Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Matthew McConaughey (@McConaughey), a Texas native and one of Hollywood’s most sought-after leading men. A chance meeting in Austin with casting director and producer Don Phillips led him to director Richard Linklater, who launched the actor’s career in the cult classic Dazed and Confused. Since then, he has won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club, appeared in more than 40 feature films that have grossed more than $1 billion, and has become a producer, director, and philanthropist with his Just Keep Livin’ Foundation—all the while sticking to his Texas roots and “jk livin'” philosophy.
McConaughey also serves as creative director for Wild Turkey and has co-created his own bourbon, Longbranch. He serves as Minister of Culture/M.O.C. for the University of Texas Athletic Department and the Austin FC Soccer Club, where he is part owner. McConaughey will launch his first book, Greenlights, on October 20, 2020. He currently resides in Austin, Texas, with his wife Camilla and their three kids while he is a professor at the University of Texas in Austin.
Transcripts may contain a few typos. With some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!
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This interview was transcribed by Rev.com.
Tim Ferriss: Hello, ladies and germs, boys and girls, lemurs and squirrels, all things under the sun. This is Tim Ferriss. Welcome to another episode of The Tim Ferriss Show, where it is my job to deconstruct world-class performers—people who are excellent, world-class at what they do—to tease out all sorts of things—frameworks, questions they ask, favorite books, influences, you name it. Lessons learned.
My guest today is Texas native Matthew McConaughey. He is one of Hollywood’s most sought after leading men. A chance meeting in Austin long ago with casting director and producer Don Phillips led him to director Richard Linklater who launched the actor’s career in the cult classic Dazed and Confused. Since then he has won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club, appeared in more than 40 feature films that have grossed more than $1 billion, and has become producer, director, and philanthropist with his Just Keep Livin’ Foundation. All the while sticking to his Texas roots and JK Livin’ philosophy.
McConaughey also serves as creative director for Wild Turkey and has co-created his own bourbon, Longbranch. He serves as minister of culture, MOC, for the University of Texas Athletic Department and the Austin FC Soccer Club where he is part owner. McConaughey will launch his first book, Greenlights, on October 20th, 2020. He currently resides in Austin, Texas, with his wife Camila and their three kids while he is a professor at the University of Texas in Austin.
You can find him on Facebook, Matthew McConaughey; on Instagram, @officiallymconaughey; and on Twitter, @McConaughey. The book’s official website is greenlights.com. Please enjoy this wide ranging, extremely enjoyable and entertaining conversation with none other than Matthew McConaughey.
Tim Ferriss: Matthew, welcome to the show.
Matthew McConaughey: Good to be here, Tim. How are you, sir?
Tim Ferriss: I’m doing very well. And I have just an embarrassment of riches in front of me in terms of notes that I would love to take some stab at covering, even a portion of. I thought we could begin with a little backstory, for those people who know your work but perhaps not your personal story. Let’s paint a picture of your parents. Now I was, in preparation for this conversation, doing some homework, and I came across a quote of yours. Feel free to fact check this, of course. This is from The Guardian, but it says, “One of the great images I have of my father is on the phone with a cigarette at the airport on the payphone, always peddlin’.” What was he peddlin’?
Matthew McConaughey: Pipe.
Tim Ferriss: What is that, for those who don’t know?
Matthew McConaughey: Piping coupling. So we were in the oil business and to drill, you obviously need pipe and the couplings are what connect the pipe to drill for oil. So dad was in the pipe and coupling business, and he would call it, “Peddlin’ pipe.” Peddlin’ pipe, no G on the end, peddlin’, peddlin’ pipe. And that’s what he did on the phone, eight to six, and then he’d hit the road and go make personal appearances, just trying to sell pipe. He started off as a truck driver, then owned a Texaco station down in Uvalde. We moved to Longview, Texas in the oil boom, and within six months after being in Longview, dad had 26 employees under him. That’s how big of an oil boom it was. And then obviously, that business fell through, I think, around ’82, and he held on from there.
He was always peddlin’.
Tim Ferriss: Always peddlin’.
Matthew McConaughey: His line was great. And he never did it, he never went bankrupt, and that was a piece of honor for him not to go bankrupt. But he was always, after the oil boom busted, he was always like, “Boys, if I could just hit a lick. Oh, if I could just hit a lick.” And he never did hit that lick.
Tim Ferriss: What is a lick?
Matthew McConaughey: A lick is a big sale. A lick is a big account. A lick is, “Okay, Mr. Jim McConaughey, I want all my pipe from you, and we’re going to drill 200,000 feet.” And so, it’s a huge account. “Oh, my gosh, I’m going to supply all the pipe to this one large account.” That would be a lick. He never quite hit it.
Tim Ferriss: So we’re going to jump to the other track with Mom for a second here. And I’d like to have conversation about, or a description maybe, of mink oil. Could you tell us how mink oil entered your life, please?
Matthew McConaughey: Yeah, well, I would not be here talking to you right now if it wasn’t for the oil of mink. Yeah, I think it was about, how old was I? 14, 15 years old, ninth grade, adolescence. My mom starts peddlin’. Again, peddlin’, my whole family was peddlin’ something. My mom starts peddlin’ this oil of mink product. Door to door sales, “Look here, you put this mink oil on your face and it brings out all the impurities that you have, and once those impurities all come out, you then have clear, glowing skin for the rest of your life.” That was the sales pitch, right?
Well, I’m 15, I’ve got a few pimples as any 15-year-old does. And one night my mom goes, “Well, you should use this oil of mink.” I’m like, “Great. Geez, you’re going to let me do that?” “Sure.” So I started putting this oil of mink on my face every night before I’d go to bed. And after about a week, I wake up and I’ve got more pimples than I had a week before. And I check in the mirror, I go to Mom, I said, “Is this normal?” She goes, “Oh, that’s exactly what is supposed to do, pull out all the impurities. Keep doing it, stick with it.” “Sure.” So I just religiously keep putting it on. Well, after two weeks, I seemed to be running into a problem here. I’ve got a whole face full of pimples and it’s getting pretty severe. And I go back to Mom, she’s like, “Oh, wow, well, you’ve just got more impurities than I thought you’d have. Just keep doing it, we’re going to keep bringing out those impurities.” I keep it up. Three weeks go by, and now I’ve got full-blown acne and I’m really concerned.
And my mom’s just staying on with it going, “Wow, nope, stick with it. All your impurities are coming out.” Well, I sneak off to a dermatologist on my own. This was not my mom’s recommendation. I sneak out there on my own and I take a bottle of this mink oil with me and I go, “Doc, look at my face.” He goes, “What are you putting on your face?” And I show him this bottle, he reads the label and he’s like, “Oh, no. No, no, no, no, no, no, no. This is for someone that’s 40 years old, not a teenage child who’s got oily pores. This is blocking your pores; your pores can’t breathe. You are 10 days away from having ice pick holes in your face from the acne. We’ve got to get you off of this.”
“Okay.” He goes, “We also have to get you on this stuff called Accutane. It’s a year’s worth of medicine. It will dry you up, though it will have its complications, but it’ll be better than the acne that you can have.” So boom, I get on the Accutane, off the oil of mink. And around that time, my dad, who was always, as I said, peddlin’ and looking how to hit a lick, looks at me. He says, “Damn boy, I think we got a lawsuit against this company. Damn oil of mink company! I mean, you’re a good-looking son. Look at you, you’re all swole up.”
So he takes me to see his lawyer. I remember his lawyer’s name is Jerry Harris. So I’m sitting down with my dad and his lawyer, Jerry Harris, and we think we got a case. And he asks me, “Hey, did your confidence lower with these pimples you got, this acne?” And I’m going, “Well, yes, sir.” He goes, “Are you doing as good with the girls?” And I said, “No, sir. Not at all.”
His eyes light up and I can tell that, even at my age of 15, that he’s building his case. And he goes, “Emotional distress. You are under emotional distress.” And I look at him and I’m like, “Sure. Yeah, emotional distress.” And Jerry slapped the table and goes, “Gosh, dog. We can get $35,000 to $50,000 off this. Emotional distress will go a long way, Jim.”
And my dad’s like, “Hot damn. That’s it. That’s right. $50,000, that’s way to go, son.” And so Dad is getting all excited about this deal. We’re going to make $50,000 off of my emotional distress, his youngest son. So anyway, meanwhile I’m on Accutane. And Accutane takes a year to clear up and you get scaly, you get dandruff, and your knees hurt, and you get slits in your mouth and everything else, but much better than this acne.
The Accutane starts clearing this acne up on my face. Well, as lawsuits go, they drag on a while. So, come two years later, I’m back in Jerry Harris’ law office sitting across the table from the defense attorney. And now, my acne’s cleared up, okay? And this lawyer sits there and starts off the conversation with me and he goes, “Oh, my gosh, son. Must have been so emotionally distressful.”
