Are there challenges in life that keep you from living your purpose?
Jay Shetty sat down to talk with Matthew McConaughey, an Academy Award winner, professor, producer, director, philanthropist, and now author, in a recent ON Purpose episode to dissect his recently released book, Greenlights. This memoir draws on thirty-five years of stories from McConaughey’s own journals.
In Greenlights, McConaughey shares his challenges and triumphs, detailing how he persevered and overcame things like sexual abuse, blackmail, and lessons learned the hard way. McConaughey shares his wisdom about these challenges and provides strategies you can use to take the redlight situations in your life and turn them into greenlights, or a way forward.
As a student, McConaughey spent a year as an exchange student in Australia. McConaughey admits he felt very unsettled, and struggled with his identity. Without the familiarities of home, he was forced to rely on himself.
“It was a year of resistance, and I was going a tad bit insane,” McConaughey shared with Jay Shetty. “I think it's fair to say I started to create daily disciplines for myself. I was a runner. I went vegetarian. I was a very relaxed vegetarian and didn't know how to do it. I abstained. I was not participating in intimacy of any kind. I was looking for my calling.”
When the notion of becoming a monk tugged at McConaughey’s heart, he discussed it with a monk friend. His friend admired his courage to act on the calling but explained that he thought McConaughey would find greater purpose in the world from using his communication skills.
While McConaughey didn’t pursue the calling to monkhood, it is something that he still considers trying if time allows.
A green light is more than a color on a traffic device. Greenlights are found in everyday situations. You just have to be open to see them.
“Sometimes they're right in front of us,” McConaughey explained to Jay Shetty. “We don't see them daily because we're not in a place to receive them or recognize them.”
There can be situations we believe are yellow or red lights, but green lights are there if you just keep pushing forward.
“I know that we can create green lights,” McConaughey told Jay Shetty. “We can engineer them for our future by the choices we make daily. It's a version of delayed gratification, an understanding of ROI – return on our investments. It is showing kindness to our future self, teeing up more greenlights in our future.”
“The choices we make compound assets of our future,” McConaughey explained to Jay Shetty. “If we say I'm going to lie, cheat, and steal, you get fast money greenlight right now, but you're teeing up yellow and red lights in the future. Everywhere you go, you got to look over your shoulder and ask, ‘Is someone here that I lied to, cheated, or stole from?’”
“There can be simple little green lights where you tee yourself up for more success and ease in the future,” McConaughey shared. “Sometimes you can engineer them. Sometimes they will just fall into your lap.”
Finding greenlights can be achieved by pivoting, having another look in a different way,
inferring through something, or in some cases, waving a white flag.
“The tool that I bring up in the book is when faced with the inevitable, get relative,” McConaughey shared with Jay Shetty.
“When do we deem something inevitable?” McConaughey asked Jay Shetty. “A situation like COVID is inevitable. You and I can sit here and wonder when this is going to end. You can wish we were back in the good old days. But that is nothing constructive, nothing that leads toward the green light.”
Instead, by deciding to take inventory of the positive things occurring in the red light moment, you cultivate and build yourself a greenlight for when the red light situation has ended.
“A truth to that I believe is that every red and yellow light does reveal itself to be green somewhere in the rearview mirror of life,” McConaughey explained to Jay Shetty. “Sometimes we notice it today. Sometimes next week, next month, next year. Sometimes on our deathbed. Sometimes maybe our great-great-great-grandkids will be the first recipients of the greenlight of some red light we had in our own life.”
When McConaughey’s father passed away in 1992, it was a huge red light moment in his life. McConaughey revealed to Jay Shetty that he thought he was doing a decent job in life, but after his dad passed, he realized that he had relied on his father for so many things. His dad was his safety net, and McConaughey confessed that he never really had to man up or commit in situations because his dad always had his back.
“All of a sudden, everything that I've revered, all the mortal things in life that I revered, came down to eye level,” McConaughey explained to Jay Shetty. “All the things that I was – condescending and patronizing, looking down upon, rose up to a high level. The world was flat; I could see further, wider, and clearly. I gained courage, confidence, kindness, became more of my true self, and was more truthful. I don't believe I would have done that – I know I wouldn't have – if my dad was still alive.”
