Defining Your Own Success: Advice From Greenlights

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Greenlights" by Matthew McConaughey. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What does defining your own success mean? How did McConaughey redefine himself in his acting career?

According to McConaughey, defining your own success means you’re responsible for your actions and the outcomes they create. McConaughey used his philosophy to change his career path from rom-coms to serious dramas.

Read more about defining your own success according to Matthew McConaughey’s Greenlights.

Matthew McConaughey’s Perspective on Defining Your Own Success

With a second child on the way and a new life to live with his new family in their new house in Texas, Matthew knew that this time, changing his career direction would be a different experience. This time, he had more than just himself to take into account. The next 20 months would test his resolve as he rejected his established public image and waited for the world to catch up. This period would bring the death of his current “brand” but also the birth of a daughter and the birth of a new public image. It would lead, ultimately, to a Hollywood McConaissance.

Insights and lessons from this period include the following:

  • You have to define success for yourself unless you want other people to define it for you. Ask yourself what success means to you, and know that you’ll find the answer in whatever makes you truly happiest in your soul. Real prosperity comes from being true to your deepest definition of what it means to be rich.
  • Your voluntary responsibilities are the most important ones. They’re more important than your obligations to family or society, because self-obligations reveal your true level of honesty and responsibility. You’re the only one who knows whether or not you fulfill such obligations, so the way you handle them defines your real character and depth of integrity.

Breaking Up With Rom-Coms

In Fall 2008, Matthew realized it was time for yet another change. This one would remove him from the movie industry for an indefinite period.

He checked on his finances to verify whether he and his family could survive with some disruption to their income. Finding that everything was solid, he called his agent and said he wanted to stop accepting roles in romantic comedies. He knew this was a risky move in a business where saying “pass” on too many projects can lead to a situation where you don’t receive any offers at all. But he felt that he had to do it.

He and Camila discussed the situation together. They prayed about it. She acknowledged that his decision represented a risk, but she also told him that if they were going to make such a dramatic change, they would have to do it wholeheartedly and not “half-ass” it. This direct echo of Jim McConaughey’s words when Matthew had expressed his desire to go to film school seemed striking, even startling. For Matthew, it confirmed the rightness of what they were doing.

Over the next year, dozens of offers to star in romantic comedies continued to come Matthew’s way. And he continued to decline them all, even when the offers started getting higher: $5 million, then $10 million, then $14.5 million. The stress took its toll on him, as he had always felt privileged to be able to make a living doing what he loved, and now he was rejecting well-paying work. As his worries about the future simmered in the background, he focused his thoughts on his desire to forge a new career in which his art and his work more closely resembled his real life and the passions that motivated him.

Another Child

A little over a year into this somewhat worrisome time, on January 3, 2010, Camila gave birth to her and Matthew’s second child. They named her Vida. For Matthew, her birth was a pure greenlight. It led him to reflect on the importance of getting past the glow of a honeymoon and settling into real life, which doesn’t burn as brightly, but which isn’t supposed to, because otherwise it would burn out. The only honeymoon that lasts forever, he mused, is the one between a man and his daughter.

He began to reflect on the notion that real life after a honeymoon is like exiting the theater after a movie. The movie was wonderful, and it was so much larger than life. But the real world outside the theater, where we really live, is so much more vivid and fulfilling, even though it’s harder to live in. In the real world, you encounter real love, real pain, and real experiences, and these make you a real person. 

Unbranded and Rediscovered

Around the same time that Vida was born, the offers from Hollywood started drying up. Eventually, after 20 months of Matthew’s refusals, no more offers came in at all. Matthew had stood by his guns, and Hollywood had gotten the message: He wasn’t going to be the breezy rom-com guy, nor was he going to be the shirtless guy on the beach. Fine, said Hollywood, and it picked up its scripts and withdrew, leaving him alone at last.

In the new career silence, Matthew devoted himself to loving Camila, raising his children, and doing things like writing, gardening, praying, and visiting with old friends. He was defining his own success.

Then, something magical happened: New offers started pouring in. Matthew’s long absence had effectively “unbranded” him, and now it seemed a brash and inventive move to offer him the role of, say, a defense attorney, not in a rom-com but in a drama (The Lincoln Lawyer). Suddenly, it was gutsy and cool to offer him the lead role in Killer Joe. The former shirtless rom-com guy was now the new face of creative casting in dramatic roles.

Other offers rapidly followed, and Matthew was back in business. He appeared in Bernie, directed by his old friend Richard Linklater. He starred in Mud, which writer-director Jeff Nichols wrote with Matthew specifically in mind. He starred in Magic Mike. The offers soon became a flood. There were so many that he felt he couldn’t do all the roles he wanted to. In one of his ultimate career greenlights, Hollywood “rediscovered” him. 

In this unprecedented situation, Camila proved a ferocious ally. At one point, he dearly wanted to do The Paperboy, Magic Mike, and Mud. But he feared their back-to-back production schedules would mean he wouldn’t have time to adequately prepare for each role, let alone to do justice to his family. It was Camila who convinced him to take all three roles. Reach between your legs, she told him. Grab your manhood. Find a way to make it work. So that’s what he did.

Defining Your Own Success: Advice From Greenlights

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Matthew McConaughey's "Greenlights" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Greenlights summary:

  • How "greenlights" help you confirm if you're on the right path
  • How McConaughey switched college choices because of family finances
  • Why family is at the center of everything for McConaughey, no matter what's happening in his career

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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