- Matthew McConaughey, the Academy Award-winning actor and author of “Greenlights,” recently appeared on the “5 Questions with Dan Schawbel” podcast.
- McConaughey kept a diary for 35 years to get through hard times, and to remind himself of habits that led to positive life outcomes.
- He explained that his father’s death forced him to take risks and discover his own identity.
- Dan Schawbel is a best-selling author, speaker, entrepreneur, and host of the “5 Questions with Dan Schawbel” podcast, where he interviews world-class humans by asking them just five questions in under 10 minutes.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
You might know Matthew McConaughey as an Academy Award-winning actor who has appeared in over 40 feature films that have grossed over $1 billion. He’s also a deeper thinker, family man, and professor — and, after decades of keeping a journal, he captured much of his life experiences, quotes, and stories in his new book, “Greenlights.”
In our conversation, McConaughey talks about why he kept a journal for 35 years, his relationship with his father, finding the right career, handling uncertainty, and his best career advice.
How did journaling for 35 years help you better understand your life and career?
At the beginning, I went to my diary like most people go to a diary. You go to the diary when things are not going well, when you’re trying to figure stuff out, when you’re lost, when you’re looking for identity, and when you’re trying to find your frequency.
Later in life, I noticed in my 20s — when I started to find myself, and was catching proverbial green lights and my relationships were going well. I had a job, I was making my grades, things were kind of cooking — I remember at that time saying, “Well, make sure you keep writing in your journal now, McConaughey.”
I was intrigued with the idea that we so often have the habit of dissecting our failures, but, hey, let’s dissect our successes too. Let’s take some notes right now while things are going well, and see what those habits are.
I had a hunch this would be true. But what became true is later on when I got in another rut … I was able to go back in those times, look at those diaries of times when I was succeeding, look at what my habits were.
Who was I hanging out with? Where was I going? What was I eating? What was I drinking? How much sleep was I getting? Et cetera. How was I looking at life? How was I approaching things?
I was able to recalibrate in the times that I was in a rut, and it would help me find my frequency again and come out of it. Each time was different, but I would find certain habits that I could take with me — and was damn glad I had written them down.
In the book, you use the analogy that in the highway of life, we have red, yellow, and green lights. How did your father’s death eventually become a blessing for you, turning from a red to a green light?
There were things that he taught me, and values that he instilled in me. But I wasn’t necessarily putting them into practice, making them habits of mine … partially because I knew I still had him. I could rely on him. He was above law and government, and if I really needed him, he was there. I was making D’s in the values that he had taught me. I was still Peter Pan-ing around with my values and who I was because, hey, I can rely on my dad, he’s still here.
Well, when he moved on, I immediately sobered up. And I said that I got to become a man. I got to have the courage to start enacting who I am. I don’t have that safety net. I don’t have that crutch of my father anymore.
It was a month after he passed away when I carved “less impressed, more involved” into a tree. What I meant by this is I have noticed that there are mortal things in the world that I revered, people that I revered, fame, money … that I had reverence for, and almost intimidated by.
I was like, no, you can respect those things, but I won’t revere them anymore. More of the things I was revering came down to eye level. On the flip side, things that I was looking down upon, people I was patronizing, situations I was condescending rose up to eye level — and the world was flat.
I could see further, I could see wider, and I could see more clearly. And my heart came up and my head came up and I said: “You better look it in the eye, Matthew. Your dad’s not here anymore. Pop’s not here. You don’t have that behind you. It’s time for you to man up and become a man.”
And that was one of the great green lights that his passing gave me. And I don’t know that I’d be sitting here talking to you right now about a book with the career I have and the life I have if my dad hadn’t passed away.
I don’t know if I would have done something else, but I would have waited longer to really step up and seek my own identity and find my own frequency and take risks. I took a lot more risk after my father moved on, got more courageous to try and be and figure out who the heck I was and what I wanted to do.
You talk a lot about self-awareness in the book, and I love and agree with what you said, which is the first step to knowing who you are is knowing who you’re not. How did you use the process of elimination to discover yourself and choose the right career path?
