Greenlights: Matthew McConaughey’s Book on Life

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 is Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey about? What inspired McConaughey to write the book?

Throughout his life, McConaughey has relied on what he called greenlights—signs to continue on with an action or goal. In his book Greenlights, McConaughey tells his life story, shares the lessons he’s learned, and discusses how to see the greenlights that get you where you need to go.

Read more about Greenlights, Matthew McConaughey, and his life story.

What Are Greenlights? Matthew McConaughey’s Philosophy

As you head into Matthew’s story, you’ll better understand his thought process and personal lingo if you first understand his signature concepts of inevitability, relativity, and greenlights.

Inevitability and Relativity

“Inevitability” refers to inescapable facts: the non-negotiable realities that life hands you, such as your parents, place of birth, and events beyond your choice.

“Relativity” refers to a person’s choices in response to the inevitable facts in their life. Freedom comes from your ability to “get relative with the inevitable” (one of Matthew’s favorite ways of phrasing it) by choosing your responses and attitudes to inevitable things. In Matthew’s thinking, all of life is an interaction between the inevitable and the relative. The choices you make in response to the inevitable add up to the story of your life. These philosophies guided Matthew when he wrote this book. It presents the story of his first five decades.


The book’s other guiding concept is the idea of “greenlights.” These look and feel like health, prosperity, and success. Or a greenlight could be a sense of rightness, inspiration, or well being. When you receive a greenlight—you get the job, you receive the insight, you meet the person of your dreams—it’s a sign that your life is on the right path.

You can get better at “catching” greenlights. You do this by identifying your red lights (see below) and then changing your course to avoid them. You can also “earn” greenlights through skillful living. And you can catch them through good timing, good luck, intuition, karma, and pure fate. Although you often stumble into green lights through sheer luck, you can get better at catching them through skillful living (practicing relativity toward the inevitable).

You can also catch more greenlights by identifying and dealing properly with red or yellow lights. These show up as detours, interruptions, illnesses, and sometimes full-blown failure. We don’t like yellow and red lights, but sometimes we recognize later that they were exactly what we needed in a given situation, because they eventually led us to a greenlight.

In dealing with a red light, you have three choices:

  1. Push and persist against the barrier.
  2. Pivot to approach the barrier differently (swerving to catch a greenlight as described above).
  3. Surrender and accept the full stop.

The Art of Living

According to Matthew McConaughey, greenlights are connected to inevitability and relativity. The art of living is to understand how and when to either persist, pivot, or surrender whenever you receive an inevitable red light. Matthew sees his lifelong practice of using intuition and intelligence to deal with the inevitable as the very key to his success.

A Guide to The Book

In the book, the parts take you from Matthew’s early years growing up in rural Texas to his experiences as an exchange student in Australia, a film school student at the University of Texas, a green young actor in Dazed in Confused, a rising star in Hollywood, a traveler in Europe, a pilgrim to Peru, a seeker in Mali, and a family man who returned to Texas, The book traces the three intertwined topics of his movie career, his quest to become his real self, and his lifelong search for love and fatherhood.

Our summary covers a different era in Matthew’s life, and each begins with a distillation of the lessons he learned during that period. Each part’s biographical account then illustrates those lessons in various ways.

Greenlights: Matthew McConaughey’s Book on Life

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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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