And I’m like, he’s lobbing me a softball here. I’m going to knock this out of the park. “Yes, sir, it was highly emotionally distressful.” And he’s like, “I bet your confidence was down.” I was like, he did it again. What’s this guy doing? He’s a horrible lawyer. He’s teeing me up to just knock it out of the park again.
I was like, “Yes, it was so emotionally distressful. My confidence was low. I wasn’t doing well with the girls. I mean, man, it was bad stuff, sir.” And I’m sitting there thinking, “We’ve got this case.” Well, this ol’ [inaudible] boy gets this Cheshire grin on his face, reaches under the desk, and pulls out this green yearbook.
And it’s got a page marked on it. And he quickly opens it in front of me, turns it around, and opens it to that specific earmarked page, and points to a picture. Now, this was the 1988 yearbook for Longview High School, which now I was a senior. And mind you, this lawsuit started back when I was a sophomore.
In this picture of my senior year, he points to it, he said, “Who’s that?” And there’s a picture of Camisa Springs, really beautiful lady, girl, 18-year-old with a sash across her chest that says, “Most beautiful.” Well, arm-in-arm with her and next to her is a young man named Matthew McConaughey, with a sash across his chest that says, “Most handsome.”
As soon as I see that, I squint my eyes and I’m like, “Oh, we just lost the case.” I look up at him; the [inaudible] boy smiles and he goes, “So emotionally distressful.” And we knew right then we had lost the case. It was over, and I remember my dad hem and hawed for months, “Gosh damn you, boy. I mean, we were going to win $50,000, and you got to go off and win most handsome. You screwed up the whole deal, man.”
So, oil of mink, and the McConaugheys, who chase litigations but never quite win them. That was another way of my dad trying to hit a lick, and I screwed it up by winning most handsome.
Tim Ferriss: Was it true in your family—I read this, of course you can’t believe everything you read. Two things, number one, that your parents were divorced twice, married three times, so they ended up getting up one more time then they got knocked down?
Matthew McConaughey: True, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: True. Number two, that saying, “I can’t,” was forbidden or highly advised against in your household.
Matthew McConaughey: Very heavily, heavily, heavily. I remember cuss words, you could say “shit” and “fuck” and “damn,” and even occasionally maybe get away with the Lord’s name in vain, but that was on the line. But the real words that we got either punished for or were forbidden were hate and can’t.
I remember my dad, I remember one Saturday morning when I was about 12, my Saturday morning chores were mow the lawn, weeding, shine his shoes, and sweep the porches and get the cobwebs out of the corners. Well, I’d get up very early on a Saturday morning to do that, so I could have my Saturday afternoon to play.
And I went out to try and start up our push lawnmower, and it wouldn’t start. Pull again, wouldn’t start, pull again, wouldn’t start, check the gas. Yeah, it’s got gas. What the heck is going on? Damn, it won’t start. And I remember going to my dad inside and I go, “Dad, I can’t get the lawnmower started.”
And he kind of slowly turned his head to me and I saw his molars meet and start to grit his teeth, and he goes, “You what?” And I knew enough right then to not say the word again. And I said, “I—” And he got up and I didn’t finish my sentence.
He slowly walked with me out of his bedroom through the kitchen through the garage around the back to the shed where this lawnmower was that I was not getting started. He, without saying a word, he knelt down, looked at it, and checked the gas.
Anyway, he found the little tube where the gas was not transferring, and it had been disconnected. So he reconnected that, pulled a few times, and it started. And there, over a new, now-running push lawnmower, and for the first time since I said, “I can’t get it started,” he put his hands on my shoulders, looked at me and very sternly he goes, “You see, son, you were just having trouble starting this lawnmower,” and boom.
And I remember from that day, that lesson was like, oh, even if you’re unable to do something on your own, you can still go seek help or get assistance. So you’re still only having trouble even if you on your own cannot do so. Taking those words still to this day, if I let them slip, I have to look over my shoulder like, “Uh-oh, is Dad going to get me?”
Tim Ferriss: Let’s say there are many different forms of influences. I’d like to ask you about one that is not your parents, it’s not your siblings; it’s a book that I’ve read you came across that had an impact in your life. And that is The Greatest Salesman in the World by Og Mandino. Could you explain for people listening why that book was impactful or what impact it had or both?
Matthew McConaughey: Yeah. So, I’ve never been a big reader. In growing up, didn’t read much, and never really liked even at school being told, “Hey, you got to read this book, you got to read this.” Just the fact of being told I had to read something in school or by someone else sort of made it feel like it wasn’t mine, and I was not going to have a subjective view of it, and plus I just don’t like being told what to do.
But this came to me, this book. And I always say this, “I didn’t find it, it found me,” and I’ll tell you how and why. It was between my sophomore and junior year in college at University of Texas at Austin. Now, at this point, I was always on the track to become a lawyer, I was going to become that defense attorney.
I was going to become that defense attorney, I’d get some oil of mink money. You know what I mean? Get the family some oil of mink money. I was a good major, I took good stances, it started off in the family. They’re like, “Jeez, man—” I would take the table and win arguments with the family, and they’d go like, “God damn, you got to become a lawyer, you got to become the family lawyer.”
So that was always the plan. Well, between my sophomore and junior year in college, which is about the time when all those general liberal arts credits that you’re getting need to start having some focus, or you’re going to lose them, you know what I mean?
Tim Ferriss: Right.
Matthew McConaughey: So, I’m not sleeping well with the idea of becoming a lawyer. I’m doing the math, I’m like, “I’m not sure it’s what I want to do. I’ve got to get out of here. I go to law school, then I get out and I have to start, maybe get an intern, I’m really not going to be rolling in my vocation until I’m in my 30s.” And I was like, “I don’t really want to spend my 20s just learning or some of my 20s just in school.” Now I had been writing a lot.
I had been keeping a lot of short stories in my diaries, and a lot of them which are in this book Greenlights, but I didn’t have the confidence to think that maybe I wanted to get in the storytelling business until a good friend of mine, Robb Bindler, who I think at the time was in NYU film school who had been sharing some of these short stories with, one night on the phone goes, “Hey, you should think about getting in front or behind the camera, you tell great stories, you got good character yourself, you’re a good writer. Try this out.”
And I was always like, “Oh, no, no, no, I don’t. I mean, that’s like too avant garde, that’s too European, artsy, I can’t do that.” But he gave me the confidence to really consider it. Now, I go to my fraternity house, the Delt house, at the end of that sophomore year for sophomore exams.
I’m a studier, all right, I got a 3.82 GPA. I like making my As. And any amount of time I’ve got to study, I will use it every single minute. There’s never enough time for me to study. I go to the Delt house, and right behind it in a little bungalow is one of my Delt brothers and I eat lunch and I sit on his couch and I’ve got three hours before my exam, and I open up my books to study for my psychology exam.
For whatever reason for the first time of my life, I shut them and I go, “McConaughey,” to myself I go, “You got this. You don’t need to study more.” First time I’d done that. I got three hours to kill. I then put on the TV. I love sports, ESPN, I’ll watch cricket, the strongest man competition, I’ll watch, you know, two grasshoppers race.
For whatever reason, I’m not interested. I turn off the TV. I look over to my left, there’s a stack of magazines, there’s Sports Illustrated, some Playboys, and I’m like, “Jeez, I like sports, I like checking out naked ladies in Playboy, let’s check that out.” I pick up a Playboy, thumb through that half-assly, and all of a sudden lose interest in that.
And now I’m sitting there going, “Okay, what am I supposed to do here? I’ve got two-and-a-half, three hours to kill.” Well, I start peeling back those magazines, Playboys and Sports Illustrateds and everything else, and about seven deep in that stack of magazines to the left of the couch where I was sitting, I see this white paperback with this beautiful, red cursive writing on it, and it says The Greatest Salesman in the World.
And I remember reaching for it and aloud to myself saying, “Who is that?” And I pick up the book. And I start reading it. Again, I’m not a reader, but I started reading this book. And all of a sudden, I lose track of time, and I’ve gotten past the whole prologue to the beginning of this first scroll in this book, which is, “I will form good habits and become their slave.”
Now what this book had just told me and just taken me on a journey and said, “You will read each scroll.” There’s 10 scrolls in this piece. “Each scroll three times a day for 30 days until you move on to the next scroll.” So it’s basically a 10-month read. And I had gotten to the first scroll and I now understood that the greatest salesman in the world was whoever’s going to read that book.
So I was like, “Oh, that’s me. He’s talking to me.” Well, bam, I look up, “Oh, my exam’s in 15 minutes; I’ve got to go.” I head out, go to my psychology exam, I ripped through that exam. I didn’t care if I failed it. Something in this book had told me, “No, this book is what you need to be into right now. This book is going to give you confidence to go do what you need to do.”
I ripped through that psychology exam and immediately I go, “I’m going to film school. I’m calling Dad tonight. I’m not going to go to law school anymore. I’ve got the confidence. This book found me. This is a seminal moment in my life. I don’t know how or why but it is and I’m going to get the courage to call my dad and go.”
