Writing Your Life: 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 writing your life mean? How Does Matthew McConaughey discuss this idea in the book Greenlights?

As he got older, Matthew McConaughey learned that writing your life was another way of taking control and responsibility for yourself. He’d spent years learning his values, and more time reaffirming them. Now, he could write his story.

Read more about the idea of writing your life as discussed in Greenlights.

Memoirs and Writing About Your Life

To write Greenlights, Matthew McConaughey gathered 35 years of his writings, the scraps of reflection and insight that he had been keeping since the age of 15. Re-encountering his former selves, he realized that his first twenty years had been a time of learning to value values such as respect, courage, fairness, good humor, service, and a certain rough love of adventure. Writing your life requires reflection, which McConaughey shares in Greenlights.

His twenties and thirties were “conservative” decades, during when he cared more about not running red lights than finding green ones. He spent those years getting rid of conditions and truths that felt counter-grain to him, so that he could find his real self.

His forties were a more affirming time when he put the truths he had learned into action. They were a time when he created many new greenlights even as he saw many reds and yellows from his past turn green. The net result was that he caught more greenlights than he ever had before and could start writing his life.

As he was finishing this book in 2020, both the COVID-19 pandemic and the murder of George Floyd rocked the world. Matthew sees both phenomena playing out according to the principles of inevitability and relativity. For example, the disruption of our collective lives by COVID-19 presented new inevitabilities such as social distancing and quarantining, while the disruption brought on by George Floyd’s murder presented the inevitabilities of outrage, protests, and riots. In both cases, we all had to get relative by persisting, pivoting, and sacrificing. Through the turbulence, we got to know our families and ourselves better. We learned to hear each other in new ways. Matthew is convinced that at some point in the future, the red light of 2020 will turn green and reveal it as one of our greatest years.

He has now taken on the self-designated position of “Minister of Culture” to promote a culture of shared values and competence in cities, institutions, athletics, and education. Drawing from his earliest life lessons, he regards values as intrinsically nondenominational and bipartisan. In a world where so many people are divided, he says values are what unite us. This is why promoting value competency, along with competency in general, can bring us together.

Ultimately, in Matthew’s view, the art of living goes back to the concept of greenlights, combined with the concepts of relativity and inevitability. To live wisely means to recognize that the ultimate inevitability in your life is death. Therefore, as you make choices and seek to catch greenlights, think about the way these choices will shape your eventual eulogy. In other words, begin with the end in mind. Living this way represents the ultimate fusion of relativity with inevitability and the surest way to fill your experience with one greenlight after another.

Writing Your Life: 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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