I always thought I was going to be a lawyer. I went to the University of Texas with the idea that I’m going to go become a defense attorney. And it was around sophomore year, coming around exam time. I hadn’t really been sleeping well with the idea of becoming a lawyer — the idea that I needed a couple more years to graduate, then I need to go to law school and need to find a job, that I wouldn’t be able to put an imprint in the world and execute something until I was in my 30s, basically.
I don’t want to have this whole decade be preparation. And I had been writing at the time, these diaries and short stories. I had shared them with a friend of mine who gave me validation that, hey, these are creative and good.
It was also a friend who was saying, “You know what, man, you might want to try and get in front of the camera. You got good character. You have the confidence to be yourself in front of the camera, maybe try that out too.”
And I’m like, ah, nah, nah, nah, I wouldn’t do that. You know, too much of an avant-garde idea in my mind. Well, around that time … moving into junior year where you better be specific about what credits you’re taking, because now you could waste some if you want to change your career path or your major — I decided I wanted to go to film school. I got the confidence to say that I wanted to go to film school. Now it was about calling my dad and telling him that, which was a very nerve-racking thing.
I thought he was going to go, “You want to do what, boy? That’s not a real job.” I was raised that you work your way up the company ladder. That’s what my dad did. That’s what he knew. And here I am, his son, going to be calling the man who’s paying for my education to say, “I want to go into the arts.” I did not think it was going to go well.
So I call him and he says, “Hey, buddy, what’s going on?” I said, “Pop, I need to talk to you about something.” He said, “Sure, what?” I said, “Well, I don’t want to go to law school anymore. I want to go to film school.”
There was a pause on the other line.
He goes, “Are you sure that’s what you want to do?” And I said, “Yes, sir.”
There was another pause. And then I heard these three words that just not only gave me approval, gave me a shot in the backside and just catapulted me aboard. And the three words were this, “Don’t half-ass it.” And I was like, oh. I remember just going into tears that my father gave me that power. He gave me more than privilege. He gave me freedom to go after it.
People around the world are suffering from stress, anxiety, and depression right now, especially during COVID. You mentioned prescribes in the book. What prescribes do you have to help others manage difficult situations and improve their mental health right now?
Let’s … not waste 30% of our energy on anticipation anxiety, like when we sit there and go, “Oh, maybe tomorrow COVID is over. Maybe tomorrow things will be back to normal.”
And we wake up tomorrow morning and it’s not. But then tomorrow night we go to bed going, “Maybe tomorrow night.” And we will wake up the next morning and it’s not.
If you do that, these little peaks and valleys, you’re wasting about 30% of your energy and anticipation that maybe tomorrow things will be better, and it’ll all be over. No, I actually prescribe going the other way. Start trying to think that we’re doing this for the next three years, five years, 10 years, or for life. Now, that doesn’t mean you go into doomsday.
What it does mean is … your survival mechanisms come up and you start to reserve your energy for the long haul. The turtle will beat the hare, and you’re in it. And you’re navigating the day and things don’t stress you out as much because you’re not as twitchy on this. You’re able to get more rest.
I’m in it for the long haul.
And then what’ll probably happen is we’ll open up back again. We’ll turn the page as a society in the world and reengage in a capacity, and we’ll go, oh, we’re ready now? I was ready to go for another five years. I was ready to go for another 10 years. And it’ll be a gift when it comes back to us.
I know you don’t consider yourself a preacher and this is not supposed to be an advice book, but what is your best piece of career advice?
Don’t act like one, be one, whatever it is you’re doing.
If I have an overstated reverence for you, I can’t be involved in this conversation, not totally. I can connect the dots and say the things kind of what I meant, but I’m not really involved in it. So in our jobs, don’t go play the part. If you’re fortunate enough to do something that you have an innate ability to do, and you’re willing to hustle and work for it, go be one, whatever that job is. Don’t sit on the sidelines. Don’t act like one; be one.
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