And that night, I remember thinking about it. I’m going to call my dad at 7:30. He’ll have sat down, maybe had his first cocktail, already had dinner. He’ll be in a good mood for me to say, “Dad, I want to go to film school, I think. Well, I call him 7:36 p.m. “Hey, Dad.” “Hey, what’s up son?” “Listen, I don’t—”
And I was nervous, and I said, “I don’t think I want to go to law school anymore. I want to go to film school.” And that was hard for me to say, because I thought he was going to go, “You want to do what boy? What the Hell?” And I said, “Dad, I want to go film school.” And there was a long pause on the phone for about five seconds.
Then he says, “You sure that’s what you want to do, son?” And I said, “Yes, sir.” There was another five-second pause. And then he said three of the greatest words I’ve ever been told. “Don’t half-ass it.” I remember him going, “All right, don’t half-ass it.” And I remember my eyes just—I lit up and I was like, oh, my gosh, one, my dad not only approved, he gave me a responsibility. He gave me freedom. He gave me more than a privilege.
He sent me to flight and ending it with like, “Not only do I agree and say that’s okay, son, I’m saying if you’re going to do it, you better damn well go do it well and don’t half-ass it.” I went down the next day, changed my course schedule, and my GPA got me into film school, because I had a 3.82. I didn’t have any sort of art to show them, and I started off behind the camera and then ended up as I am now in front of the camera as well.
But that day, that book finding me and me feeling like it was my secret, and it came to me and no one told me, “Here, you need to read this book; it’ll be good for you. Hey, you’re supposed to read this. This is your—” for school or even a recommendation. It found me. I read that book and I did exactly what it said.
Morning, noon, and night. I’ve read it three times now that way, but the first time, I didn’t miss one reading of that. I mean, and I had many a day where I went out in the morning on a Saturday and my day of whimsy took me to a place where all of a sudden it was 10:00 at night, and I was an hour-and-a-half from my house, and the book was back at my house.
And I’d be hanging out and partying then going like, “Oh, geez.” And I would stop, eat something, get some coffee, drink a bunch of water, wait till whatever, 1:30 in the morning when it was time to drive, and I would drive back to my place, grab that book, and either read it and go to sleep in my bed, or drive back to where I was hanging out with the book, and read it. I didn’t miss one single read for 10 straight months. And that book is the most instrumental piece of literature and motivation I’ve ever read for me in my life.
Tim Ferriss: And now you’ve produced Greenlights, this book, which as you’ve described it, is not a traditional memoir, or an advice book, but rather a playbook based on “adventures in my life.” And I want to hop to a particular portion of this book, which is also a scrapbook of sorts.
It’s very multimedia in that respect, even though it’s in 2D, in book format. I want to ask you about a note. And this will segue into the practice of writing since you’ve kept a diary for somewhere between 35-40 years at this point, I believe. There’s a note towards the end of Greenlights from 9/1/92. So 10 goals in life. This blew my mind.
Matthew McConaughey: Mine too.
Tim Ferriss: So I want to read these 10, and then I want you to place us in your life when you wrote these 10, and then I want to zoom in on a few of them. But let me just read these 10 first. So 10 goals in life, this is in 1992. One, become a father. Two, find and keep the woman for me. Three, keep my relationship with God. Four, chase my best self. Five, be an egotistical utilitarian—that’s going to be my first follow up question.
Six, take more risks. Seven, stay close to Mom and family. Eight, win an Oscar for Best Actor. Nine, look back and enjoy the view. 10, just keep living. Where were you, and when were you when you wrote these 10 goals?
Matthew McConaughey: I was in a top bunk in the Delta Tau Delta house. I believe my roommate was Monnie Wills. I’m still friends with today from Montgomery, Alabama. At the top bunk, I think it was the end of the night, it was about 9:30, I was just nestling in for a good night’s sleep. I’d just started. What was the date in ’93? What was the month and the day?
Tim Ferriss: That was September 1st, 1993.
Matthew McConaughey: September 1st, okay. So I had just finished Dazed and Confused.
Tim Ferriss: That’s right. Yeah, that’s two days after finishing.
Matthew McConaughey: Yeah, I’d just finished it, a job, a summer hobby, a thing that I had—there were three lines written in a script that I got cast in because I went to the right bar at the right time, met the right guy, read for Richard Linklater, said, “Come on,” and started throwing me in scenes.
So three lines turned into three weeks’ work. I loved it, I was getting paid $320 a day. People would tell me I was good at it. And I was running around going like, “Is this legal? It’s so fun.” And I finished it. My father had just passed away two weeks earlier. Yeah, August 17th of that year.
So I had just finished a job, that was a hobby, that became a career. I had just finished that—think about it, if you do the math, I didn’t think about it till now, I’d just finished that Og Mandino, 10 months of reading that book.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, wow.
Matthew McConaughey: And my father had just passed away, I was just going through what that meant to me, and what I felt like that should mean to me, and that’s where the “Just keep livin'” comes from. To keep his spirit alive even though he’s physically not here. Keep things alive that he taught me, keep me incentivized throughout my life, even though I couldn’t rely on him personally being here to back me up with him.
And so I remember writing those goals down. And the thing is, when you start off this conversation going, I don’t know what your adjective or adverb was about it, but I found that just less than a year ago in my diaries, and I’d never looked at it, or remembered that I had written it since the day I did.
That date on that list, I never looked at that list again. I wrote it that night, and forgot about it, or at least I thought I forgot about it. I didn’t, and that’s the wild part, because somewhere subconsciously, I obviously did remember it, because so far I have accomplished those goals.
And there’s some very specific ones on there, that I’m like, “What?” I always thought, even the acting part, win an Oscar for Best Actor? This is at a time I’d just finished Dazed and Confused. I didn’t know I was going to end up being an actor. I still thought—
Didn’t have the courage to even think I could pursue it as a career. At that time, I thought it might just be a hobby. I had a hobby for a summer. But obviously, when I look back, I’m like, “Oh, you did want to be. You did want to be an actor, and you wanted to be a damn good one.”
So I could admit it on my journal page, but I couldn’t admit it to myself. Hell, I couldn’t even admit it in my dreams, but I could admit on my journal pages. So that’s where I was. Those were three big things going on in my life. And I’d say the biggest shapeshifter was father moving on. But that with finishing Dazed, with finishing The Greatest Salesman, that’s when I wrote that.
Tim Ferriss: That’s quite a Venn diagram as far as a snapshot in time goes with those three momentous changes, those transitions. If we zoom in on number five, be an egotistical utilitarian, do you recall what you meant when you wrote that?
Matthew McConaughey: 100 percent. I later that next year, maybe it was my junior year, I wrote a long paper, an essay, John Wayne Goes West: The Egotistic Utilitarian. And I guess it was me writing a story about a fictional character that I guess was based on me, going west to Hollywood.
But the egotistical utilitarian, I’m always like, boy, that’s it. That’s what the real prophets are. That’s what Jesus was up to. Making decisions. That’s the honey hole of when we can succeed or have satisfaction or live life the most truest.
Where the decisions we make for the I, for ourselves, the selfish decisions, are actually what’s best for the most amount of people, utilitarian. Are the I where the I meets the we. Where the selfish is the selfless, where what I need is what I want. And what I want is the ego. What I need is the utilitarian. What I want is freedom. What I need is the responsibility and the interplay of those things. Where the I is the ego and utilitarian is the objective, utilitarian we. I was already starting to work, and a lot of these thematics are through the book, because they’re inherently how I see life and have for a long time.
But I was like, “Oh, that’s the ultimate human, the egotistical utilitarian,” where the decision one makes for themselves, most selfishly, happened to be the most selfless decisions as well at the same time. And where those two overlap and are one, that’s the ultimate human, that was the pursuit. That was my belief with that.
Tim Ferriss: And why take more risks? We might come back to egotistical utilitarianism. Why take more risks? Did you feel like at the time you weren’t taking enough risks? Was it something you had learned about risks from your parents or other people? Why take more risks?
Matthew McConaughey: I think I was at that time seeing risks that I’d take really pay off. The risk in the bar at the top of the Hyatt that night to go down and introduce myself to Don Philips, who ended up being a casting director of Dazed and Confused, who four hours later at the end of the night after we get kicked out of the bar says, “Have you ever done any acting? You might be right for this part.”
Taking that risk. The risk to go and read for that part, the risk for Richard Linklater to say, “You’re not supposed to be in this scene. You’re not written in this scene, but you think Wooderson would be in it?” The risk for me to go, “Oh, yeah,” and just hop in the middle of the scene, and improvise and play.
Those risks were paying off. I was also beginning to feel the risk that I took, reading that damn book The Greatest Salesman. It was the first book I ever read cover to cover and it’s a thin paperback. Mind you, it takes 10 months to read, but that was a risk for me.
