Views from 13 stories high.
Turning red and yellow lights green.
“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.”
The second paragraph written in Matthew McConaughey’s new book Greenlights. Page 3 of 295.
More of a playbook than a memoir, Greenlights exemplifies the art of storytelling through real-life quests of finding, navigating and leveraging the true essence of one’s self. And then – sharing your experiences in hopes of making a difference.
As I reflect back on the book that I did not want to end, I pause at a formula I wrote down in my journal right before I hit the last page. Truth + an “I can” attitude + love = your most authentic voice.
Subscribing to that, as McConaughey does, allows you to properly consume life as a verb.
Within the 295 pages of the book (not including the powerful force that is the intro) there are 50 years worth of detail – where you float down a river, hook an airstream to a pickup heading west, and eventually arrive back where you started. Home. Atop a 13-story treehouse you built with your bare hands. Now taking a breath, you inhale the view and exhale in gratitude because ultimately, this entire journey had the companionship of both your best friend and your worst enemy. You.
As I perch atop my own personal treehouse with a tequila to my left to start and a Wild Turkey to my right sip when I’m done, it is with much appreciation that I share my five biggest takeaways from Greenlights.
#1. The Sea of Trees – trusting the process… of elimination.
Greenlights is filled with beautiful snapshots of McConaughey’s notebook clippings. Scribbles of diary-esque entries, typewriter style poems, and profound tattooed takeaways. All of this expression guided McConaughey towards the person he discovered he was meant to be. But along with way, he pivots. He listens to his inner-voice and bets on himself with the chances and choices he makes. Sometimes there are so many options in life. Trim away those that do not illuminate you. Pick one and then drive the lane.
McConaughey’s early aspirations were to be a lawyer. It’s what his father (a strong presence in his life) thought he would be until one day, purely by listening and trying, the world pulled him to film school. The read or inner monologue on this thought process feels like this – Actually, I’m not a lawyer. And in discovering that, before I realized I am an artist, I found I am not a million other things either. I am me, Matthew McConaughey and the best version of myself that will bring the most joy, is to pursue this adventure of being an actor. I don’t know where it will go but I do know one thing is for sure – I won’t half ass it.
Lesson learned: I never sought out to be a writer or a person who hosts an interview series. In fact, for much of my life I was painfully shy. But I knew I loved music. I heard it. I followed it, and along the way I also tried… football, guitar, bartending, playing in a band, radio, sales, event hospitality and philanthropy. Until one day I subconsciously conducted and wrote up an interview with a band as a knee-jerk reaction to not liking the way they were portrayed on another platform.
#2 Interstellar – the art of being prepared.
You learn this lesson the hard way and the right away. The same is true for McConaughey. In his early acting days, he thrived on instinct. Such was the case in Dazed and Confused, where he was not even supposed to be on set the day he fired off the first line he ever said on film – the infamous “Alright, alright, alright.” He was only there for a fitting, but he knew his man Wooderson. He was prepared to fully be him in the moment when he was called. On the flipside, Scorpion Spring in 1995, taught him the hard lesson. When stepping to the plate to deliver El Rojo’s monologue he never even read at the script. He would do as his character would do in the scene. Right before “action” he peaks at the notes. The monologue was all in Spanish. Oh shit.
McConaughey would never not be prepared again. Lose 50 lbs for Dallas Buyer Club? No problem. That’s who Ron Woodruff was. Produce Gold, but also star as Kenny Wells? Check. He’d learn not only what it means to produce, but why do you do it and how does the roll define the vision of this film?
Lesson learned: When I turned the last page on Greenlights I did not start writing this article. I went back and studied my notes. I wrote down new ones ( for what it’s worth, I too have kept diligent notebooks for the past 21 years), I watched countless McConaughey interviews on YouTube, I listened to every podcast available that had McConaughey as a guest talking about Greenlights. Not because I became obsessed, but because I was being enlightened. I want to make sure there’s nothing about this book that I missed. There’s no point I did not understand. In a way, I tried what an actor would do prior to stepping onto the set, day-one of shooting a film. I wanted to become the experience. I found consistencies, vulnerabilities, and the power of readiness during this process.
#3 Sing – there is no substitution for confidence.
Self awareness. Do you get there without a proper process of elimination? Are you really as confident as you can be if you are not prepared? Probably not. Yet, there’s also an element to being the only one who consistently and relentlessly believes in yourself.
For McConaughey – it was knowing he could sneak out of his trailer as a young kid in the middle of the night to steel wood, and then again for two months straight to build a 13-story tree house. It was standing up to Mr. Dooley in Australia. It was telling Homer at Catfish Station he wants this job as the only white waiter in an all-African American establishment. It was delivering “Alright, alright, alright” with conviction. It was telling the casting directory “right now” when she asked when do you want to audition? It was telling the film director “I want to be Jake Brigance.”
Lesson learned: I have no business writing this article. I’m a music guy for the most part. Though I am providing opinions and stating examples, make no mistake this is not a review. As I mentioned, I’ve spent hours upon hours in the world of Greenlights and have sincerely enjoyed every second. I’ve listened to every question the many talented and well-respected hosts have asked McConaughey about the book. But do I feel fulfilled to now close the content without capturing the ripple effect of this book experience? The impact it is sincerely having and can continue to have? The way it can inspire you to get more involved?
