and God. He is responsible for fate. Each step has the big picture and he is the man he wants to be
  • The fame got to his moms head and strained their relationship for 8 years, but eventually he loosened the reigns and let her enjoy it all
  • Note to self: The art of running downhill
    • Don’t trip yourself while running downhill. Don’t invent drama, it will come on its own
  • Note to self: A man addicted to ideas need be intervened with starvation. A man addicted to truths need be fed
  • Note to self: Just because the seats are empty doesn’t mean they are not taken. Sometimes the guest list needs to be for one: you
  • Note to self: Sometimes we have to leave what we know to find out what we know
  • Prescription/ prayer: 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
  • Note to self: He’s never cared much for destinations. He prefers simply a direction and a wide highway with room to swerve and explore along the way
  • He lived in a trailer park for a while where he can meet and live with people from all walks of life and backgrounds
    • However, everyone respected trailer park rules which were not everyone minded their own business and respected others privacy
  • Note to self: Common sense is like money in health. Once you have it, you have to work to keep it
  • Bumper sticker: Localized to customize
    • Adapt to modify. The renaissance man is at home wherever he goes
  • One of the great freedoms of trailer life was you could go anywhere and find a new backyard whenever you want. We can go to different events, see new places, meet many people
  • Prescription: White-collar prayers
    • Blue-collar prayers are things that people need like food, shelter, medical assistance
    • White-collar prayers are things people want like material things, privileged prayers
      • We need to quit asking God to answer these kinds of prayers

Part five: turn the page: October 23, 1999

  • Bumper sticker: If you are high enough the sun is always shining
  • Note to self: People don’t get in trouble for what they do, they get in trouble for getting caught. The art is in getting away with it
    • The outlaw doesn’t live at the edges, he lives in the center cruising through the slipstream
  • Note to self: Kiss the fire and walk away whistling
    • Basically, this means living life on the edge and partying hard but living and getting away with it
  • Note to self: Two agnostics.
    • Just because it says anonymous doesn’t mean it has no author
  • Note to self: Superstitions
  • Note to self: Some people want the AC on in the gym so they won’t sweat. He wears his beanie in July so he will 
  • Note to self: Sometimes which choice you make is not as important as making a choice and committing to it 
  • Bumper sticker: Educate before you indict
  • Bumper sticker: Some people look for an excuse to do. Others look for an excuse not to do
  • He went to a village in Africa and ended up wrestling the strongest man and winning 
  • Don’t label things as unbelievable if they are remarkable and extraordinary. Believe it because it just occurred
  • A village person told him that he won the wrestling match not because he won in the typical sense. He won because he accepted the challenge and held his own
  • Note to self: The justice it deserves
    • To appreciate a place fully, a man must know he can live there. He needs to customize and localize himself to the place he visits
    • Then and only then is it truly acceptable for him to leave. Wherever you are, give the place the justice it deserves
  • Bumper sticker: I am good at what I love, I don’t love all that I’m good at
  • He started to get more inner growth from his travel than from his career in acting
  • Great leaders are not always in front, they also know who to follow

Part six: the arrow doesn’t see the target, The target draws the arrow

  • He had another wet dream about having a lot of children and past relationships to look back on in his old age
  • Note to self: The great man is not all to each. He is each to all
    • The genius can do anything but does one thing at a time 
  • Note to self: Man is never more masculine than after the birth of his first child
  • Bumper sticker: Life, like architecture, is a verb
    • If designed well, it works. It’s beautiful and it needs no directions. It needs maintenance
  • Bumper sticker: It’s not a risk unless you can lose the fight