And I was feeling very confident with who I was. I was also thrown upside down by my dad moving on. Now, I don’t know, if you’ve lost a parent, but as a son losing a dad, you want to talk about forced into identity? My dad being this sort of crutch, just because he was alive and above government and above law, was now gone.
I had no crutch, I had no safety net, all of a sudden—I remember this very clearly, it’s coming to me. And besides the just keep livin’ with keeping his spirit alive, I remember one of the first lessons of him moving on was I was—and I carved this in a tree.
I remember carving this deeply in a tree for about three hours one night: “Less impressed, more involved.” And that leans into taking more risk, because after Dad moved on, I was like, oh, all of these mortal things in life that I have a reverence for, even just finishing acting and maybe having dreams of fame. Wow. All these things that I revered, that were mortal, lowered down to eye level.
And at the same time, everything that I noticed that I was condescending, or looking down upon, or snubbing my nose at, or going, “Oh, that’s crap,” or “Oh, they’re no good.” I was like, they raised up to eye level.
And I remember going, “Oh, the world is flat. Your dad’s moved on, you better look the world in the eye.” And by seeing the world flat, I saw further, I saw wider, I saw more clearly, I had more courage, I lost reverence for mortal things that I had reverence for—I still respected them, but I lost reverence for them, so that gave me courage.
And I lost this sort of snub nosed look at things that I thought were beneath me. And I empowered them and they raised up to eye level. So all of a sudden, that was a version where the I met the we, for me.
That was a version where what I looked up to maybe too much met what I was looking down on, and it was right in front of me. And that was how I was also taking more risk. I lost a lot of fear. I still had fear, but I gained a lot of courage to go meet my fears.
And I didn’t give enough credence to things that I probably shouldn’t fear, or have too much reverence for because they were mortal. And I was like, “What’s that? Reverence for fame or not taking a chance to go get what you want, that’s a mortal fear. That’s like putting a limit on yourself. McConaughey, why would you do that?” I even called it a sin at that time not to take certain risks, and would feel guilty if I didn’t, and feel like I didn’t do my due diligence. I didn’t meet my quote that day in God’s eyes.
Tim Ferriss: Why did you start using a diary? Or what has that helped you to do or given you over your decades of doing it? Because I’ve spoken to many people on this podcast who journal often, they have different forms of journaling, including a name we talked about very briefly before recording, Josh Waitzkin. Very different approaches, very different reasons. What is that you’ve gotten from having a diary, and maybe it’s changed over time yet?
Matthew McConaughey: It’s evolved. I mean, my diary started off like I think most people’s diaries do. You write things down when you’re not in a good place or you’re lost. My early diary entries were the why, what, where, when, hows—the existential questions of “What is going on? Does it matter? Who am I?” Oh, my God, so my girlfriend broke up with me; I lost it. It started off with that. So I’d noticed that I started writing down when I was in times of distress or disillusion.
And then I started to say, “Well, wait a minute, just like that Og Mandino book, by hook or by crook, you read it three times a day.” I was like, “Well, we’re going to write in my diary every day, McConaughey.” And so when do most of us, including me, not write in our diary? When things are going great.
Oh, I got it figured out. I’m not going to need to take time to go be introspective and write down my thoughts. Everything is a green light, it’s great. “Well, no,” I said, “Hang on a second. We’re going to spend our life—the original use of a diary is to dissect failure or disillusion. I think there is some prudence and let’s dissect success. Let’s dissect what’s going on when things are going well, let’s write in this diary when you feel like everything’s clear and you feel strong and confident and significant, and you feel like yourself.”
So I started writing in my diary when things were going well, and then started to map out certain things about—I found that what that did is when I would get in a proverbial rut later, I could go back to that diary and look at what was I writing? What was I doing when I felt like everything was lickety-split and I had everything handled?
And I found consistencies. I found it from what I was eating, to who I was hanging out with, to how much sleep I was getting, to beauties in the world that I was noticing and really were affecting me. How I approached people. How I was approaching the day. How I was approaching conflict. How I was approaching and taking in things that worked. Success. And I’ve found consistencies.
So sometimes going back in those diaries, reading what I was writing when things were going well, would help get me out of a rut later on in life when I wasn’t doing so well. And I remember this early on in college, it’s a reason that, my buddy as I mentioned early, Robb Bindler said, “You should go into the storytelling business,” as I was writing short stories, but I was also writing things down, idiosyncrasies of myself.
I was really trying to get to know myself. When I’d be in a movie theater, I always laughed. I thought the funniest jokes, and I’d laugh; I’d be the only one laughing in the theater. And I’d never thought the stuff that everybody laughed at was funny.
The collective laugh, I never even giggled at. I was like, “That wasn’t very funny.” But I’d howl, and no one else is laughing. I was like, “No one else sees that’s funny?” I’d say that in the theater. I found that I cried at things that other people didn’t cry at.
Like I’ve never really cried at death. I weep at birth. Beginnings have always made me cry more than proverbial ends. So I started writing these things down and at first was feeling like, “Are you weird, McConaughey? Is this odd? Is this okay? Can you be this kind of a person?”
And got the confidence to go, “Yes, you can, it’s okay, but let’s write down those things. Let’s write down what makes you laugh, what makes you happiest, what makes you sad, what makes you angry, and don’t worry if it’s the collective choice of the majority. Just what does it mean to you? And write those things down.”
And so that led to character, I believe. It led to my own character. It led to me being able to maybe go play different characters, to understand and empathize with different people, and how different people have different things that turn them on and turn them off at different times.
Tim Ferriss: Why Greenlights? What is the concept or the intent behind using that word? What does it represent for you?
Matthew McConaughey: Well, one, it’s just a pretty cool title. I mean went through—
Tim Ferriss: It’s good stuff.
Matthew McConaughey: I mean, I went through the—I would call it the very earnest, but not very good student, independent films of a freshman or sophomore student like I was, where you’re trying to work out something existential or you want it to sound really cool.
I went through forced winters, you know what I mean? Because I have in the book what I would call a lot of forced winters, mind you, like all this COVID time we are in right now: a forced winter. My most creative times came in my forced winters of life.
My year in Australia abroad on my own. But forced winter is kind of a double negative. I mean, who wants to go open a book called Forced Winter? You know what I mean? So Greenlights was much more affirmative. And I love verbs. I love words that are verbs.
Verb is the holy word as I’m sure you know, and that it has affirmation, it’s alive. And so green lights, I noticed, became a theme to the book because of the metaphor of the yellow and the red lights that we have in our life, whatever those hard times are.
I’d noticed in going through my diaries of 36 years, that things that were definite red lights in my life, hard times, yellow lights in my life, interruptions, interventions, things that stopped my flow and gotten my way, that at some point, either sometimes immediately or decades down the line revealed their green light assets in my life.
I would argue my dad’s passing was a green light. Now his dying was a literal red light, but as I mentioned earlier, I would not be the man I am right now if he did not move on. I would have stayed lazy, I would have stayed more impressed and less involved. I would have not put myself to task and held myself and called myself to arms to man up and be more honest with myself and look at the world more honestly, and have more courage if he had not passed on, because I would have had him as a crutch.
I would have had this sort of subconscious reliance that, “Oh, if I really get in a bind, I still got Dad. I still got pop. He’s my safety net.” So his passing revealed green lights for me. So green lights became a theme and, and I noticed that sometimes it’s about persisting through something, enduring something.
Other times it’s about pivoting, “Wait a minute, I’m banging my head on the wall here. I’m basically living out the definition of insanity, trying to change something the same way over and over again, and it’s not changing. So I need to reapproach this. I need to back up and maybe dance around the situation, dance around the problem to get what I want.”
And then other times I noticed it’s just you raise the white flag and go, “You know what? I’m fighting for the wrong thing here. This is going against my grain. This is not really what I want and need, so I’m going to live to fight another day and go find something else to challenge, to overcome.”
And so those are methods in which I’ve been able to find green lights. Sometimes, I’ve gotten green lights, and I think we all do by just sheer, straight-ass denial. I mean, I write that line in the great wisdom I heard from a very old man one time.
I’ve had many crises, I’ve had thousands of crises in my life. Hell, most of them never happened. I mean, that partially you can get through by just denying that there is a crisis. Not being foolish with it, but some things I’ve just said, “I’m not even going to give that crisis credit, therefore it doesn’t exist. That dark can’t stick to me if you throw it at me, if I don’t even give credit that it’s a dark.” You know what I mean?
So, Greenlights; ultimately I believe that in the rear view mirror of our life, every red and yellow light will turn green. And that may not even be in this life, Tim. I think a lot of people that happens for people in this life tomorrow, next week, next month, next year, 10 years from now, on our deathbed. But if it doesn’t happen then, I think it can happen in the next life for our kids or for our kids’ kids, our grandkids. A lesson maybe realize three, five, 10 generations from now, it may become a green light for some hardship that we go through in this life now.
Tim Ferriss: Well, there are a million directions we can go; I have eight options that’ll make sense.
Matthew McConaughey: That’s my favorite number.