#4 Lone Star – self exploration.
Greenlights started as greenlights should – by McConaughey taking decades worth of personal journals to a remote cabin in the middle of nowhere, and then reading through them alone. Hard truths, blood, sweat and tears all on a page. That was real and that’s my life.
Upon arriving in Los Angeles for good, director Don Phillips snapped at him when he sensed McConaughey’s expression of need. McConaughey takes off with two pals and courageously motorcycles his way through Europe. He returns to LA, wanting. He was ready. A dream calling you to float down the amazon? He’ goes and chases it down. Literally. The same exact dream a few years later, this time in Africa? He goes and wrestles it to the ground. Literally. After years of mainstream success and 14.5 millions reasons to continue down the fruitful path of RomCom’s, McConaughey stopped. For 20 months! Enduring, and determining to focus on achieving the roles he wants.
Calibration. Self-calibration and even isolation. We all need it. To be true to ourselves, to grow, and persist. As McConaughey says, you focus on becoming less impressed and more involved…. with yourself first. You don’t apologize, you understand. You’re not sorry, you’re different. You’ve eliminated the nots, dive deep into the guts, know you’re worth (not just monetarily), and you drive steady holding only the wheel of passion.
Lesson learned. I was spiraling, and loosing a sense of self. It was a shoeless winter. After a year in quarantine, while there is so much I am soaking in, the weeks became monotonous. I spent my days thinking about how I have this chance to stir all of my creative juices and my nights thinking about how I didn’t feel like doing it. So, when the time was right I escaped. Took a quick three-day retreat to see my folks who still live in the same house that I grew up in, five hours away in Northern New Jersey. My plan was to complete two articles a day, which would accommodate all the work I had hanging over my head. I did none of them. It took a full 36 hours to unwind, but then I just pursued the light of a walkabout. I completed no articles. In fact, I wrote not one word, nor did I book one interview. I just took a breath. I voice memo’d an outline of this article into my phone, sitting in my childhood bedroom. Upon my return home, I tried something new. I thought I’d write each of these five points from a different sunny spot on my property. I was ready. It was time to turn a tide. The emotions began to flow. It makes much more sense to live in the present tense.
#5 Serenity – Love.
“I have proof that the world is conspiring to make me happy,” McConaughey says almost immediately in Greenlights. Even in times of overwhelming fear. Even in times of great confrontation where, I may not like you right now, but I always love you. The love wins. When you love thy self you better and properly love thy neighbor. You give. You care more about the climb than you do the reward. You value the steps you took to ascend that rigid mountain that everyone said you couldn’t do more than the shiny reward that awaits atop of it. You practice what you preach. You give again.
Like McConaughey, who just this past Sunday with his wife Camila (via their just keep livin foundation) put on a “We’re Texas” event, which raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for those impacted by the terrible storms that hit the state last month. Greenlights is a best-seller atop the New York Times list for over five months now since it’s release. It’s as McConaughey says, “A love letter to life.”
Lesson learned. It’s a fragile thing, this life we lead, if I think too much I can get overwhelmed by the grace by which we live. One of my favorite lyrics from Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder put in motion by fellow artist in McConaughey. Lessons learned can be complicated. But their stories can be simple – just keep livin’. Keep believing in yourself. Keep re-calibrating, and exploring all your internal corners. Keep climbing, not settling. I’ve had many bouts with doubt, as many of us have this past year. But perhaps life’s more rewarding when you break a sweat. There have been red lights all around us, forcing us to stop. There have been yellow lights at every corner, once you do get in your car, insisting we all slow down, and proceed with caution. But there’s green in those red and yellows… forcing us to take a look inside. When we resurface, we’ll embrace those reds and yellows and recognize their pathways to green.
“The only thing I ever knew I wanted to be was a father.”
The greatest sentence I’ve ever read in a book. One of McConaughey’s opening statements, that shines as a standalone paragraph. Those 13 words hit deep like an arrow straight to the heart. Through my own process of elimination I have been faced with many things that I knew I did not want. Similar to McConaughey, being a father is the one thing that no matter what I ended up doing, no matter where I was on the planet, I knew with certainty that I did want. That sentence changed my perspective on this reading in the first five minutes because speaking of serenity and love – to me, there is none greater than being a pops.
Greenlights provided an abundance of reassurance for me, in a time of much uncertainty. There’s no way McConaughey could have known, when writing the book that it would be delivered during a worldwide pandemic – a year where we continue to learn about ourselves. An unprecedented time where we are searching for something to objectively understand, and subjectively adopt, to change or enhance our realities. I simply can’t imagine this time without the art or insight of Greenlights.
I haven’t earned the opportunity to engage in the art of conversation with McConaughey yet. But I got to write this article.
Here’s my Greenlights story so far. What’s yours? Relatively and inevitably, it’s inspired me to catch more of them. And of course… just keep livin.
“Thank you for what never ends.” ~ Ali Farka Toure