Part 7: Be Brave, Take the Hill: Fall 2008

  • Note to self: Self fish
    • The measure of a man’s greatness is when he becomes classic. When mortal rewards are no longer enough to pay his rent, man becomes legend
    • Fish for yourself
  • Note to self: Once you know it’s black, it’s not as dark
  • Bumper sticker: If we all made a sense of humor the default emotion, we’d all get along a lot better
  • Prescription: Define success for yourself 
    • Continue to ask yourself, what is success to me?
      • Your answer may change over time and that’s OK. But whatever your answer is, don’t choose anything that would jeopardize your soul
      • Prioritize who you are, who you want to be
        • Don’t spend time with anything that antagonizes your character
  • Be brave and take the help
    • But first ask yourself, what is my hill?
  • He initially turned on a script for two months worth of work for $5 million. It eventually turned into $14.5 million offer, which made the script seem far superior
    • However he stuck to his commitment and would not accept any romantic comedy work
    • If he couldn’t do what he wanted, he wasn’t going to do what he didn’t, no matter the price
  • Bumper sticker: Truth is like a jalapeño
    • The closer you get to the root, the hotter it gets
  • For 20 months he was off the grid from Hollywood and out of the public eye
  • An honest man’s pillow is his peace of mind
  • After just shy of two months, he was forgotten and re-discovered
    • He had successfully been able to unbrand himself and now it was time to reinvent himself
  • Note to self: Time and truth
    • Two constants you can rely on. One shows up at the first time every time and the other never leaves
  • He jumped on the opportunity to play the mentor role in Wolf on Wall Street with Leonardo DiCaprio
    • That chest drumming thing was what he did off screen to keep his rhythm, but it was Leonardo’s idea to do it in-scene
  • Note to self: They are all storytellers in the movie business
    • They play make-believe. And when they do it well, they make the viewer believe
  • They made Dallas Buyers club for $4.9M, way under the original budget, in 25 days

Part eight: live your legacy now: November 7, 2011

  • Being together with someone in marriage does not steal the sense of self, rather it enlightens it
    • In marriage we don’t lose half ourselves, we become more of ourselves
    • His pastor told him that through this covenant with God we actually triple our existence
      • We become three entities: wife, husband, and God
  • Note to self: If you just live together, you live for the present. If you marry, you live for the future
  • Note to self: The closer he gets to divinity the more he wonders if he’s a fraud
  • Note to self: There is a difference between art and self-expression
    • All art is self-expression, but all self-expression is not art
  • Prescribe: Why pray? It is a time to take inventory
    • To take a look high and wide at ourselves, loved ones, and mortality
    • To smile at our blessings, to humble our selfish yearnings, to embrace those who are in need with our compassion
  • We don’t live longer when we try not to die, we live longer when we are too busy living

Closing thoughts:

I really enjoyed this book as a whole. I never knew Matthew McConaughey was such a philosopher, or rather he’s very introspective. However, it’s a double edged sword. While he’s a great writer, thinker, and storyteller, it makes it very difficult to follow along because I have to take notes on all of his “note to self” and prescriptions.

Overall though, it was a fascinating look into his early life, his career, and his values and principles that got him to where he is today. He has such an interesting outlook and approach to life, I can see why this book was such a success.

One Takeaway / Putting into practice:

On an individual level, there are many great takeaways from the book. If someone just takes one of these concepts and runs with it, they’ll realize significant growth.

When I was thinking about my one takeaway, I decided to just compile the insight into one concept around this idea of “greenlights” since it is the title of the book.

  • Know and engage with yourself so that you can define success, prioritize your values, and commit to your decisions. This will allow you to engineer more greenlights in your life

The main idea is to start with increasing your self-awareness and identifying your values. Once you know who you are, you can pick a direction (not a destination), commit to it, explore and grow along the way, and put yourself in a position to hit more of these greenlights.

I suppose that’s pretty much a summary of the main points of the book, so it works out.


Actor Matthew McConaughey reflects on his life and explains the concept of “catching greenlights.” To him, this is knowing how and when to deal with life’s challenges and getting relative with the inevitable.

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Rating: 4 out of 5.


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6 thoughts on “Book notes: Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey”

  1. thanks man , You were of great help. Your notes I did use at times as a reference while listening to the audiobook. Now that I am done , here’s my Good bye and Thanks and who knows our paths might cross again due to another audiobook.

    Liked by 1 person

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