Tim Ferriss: Well, that would make sense as soon as you hear where I’m going with it. So there are a number of themes that emerge in this book which I take to be, as you’ve mentioned, a playbook of sorts, and helping you to either change your reality or change how you see that reality in the service of engineering or recognizing green lights of different types.
And the eight themes that I’ve written down here, I’m going to let you take dealer’s choice on. So I’d like to pick one and explore. So one: outlaw logic. Two: find your frequency. Three: dirt roads and autobahns. Four—I like the sound of this one: the art of running downhill. Five: turn the page. Six: the arrow doesn’t seek the target; the target seeks the arrow. Seven: be brave, take the hill. Eight: live your legacy now. Where should we go first?
Matthew McConaughey: Oh, jeez, these are fun. I want to get to the art of running downhill, because that one I know tickled you, so maybe we can start with that one and we should maybe hit dirt roads, as well—dirt roads and autobahns.
Tim Ferriss: Let’s do it.
Matthew McConaughey: Let’s do dirt roads and autobahns real quick, just because it’s a simple flip on the—I think it’s for Robert Frost, “The road less taken has made all the difference.” Is that Robert Frost?
Tim Ferriss: You know, I’m sure that my listeners, or my team, will tell us.
Matthew McConaughey: Maybe if it’s not, forgive the malaprop, but you know the quote, “The road less traveled has made all the difference,” right? Well, that always has been like, “Take the dirt road. Don’t go where the majority goes.” And I remember in film school, I was the frat boy, buttoned-down shirt, jeans and boots, handshaker, non-cynical, loved the sunshine.
And I was in a class with a bunch of all the—it was the gothic group. They all wore black t-shirts, they stayed in the shadows, they wore their shades, they huddled in the back. And I remember in one of our classes, one of the things was, “Hey, everyone, go see a movie this weekend, come back Monday, talk about your movie.”
I would come back and talk about Die Hard. And as soon as I started talking about what I liked about it, they’d be like, “Ah, that’s stuff’s shit, mass corporate sellout crap.” And I’d be like, “Oh, jeez.” And I remember they’d all gone to the Eisenstein revival that weekend and would talk about that.
And I remember being really intimidated going like, “Wow, they’re artists, I’m not. Yeah, I got to untuck my shirt here a little bit. I got to quit going outside. I got to not appreciate the sunshine. I got to quit singing out loud. I got to get more [inaudible] here.”
And just as I was going through that mental midgetation on myself, I remember coming back again another week after a weekend of seeing movies. Now I had gone to the multiplex again and seen a popular movie and brought it up. And of course the catcalls from all the other filmmakers in the class, all of them in black, huddled up, sort of going, “Ah, that’s corporate shit, nobody sees that. That’s a sell out.”
And I remember, instead of backing down this time I went, “Wait a minute, how do you know it’s corporate shit? What makes you say that?” And they all stopped and started looking at each other and started stuttering, and then finally one of them goes, “Well, I mean, we didn’t see it. I mean, we don’t know, but I mean, we just—”
And I went, “Ah, fuck you, man.” I said, “All this time, I thought you’d all been seeing it, and you haven’t even gone to see it.” So, that was where it hit me. I was like, “Oh, there I was thinking that the road less taken.”
My dirt road was the autobahn of the multiplex. Their dirt road would have been the same. They needed to go see a popular studio movie before just calling it off as nothing. Sometimes we’re too—and I’ve had it in my life—say someone’s an agoraphobic. Their dirt road is getting out. Someone who’s a bit of a hermit or socially uncomfortable, their dirt road is being an extrovert. Go out, engage, practice it. So it was a flip on that, that sometimes the road less taken can be a dirt road, yes, many times the path less taken.
And other times, for some people, some of us in our times in our life, it’s an autobahn. Sometimes, I used to be so extroverted, I’d never would spend time with myself reading a book or doing introspection. Well, that was a dirt road for me to take some introspection.
Now, shoot, sometimes I love being introspective so much, I liked being in my dark room writing more than I like engaging with people. Well, my dirt road sometimes now is like, “Put the pen down, McConaughey, get your ass out in the world and go engage in the daylight and get out there.” So it changes for us, and sometimes it’s a dirt road, sometimes it’s an autobahn.
Tim Ferriss: And it is Robert Frost, I can confirm.
Matthew McConaughey: Thank you, Robert. The other one that tickled you on the way down is at the art of running downhill.
Tim Ferriss: May I actually ask a follow-up to the dirt roads and autobahn? So it seems like if I’m hearing you correctly and understanding that it is a proactive approach to facing the discomforts that you may have, or the hesitation that you may need to face.
At least in part, it seems like that is part of the lesson and the person who introduced us, Ryan Holiday, had encouraged me to ask you about Stoicism, which seems to in some respect tie into that, since many Stoics, at least historically, those people we’ve read about would take periods of time to do the things that would lead them to discomfort. As a side avenue here, do you have any perspectives on Stoicism?
Matthew McConaughey: I mean, I think I do, but I’m probably going to botch this up because I don’t exactly know the vernacular of the Stoics near as well as you and Ryan do. I will say this, as with the book The Obstacle Is The Way, and I’ve touched on this in my book a lot in my own way, look, the need for resistance, the need to choose the right, harder challenge. The need to choose a harder decision for the right reasons. The need to choose the obstacles for which to overcome, or at least attempt to overcome, is very, very wise engagement.
The need is, I talk about in my book quite a few times, to get away and go off on your own and be stuck with yourself, even if it’s the worst fucking company you’ve ever had. That is a good thing to do. There is a good, valuable penance.
There are green lights in that forcing yourself into the red light of being stuck with the only person you can’t get rid of, even though you hate him. And yes, I use that word. And I’ve had those times. And in those times of groveling and discomfort and “I can’t sleep and I’m throwing up and I can’t get the monkeys off my back, and I got the guilt and oh, my God, I’m lost, but I’ve got nowhere to go. I got no one to reach out to, I don’t have a phone, I don’t have a car, I ain’t got a friend.”
We’ll, going through that, those sleepless nights and going, “When is this going to end?” And going through, “Well, all right, McConaughey, what are we going to forgive and what are we going to say? Enough’s e-fucking-nough, and we’re changing that in our lives. And let’s shake hands on this, because you’re the only son of a bitch I can’t get rid of.”
Tim Ferriss: If you don’t mind, I want to take—and this is just the nature of my perhaps unfocused, perhaps nonlinear mind, we’re going to come back to the art of running downhill. I will not forget, but you were talking about paying the penance of spending time with yourself. The red light of solitude that can create green lights. Why did you write this book? Because as I understand it, or you went away to the desert by yourself for 52 days without electricity, is this true?
Matthew McConaughey: The first 12 days with no electricity, the other 40 were limited electricity in places. But it was five different trips I took, to solitary confinement each time. So I spread them out. I had to come home and take care of some honey-dos and check in with the family, and make sure everything was running again at the homestead before my wife sent me off again and said, “Get out of here and don’t come back until you’ve got something.”
Tim Ferriss: So solitude seems to be also a throughline, at least a practice of sorts. Any other commentary on solitude, and in those moments when you’re spending time with yourself, which I guess is all the time, but I want to know, do you have, in your inner monologue, a difference between when you say your last name to yourself and your first name? Or do you ever use your first name when you’re talking to yourself?
Matthew McConaughey: I don’t know. You know—good question! Well, let me tell you what the best thing for Mike Tyson, the future is what Mike Tyson wants it to—I’ve thought about that. It’s a fun thing to talk about to yourself in third person.
But when you’re in a Socratic dialogue, you’ve got to give your other self a name. And I guess I always call mine McConaughey. I always call myself McConaughey. These dialogues, let’s talk about those. That old adage, “Oh, don’t talk to yourself.”
What? Bullshit! Do talk to yourself. What I think we need to remember to do is when we’re asking ourselves these questions, just make sure we answer. If all we’re doing is asking ourselves questions, but never coming up with an answer, well, that can lead to some very imbalanced insanity at times.
Tim Ferriss: That’s a really, really important point. I just want to pause to let that sink in for people. So please continue. But that is so, so important. Just looking back at my depressive periods that I’ve experienced, it’s when I’m asking a lot of questions and not actually taking the time to sit down and write down the answers or think about answers.
Matthew McConaughey: Yeah. Or force yourself to remain in the discomfort of the questions, instead of going, “I give. Where’s the bottle?” Or “Where’s some attention?” Or “Where’s something, some entertainment? Where’s the TV?” You know what I mean? So I can get my mind off of it.
Don’t abort the situation. Don’t abort the times when we’ve got the questions. Now, mind you, in some of those times when I’m going off and I don’t know how long it’s going to be till I come out the other side, I’m about to take a helmet and a chin strap and a mouth guard and put padding on the walls, because I knew it was going to be a wrestling match with the me and the me.
And I’ve checked the floor before I go. It’s nice when you go off to do these things to go, “Let’s check the floor and make sure there’s no broken glass; let’s remove the sharp objects, because this is going to get four-dimensional.”