The red light in McConaughey’s life revealed itself to be green as he moved through that dark time. When he no longer had his father to rely on, he discovered he could stand on his own two feet.
“In hindsight, I don't know if I'd be here,” McConaughey confessed to Jay Shetty. “I don't know if I would have the family I have. I don't know if I'd be who I am if my dad would not have passed when he did.”
Persist, Pivot, or Concede
How do you decide to persist, pivot, or concede in situations and conflicts you are faced with? McConaughey shared an example of a time when he was faced with such a choice.
“So I thought I wanted to become a lawyer,” McConaughey told Jay Shetty. “I was a great debater. I would win arguments. I was tireless in them. I was on the school debate team in high school. This was it.”
The first two years of college went great for McConaughey, but as he started to realize that he had to finish two more years, then head to law school and try to find a job, his dream of being a lawyer began to fade.
“I'm not making a mark or experiencing anything until my thirties,” McConaughey explained to Shetty. “I'm not excited about the idea of spending my thirties getting educated in a classroom about something before I can actually practically experience it.”
The realization started keeping McConaughey awake at night.
“It's a good way for me to explain things, ‘How are you sleeping with it?’” McConaughey explained. “What's waking you up at night? The idea of doing it or the thought of losing or missing it? It's a good way to measure the kind of choices we want to make in life.”
Jay Shetty loved this piece of advice.
“Sleep with it as if you are going to do it, or sleep with it as if you're not going to do it,” he responded. “Both of those are great ways of testing which one you wake up feeling more excited about or nervous about or anxious about.”
McConaughey shared his writing with a friend who was at NYU Film School. His friend thought his writing was good. He encouraged McConaughey to explore some projects in front of the camera. He had great character and confidence that would play out well on screen. While McConaughey lacked the courage to make the jump to being in front of the camera, he felt a draw to being a storyteller behind the camera.
“Now, I’ve got to call dad and mom who are paying my schooling for this,” McConaughey explained to Jay Shetty. “I could have just persisted and followed through and been an excellent lawyer. I had to pivot.”
McConaughey made a plan to call his dad when he knew that his mood would be the best for him to share his news and get approval.
“I'm going to call him Tuesday night at 7:30. He'll be home from work, he will have had dinner, he'll be having a beer on the couch with mom and could be in a great mood,” McConaughey shared with Shetty.
The line fell silent when McConaughey told his father he did not want to continue to attend law school but wanted to pursue film school and a career in the film industry instead.
When his father broke the silence, he asked if McConaughey was sure of his decision. When he responded yes, his father’s approval knocked McConaughey’s socks off and opened the door to him following his heart and pursuing his passion.
“And I was off,” McConaughey told Jay Shetty. “I went to film school, got confidence in telling stories, and started working in front of the camera. Here I sit, twenty to thirty years later. I made a pivot at that time.”
When you face adversity or uncertainty in life, open your eyes and mind to the positives you can pull from the situations. Here are a couple of McConaughey’s tips to help you identify when you need to pivot, persist, or concede.
- First, write things down. Don’t just journal when things are going bad. Write down the positive greenlight things that are happening in your life. Who are you around? What are you doing to set yourself up for success?
- Second, sleep with it as if you are going to do it or not do it. How do you feel when you wake up? Do you feel calm about the decision, or were you restless and anxious about it in a good or bad way?
When you face red light moments in life, stop, reassess, and recalibrate how you will handle moving forward. Take stock of the positive to create a greenlight. You may not always see the fruit of your labor, but putting effort into turning a red light into a greenlight will eventually be revealed – if not by us, possibly by our children, or their children. Future generations can reap the benefit of your greenlight habits.
More From Jay Shetty
Listen to the entire On Purpose with Jay Shetty podcast episode on “Turning Life’s Challenges into Greenlights” now in the iTunes store or on Spotify. For more inspirational stories and messages like this, check out Jay’s website at jayshetty.me.