But to stick in there with it and go through the withdrawal of the not knowing, to go through withdrawal of the questions. And I don’t mean withdrawl from a substance. Go through withdrawal of not getting along with yourself is, I mean, a great thing to do, and it’s hard for a reason.
But again, that goes back to what you said: you stay there till you answer it. Wait till you get an answer. Wait till you either figure out what you’re forgiving and figure out what you’ve had enough of. Which you’re like, “No, I’m not putting up with that part of myself anymore. We’re not going to keep being a repeat offender on that, McConaughey. Or Tim.”
You know what I mean? And we’re going to change. And then all of a sudden there comes some grace. You come out the other side and like, “Okay, now I’m stuck with my buddy, the one I can’t get rid of. If we’re going to do this, at least we shook hands and you’re not perfect, but we’re moving forward and we’ve evolved a little bit because of this time that we’re forced to spend with ourselves.” But to answer those or stick with it or to evolve the conversation from where it was when you first went into solitude, at least. So, I’m a fan of people talking to themselves and saying remember to answer yourself. Just don’t have it one-way. It’s not a Socratic dialogue unless you can respond.
Tim Ferriss: The art of running downhill. What is the art of running downhill?
Matthew McConaughey: Okay. So I get successful. I’ve got major fame very quickly after A Time to Kill came out, the film I did in ’96. And I mean from the Friday afternoon before it came out to the Monday after the weekend it came out, my whole world was—whoop! Inverted.
The world all of a sudden was one big mirror. I never meet strangers since that day. It was inverted. I mean that Friday afternoon before A Time to Kill comes out, there’s a hundred scripts out there; I want to do all of them. Are you kidding me? I’ll do any of them.
Well, 99, no you can’t, one of them, yes you can. Well, in a matter of two days after that film opened that week and it did well, that hundred scripts, it was, “Yes, you can do 99, one no.” So I was like, “Whoa, two days ago, I would have done any of these and could only do one, and now, it’s only two days later, but you’re telling me I can do 99 of them.”
“Help me, discernment, discrimination. Can I make a choice? Who am I, jeez, what do I want to do? There’s only 24 hours in the day, last I checked. I need more.” So I was a little imbalanced, overwhelmed. Didn’t have my feet, my sole on the ground, and there were times that—
And I also remember that same lawyer I talked about, the oil of mink, that story, Jerry Harris. I remember him telling me—he reached out, I hadn’t talked to him for years. He reached out and he goes, “Hey, Matthew, from a small town, Uvalde, Texas. You came through Longview, Texas, now you went out there, now you’re a famous Hollywood star and you got all these things.”
He goes, “Make sure you don’t suffer too much from the non-deserving complex. That happens when some people get real successful from sort of humble beginnings.” And it made a lot of sense to me, because I was noticing that in the name of obstacles being the way, I was creating obstacles for myself.
Some of them are very unnecessary, meaning here’s my life, I’m successful, I’m rolling, I am catching green lights, I’m rolling downhill. I very less-than-gracefully handled some of my success. I would become belligerent, at times I didn’t become belligerent. At the end of that, I always say this: “It’s okay to have a point to prove, just don’t always be trying to prove a point.”
Well, I had many times where I would try to prove a point. You know what I mean? And it was my own insecurity. It was my own self trying to find some balance in this. It was me. I was seeing the mendacities of all these people in Hollywood, all of a sudden saying, “I love you.”
And I’m like, “Man, I’ve said that to four people in my life and everyone says it out here. Ah, they’re full of shit,” because I was taking things personally even, and sort of sabotaging some of the red carpet wine and caviar that was being handed to me. You know what I mean?
And I was slipping to some of my more banal self at times and doing a proverbial face plant. Meaning I’m running downhill, and since this is all easy street, I need resistance, so I think I’m going to trip myself and face plant right into the concrete so I can break my nose, so I can be like, “Ah, there I go. Now I’m earning it. Now. I feel it. Now I’ve earned it. Now I deserve it.”
Well, that can be a little foolish. There’s an art to going downhill. And so what I noticed was, “Oh, hard times are going to come. It’s going to get dry. You’re not going to be able to do whatever script you want to do, McConaughey.”
And I’ve had those times. Or in a relationship we go through, it doesn’t go well. Or someone gets sick in the family, a real uphill battle enters our life. And so the art of running downhill is about, “Hey, enjoy it. When you’re going downwind downhill, don’t trip yourself, because that uphill is coming, all right. It’s going to come whether you want it to or not. So don’t trip yourself and face plant right now, because you’re going to have to work your ass off here very shortly, anyway.”
Tim Ferriss: Well, let’s talk about, perhaps an uphill, perhaps a pause, perhaps something else, which I’d love for you to comment on what you did come later. And that was a decision which I’d love to explore, to say no to quite a lot of opportunities for a period of time. It seems like at one point, you were very successful, you became very famous, like you said, practically overnight. You’re being offered opportunities you couldn’t have imagined a week prior, and you have a string of successes and then you realize, “Well, wait a minute, here, I might be getting painted into a corner,” and you start to say no.
You start to turn down, say, action film opportunities with big paychecks, things like that. Was that hard to do? Did other people say that you were doing the right thing and encourage you? Could you walk us through and just tell a story about that experience?
Matthew McConaughey: Yeah, love to. So this is around—I don’t remember the year, I’m guessing it’s around 12, 13 years ago. I was rolling with romantic comedies. I had taken the baton from Hugh Grant and was the male lead rom-com go-to guy.
Rom-coms are mid-level budgets, 30, 35 million. They offer a good front-end paycheck to me. They go make 60 million. I mean, the studios don’t have to overspend and spend hundreds of millions of dollars to make them.
You get a good female and a male lead that have good chemistry. People love to go escape to them. My rom-coms are doing well. They were my bank. They were what Hollywood banked on me to be in. At the same time, I’m living in Malibu, learning to surf, got my shirt off, and the paparazzi are Discovery Channels like almost documenting this, and I’m like, “You damn right document it. This is the life I’m living. I love it. I worked and earned to get this life. And those romantic comedies that I get paid so handsomely for, actually pay the rent at the house on the beach that I live in, in front of this water that I’m surfing in.”
So I was full on shaking hands with—I was going, “Yes.” At the same time, I did notice that any other dramas I wanted to do, or even the way people sort of—when I said, “Don’t meet strangers anymore.” Even when the way these sort of people thought of me or approached me or would talk to me or about me, there was no consideration.
It was like, “McConaughey is the shirtless rom-com guy.” And I was like, “Yeah, I am, and I’m—” But only I could answer that second question of, “And I’m—” like only I could continue that sentence. No one else could. And really Hollywood, for sure was like, “No, nothing else,” and so any dramas I wanted to do or other pictures, no one wanted to make them with me.
And I remember we had just had Levi. Camila and I just had our first son, and my life was so vital. Man, I had just had a newborn, I’ve met the woman that I love and want to spend the rest of my life with. I’m laughing harder. I’m crying harder. I’m happier than ever. Life is very vital and I’m in it. My real life is, but my work feels like, “Yeah, I can do that tomorrow morning. Just give me the script tonight, let me look at it. I can do it tomorrow morning.”
It wasn’t really challenging me, and the rom-coms weren’t challenging me, and my lifestyle was one big green light. And to me, if it’s all green lights, if it’s all sugar and candy, well, that’ll make tyrants out of anybody.
So I was saying, “Oh, I wish my work could—” I remember saying this. I remember looking in the mirror actually, and going, “Okay, McConaughey, so if your life is more vital and true to who you are than your work, well, if it’s got to be one or the other, that’s a good thing, because I know a lot of people that their work is more vital than their life.”
So I said, “That’s a good thing.” I said, “But jeez, could I just get some work that might challenge the vitality of my life and the man I am in it? Where I can get some work, where I can be more me in it?” Well, those roles were not being offered to me. Nothing, nope, not a chance.
No studio will bank you in this drama role, or this other role you want. I had control of Dallas Buyers Club at that time, but no one wanted to make it for me, nor would anyone finance it. So I decided that if I couldn’t do what I wanted to do, and what I wanted to do was not being offered to me, it would be prudent for me to just stop doing what I had been doing and what was in the pipeline continually coming to me, which were the romantic comedies.
I called my money manager, I said, “All right, look, I’m going to stop doing the only work I’m getting offered. And I don’t know how long it’s going to be till I work again. How am I doing with my money?” He says, “You’ve invested well, conservatively. You’re fine. You can take time off.”
I remember calling my agent, Jim Toth. I would say, “Hey, Jim, I don’t want to do romantic comedies anymore.” I remember this conversation, he goes, “Great.” And I go, “Wait, woah, woah, woah. What do you mean, great?” He goes, “Great.” And I go, “How do you say that so quick? What are you going to say Monday morning when you go into your superiors in the office and say, ‘McConaughey’s not doing romantic comedies,’ and McConaughey has been bringing a nice chunk of 10 percent commission into you guys with these romantic comedies for years now. And he said the coolest thing to me, he goes, “I don’t work for them; I work for you.”
Tim Ferriss: That’s a good line.
Matthew McConaughey: And he meant the line, right? And then it was I went to Camila, my wife. And I’d shed quite a few tears with her going through this. Am I feeling fraudulent in my work? Do I feel a lack of significance in my work? Do I feel like—is it okay to be feeling this? I mean, remember as we said earlier, I’m tired of going running downhill. Why would you sabotage not doing the work you’re getting offered when you can get paid so handsomely to do it? But she understood that my soul was shaken and needed some recalibration and that the work I was doing wasn’t the true expression of who I was in my life. I told her, I said, “I want to hold out for some work that can challenge the vitality of the life that I’m living with you and our son Levi.”
And she repeated the lines to me. She goes, “Okay. You’re going to get wobbly. I’ve been around you, you’ve got to work, Matthew, and you love to accomplish. You’re going to get wobbly. You might start reaching for a little sip of something to drink earlier in the day too.” And I’m like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” She’s like, “Me, too.” She goes, “Days are going to be longer. We don’t know how long this will last, how long we’ll be in this”—she called it a desert—”how long this will be a desert?”
She goes, “But if we’re going to do this, if you’re going to do this, we’re not going to half-ass it.” She repeated my dad’s line to me. And I went, “Yes, ma’am.” Gave her a hug, put some tears on her shoulder, and we said, “Starting today, no more rom-coms.” Well, rom-com offers came in to my agent for about the next six months, but nothing but rom-com offers.
Unless it was a major offer, I just said no. And they just stopped at my agent’s desk, Jim Toth. No. And then one of them came through that was a gargantuan offer for it. And my agent said, “It’s a pretty damn good script, too.” And so I said, “Well, send it out, let me read it.” I remember reading it, and I remember the offer was for $8 million, and the script was pretty good, but it was still kind of a rom-com.
And I remember reading it and going, “No, thank you.” I remember feeling sort of emboldened and strengthened by saying, “No, thank you. Great. Sticking to my guns. No rom-coms. Six months into this drought. No, I’m not caving in now. Don’t half-ass it, McConaughey.” So they come back with a $10 million offer. “No, thank you.” They come back with a $12.5 million offer. Now I go, dot, dot, dot ellipsis, ellipsis, “No, thank you.” Now they come back with a $15 million offer.
Tim Ferriss: Wow.
Matthew McConaughey: And I said, “You know what? Let me have another reread of that script.” And I reread that script. And you know what? At $15 million, the same script that I’d been offered for $8 million, the $15 million offer script, which was the same exact words as the $8 million offer script, the $15 million offer script was better, it was funnier. It had possibilities, it had angles, I had ideas, I could make this work. I mean, this could work.
Tim Ferriss: Now I’m imagining at this point, Jim is like, “Man, this saying no thing is really working out!”
Matthew McConaughey: He’s in and he’s over there teetering like, “I know what we said, but $15 million and it’s not like—it’s a pretty good script. I know it’s rom-com. It’s a pretty good script.” But I said, “No, thank you.” Well that got the signal across Hollywood that McConaughey was taking a serious sabbatical. And so don’t even send him a rom-com. It got around.
Tim Ferriss: So that was the crucible, then. I mean, that was the crux move, in a sense.
Matthew McConaughey: In a way, that was—I called an audible six months in and I had them thinking I might cave, I might just be posturing and, “Come on back, McConaughey. Hey, we love you.” And I said, “No.” And when they had pumped the money offer up so much, and people knew in the industry what that offer was, it became very clear, “Oh, shit, okay. McConaughey, I don’t know what he’s doing, but he ain’t doing this stuff. He’s not doing any more rom-coms.”
And it became clear. So for the next 12, 14 months, nothing came in, nada, zilch, not an offer for anything. I mean, I’d talk to my agent every couple of weeks. It’d just be like, “Nothing came in, nothing.” So now we’re 20 months into this desert period. I do have my son to raise, which being a father has always been the most important thing to me.
So that’s got my compass at least directed in a place that I go, “Just trust in this, if it has something to do with raising your son and being here on the land with your family, even if you start to wander, just trust that that’s always going to be in the asset section, McConaughey, you can’t go wrong with that.”
So I stuck to that. And I was now fine with not doing any work. I didn’t know what I was going to be, I didn’t know if I was going to change my career, if I was going to become a teacher, or a coach or go back to being a lawyer, I didn’t know, I didn’t think so, but I was writing more.
Talking about forced winters, I had put a forced winter on myself and I was pretty content. I wasn’t waking up every morning, going, “Did an offer come in? Did something new come in?” I was past that. And then all of a sudden, 21 months into this desert, I start getting some offers that are interesting things, William Friedkin, Killer Joe. Lee Daniels, The Paperboy.
Jeff Nichols wrote Mud for me, Steven Soderbergh called, Magic Mike. Richard Linklater and I go do Bernie together. True Detective comes around, all of a sudden, Dallas Buyers Club. No one still wants to put a bunch of money up for a 1980s period drama about AIDS, but all of a sudden, McConaughey, all the directors or no directors would do Dallas Buyers Club with me, they wanted the script, they loved the script, they didn’t want to do it with McConaughey.
All of a sudden we find Jean-Marc Vallée who says, “No, I’d like to do it with McConaughey.” So what happened was that 22 months or whatever, that drought, that desert, I unbranded. I didn’t rebrand, I unbranded. Me being away, me being in Texas, not being on a beach getting pictures of being shirtless on a beach, not being in rom-coms, I was out of the world’s view.
I was out of the industry’s view, I was not in your living room, I was not in your theater, I was not in any of the places that the world had become expectant to see me and how to see me. Where was I? I was gone. Where is McConaughey? When you’re gone long enough, all of a sudden, I became a new, good idea. Which I was not a new, good idea earlier at the end of that 20-month period, and then all of a sudden things came to me that I wanted to do and I remember saying, “You know what? Fuck the bucks, I’m going for the experience. If I read a role that shakes me in my boots, and challenges the vitality that I feel in my own real life, and challenges me, the man I am in my own real life, that’s what I’m going after.”
And man they came in. Camila and I looked at each other, shed some more tears, and we said, “Let’s get after it.” And I just started hammering them. The family came with me everywhere I went, and just started laying down work that really, really turned me on.
Tim Ferriss: So I want to dig into a few follow-up questions here. So your wife probably, with some sage foresight, although I’m guessing, said, “You’re going to get wobbly, days are going to seem longer. You might reach for that bottle a little earlier than you would normally.” What were some of your practices or some of the inputs that helped you to either stave off getting wobbly, or to recover when you did get wobbly?
Matthew McConaughey: Good question. Look, my family, me and my mom, my brothers, supported me. They thought I was plumb crazy for turning down that $15 million offer and sitting there going like, “What are you doing?” They thought I really was face planting while having a downhill ramp to run down.
They were like, “Who in their right mind would—you’re not working? Wait is it—do you like that?” I was like, “Yeah, that work’s easy. I like it.” “And they’re offering you—what the Hell is your problem?” But they knew that I was a thinker. They’ve known that since long before that, that I took myself in those circumstances, seriously, and that I was doing some soul-searching and they thought I would—
They were like, “That might not make sense to us, but we get it little brother, you’re all right. Good luck.” So they did support me. I’ll say this, this helped. We had a very real crisis in the family, with someone in my family that needed all of my attention, and all of my time.
Meaning one of those real red lights that entered our life, a real crisis, a real uphill battle entered, which gave me a large sense of purpose, necessary purpose. It was one of those unequivocal things you don’t question. It’s like if I had gotten any job I wanted in Hollywood, have a script to go act at that time, even then I wouldn’t have done it during going through this family crisis.
This was paramount, it was unequivocally the thing to take care of. So as you probably know, the death of someone in a family or a real family crisis, that’ll sober you up. And I don’t mean sober you from the bottle, that’ll sober you up from missing any sort of, again, the scripts at that time, making movies, that was a mortal thing.
Dealing with this family crisis was an immortal thing. So I became very involved with handling this family crisis. And that is where my identity was. That, coupled with my son’s being raised. It’s a brand new day for him every single day, he’s getting to know me, how awesome is this that I get to have this time, because I know I’ll go back and do some work somewhere, somehow, later.
And we’re not going to have this time, so let’s lean into the assets of being forced here with your son, you’re building a home with the woman you love, and you’ve got this family crisis that you’re dealing with, which is bringing you even closer to your blood family.
So I was finding purpose in all of that. And as it usually happens, as it was getting to the point where, “Well, I don’t care, if anything comes in, I’m not even thinking about it. If any work comes in, I don’t really care.” Of course, that’s about the time that the work comes in.
Tim Ferriss: You’ve traveled a very unorthodox path in many respects. What are some of the biggest misconceptions, if any, what are common misconceptions about you that you hope, or that you could clarify either right now, or through the pages of this book? Are there any misconceptions, positive or negative?
Matthew McConaughey: Yeah. I mean, look, one misconception, I think, which it used to concern me more so than it does now is that—a lot of people think that I sort of just wake up in the morning and go, roll out of bed and say, “All right, where’s my mark? What are we doing today? What’s the scene about? What’s life about? What’s the responsibility here, today? What is it? Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Okay, yeah.”
A lot of people think I just wing it. And the truth is, like I was telling you earlier about me being a studier and loving my As, I am a preparer. I know a lot of my success and satisfaction has come from being majorly prepared. And when I’m majorly prepared, I prepare so it’s not work when I get in the game.
I prepare, so that’s the work. My work is pregame. When I’m in the game, I am. When I’m best at being in the game, I am that guy that looks like I just woke up in the morning and just, “Hey, what’s up?” To make it look easy comes from the preparation.
So I daily prepare, whether it’s work, or trying to be the best man I can, or be the best husband, or the best father, I’m constantly trying to work on that. I have the same with—and now you’re reading the story, my mom and dad had a very physical and oftentimes violent, loud relationship, hence, divorced twice, married three times.
Me, I remember the last time I raised my voice to my wife, or kids, because for me, if I even get to the point where I have to raise my voice or start to feel like I’m going to snap, I immediately—my threshold goes to, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, what did you not handle up to this point, McConaughey, to let it get to this? You left some crumbs somewhere in your position as a husband, a father, or a man to get to this point. So let’s not snap. Let’s go back and deconstruct how we got to this point to even feel like this, because you dropped the ball somewhere along the way to even get this feeling.”
And I have a pretty short threshold for that feeling of, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, let me recalibrate. Let me take some stock in how I got to this point, because I’m feeling like I’m about to snap, or feeling like maybe I’m going to raise my voice.” I mean, that’s some recalibration that I inherently and instinctually, I don’t know if I say, or practice them, but that’s where my head and heart goes. Does that answer your question?
Tim Ferriss: It does. I think that one of the sort of gestalt impressions of the book, which is, I mean, really, really fun and very delightful. I mean, so congratulations on the book. It’s not easy to do.
Matthew McConaughey: Thank you.
Tim Ferriss: And the gestalt impression is that you take introspection, and I admit maybe this isn’t the right way to phrase it, but you’ve taken introspection seriously and you have practiced a lot of introspection. So you’ve been able to take these moments that otherwise might be lost in the slipstream, those moments of success where things seem to be going well, the lows and you’ve trapped them like flies in the amber so that you can look at them later, and even look at them like a flip book so you can see the trends that take you in one direction or another. And that is not common. So I’d like to just ask one or two more questions.
Matthew McConaughey: I mean, what I think we’re all trying to get, which I actually—and let’s talk to this, because I do think it’s common, that we all want more ROI on ourselves. And is there any less boring, or vital, or immediate entertaining, and angering, and interesting subject than us on ourselves to create? I mean, I know I’ll never do it, but I’m trying to find some themes that support a science to being satisfied.
And I think we can all uncover those in our lives by our habits. Like I said earlier, looking at your diaries when you write in your diary when things are going well, dissect success as well as failure. There will come certain themes that become like, “Oh, it’s reliable.” I have more satisfaction, I am more me, I get more what I want. I am a better man, I’m a better woman, when I am acting and doing these things, going to these places, thinking this way, eating this, spending time with these people, thinking these thoughts.
There’s a science to it. I don’t think I’ll ever get it, but man, it’s an incredibly fun pursuit. Maddening, but what a riddle to keep trying to figure out that will be never-ending.
Tim Ferriss: Right. It’s like keeping track of plays in the game of life, right? I mean, it’s—you have to have the ability to look back at it. So if you were to have a billboard metaphorically speaking to get a message, a question, an image, anything out to billions of people, could have a paragraph, could be a word, anything non-commercial, what might you put on that billboard?
Matthew McConaughey: Great question. And it’s one I’d like to say I think about all the time, because I do have a marketeering mind. It’d be two words with a question mark behind them. I value? Tim, I don’t know how to make systemic change. I’m not that interested in politics, it doesn’t seem like the right, I don’t know, category maybe for the kind of leadership that I want to listen to, or in some way at some forms be myself.
It seems to me that the common denominator, or the bipartisan non-denominational solid stepping stones for us to evolve as a species, as a nation, and as individuals, is based on values. The fundamental principles that we can all agree on, I don’t care what side of politics you’re on, or what religion you are, but what do we value?
What do we really value? We all want to be relevant. Well, let’s ask “Relevant for what?” before we say, “I want to be relevant.” And what are those values that we can go, “Oh, that’s—yeah, if I act that way, if I’m kind in that way, if I’m accountable in that way, if I have a sense of humor in that way, how does that very selfish act—because it’s good for me, good for my ego, builds me up, pays me back, gives me mailbox money, give me green lights in my future, but it also gives you mailbox money, it gives other people, it gives others residuals, and our future’s a compounding asset.” And I think we just need to work on and have fun understanding that.
That the things we do today, the choices we make, are compounding assets to what where we go in the future. And if we have made more valuable choices, and give more respect to the competence of values, our own personal values, we’re buying more ROI, we’re creating more green lights in the future for ourselves and others.
Tim Ferriss: I value? It’s a very important statement right there and question. And I agree with you about the values and the also for what, right? The relevant for what? That it’s such an important focusing modifier to adjectives that get thrown around very commonly. And—
Matthew McConaughey: There’s another line in there that I have, it’s based off that jeans being pressed story, is when we can, ask ourselves if we want to before we do. That goes along with, “Yeah, I want to be relevant.” What? “Wait, relevant for what?” You know what I mean? It’s just because we can, and maybe we’re given a position of influence where you get an option put in front of us that we never had before.
Like I said, Time to Kill, 99 scripts I couldn’t do yesterday and now, today, you’re telling me I can do all of them. What? Well, let’s be discerning and ask ourselves: “Do I really want to do that?” I know it’s the first time I have the ability to, or the first time it’s been laid in front of me that I have the option to do that, and I’m sure I’m happy about that. But before I do it, let me ask myself, “Wait, do I really want to?”
For me the story about having my jeans pressed, I was so damn happy. I had a housekeeper for the first time and she pressed my jeans, I was like, “Wow, look at that.” And then I had a friend tell me, “Well, that’s great if you like your jeans pressed.” And immediately I went, “Oh, shit. I don’t like my jeans pressed!” So we’d then ask ourselves if we want to before we do. And yes, we seek relevance, but let’s ask “relevance for what?”
Tim Ferriss: Matthew, you are one hell of a storyteller. You’re a fun guy to talk to. At some point, maybe separately, I’ll ask you about what they put in the groundwater in Texas for this storytelling, because you, Mary Karr, I don’t know what it is, but that’s another conversation for another day.
Your books official website is greenlights.com, very easy for people to remember. On Facebook, you are Matthew McConaughey, Instagram, official McConaughey, Twitter, @McConaughey. And I will include links to everything in the show notes for people at tim.blog/podcast so they can find everything that we’ve talked about. Is there anything else that you would like to say, share, ask, recommend with those people listening before we come to a close?
Matthew McConaughey: Sure. It came from a conversation Richard Linklater and I were having some years ago, and it came out of just a verbal ping pong that we did. But what I think is we all could use right now and I need to remind myself of it daily, especially, in these times where, look, it’s tough in ways that for ourselves that we understand. Sometimes we don’t understand, but it’s tough in ways for everybody in ways that maybe even they don’t understand and we probably don’t.
So everyone can use a little bit of amnesty right now. And what I mean by that is this, if you’re not sure how to respond to a situation, can you just make sense of humor the default emotion? Can we just have a little more humor and give each other a bit of a break right now? Its tough times, let’s be for each other right now instead of against each other.
And sense of humor does not get rid of the truth, does not get rid of the problem, does not get rid of the challenge, it actually reveals it sometimes in the most truthful ways. But we can laugh to have some humor through the tears, and humor through the pain and not laugh at someone else’s expense. Laugh at our expense, the human existence expense. Man, we’re doing the best we can. And for now, let’s help somebody try to.
Tim Ferriss: Hear here. Well, thank you so much, Matthew. This was an incredibly enjoyable conversation.
Matthew McConaughey: Super fun for me, Tim. I really enjoyed it. I’d love to do it anytime.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. So I’d love to do it around too some time, maybe when we’re in proximity in Austin, we can do a 20 foot social distance, so TBD. But your first book Greenlights is so unexpected, it is so fun, it is a romp through your mind, a romp through the turns, and twists, and learnings of someone who has had an unorthodox path, and on top of that documented so much for decades.
It’s a rare combination. So I encourage people to check it out. And for everybody listening we’ll have notes to all things we’ve discussed in the show notes, tim.blog/podcast and until next time, thank you for tuning in.
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