When I was younger, in America, we used to play a game called “red light green light”. Everyone would line up at one end of the field, or the room, or a wide open space.
One person would stand at the front, staring ahead and not able to see those behind them, and shout “green light!” That was our signal to run forward as fast as we could. When they shouted “red light!” and whirled around, we had to stop instantly, and if we were still moving when they spotted us we were ‘out’.
Then everyone ran back to the starting line and did it again. The game went on until someone reached the caller, tagged them, and then they became the new person who was calling out “red light, green light”.
This week I was reading Matthew McConaughey’s book “Greenlights”, after having listened to him tell stories from it on this podcast.
He talks about how ‘greenlights’ are exactly what we’d expect: everything going well, going smoothly. Things are happening, you’re happy, the family is well, the business is growing. Green lights all the way.
And then you hit a red light, and everything stops. Like in the game, sometimes it stops instantly and you’re wobbling on one foot trying not to fall over, trying to hold it together, trying not to lose the game.
We think of those as bad. No one wants red lights. The past year has felt full of them. Can’t travel, can’t visit family, can’t have the Christmas we wanted. Red light, red light, red light.
But what he shared in the podcast and in the book was, red lights don’t last forever. And there’s always a greenlight coming up.
It might take a day or two. Or a month or a year, or even a decade. You might never seen the greenlight result from the red lights you went through – your children or grandchildren or another generation might be the ones to get the greenlight.
And I loved this because it’s helped me put together something I and the PF team have been wrestling with the entirety of last year, which is:
How do you “stay positive” when there really are some very bad things?
Cancer. Death. Suicide of a loved one. Illness. Lost work. Back pain. Disability. Depression. Fear.
We don’t pretend for a second those are good things. It’s important to call them out for what they are – hard things. Bad things. Red lights.
But there is a greenlight coming – you don’t know when, but you insist on believing it and holding on to hope and seeing purpose in the red light.
For some reason this particular podcast, and book, moved me quite a lot. Partly it’s because he’s a really good storyteller. Partly it’s because he has an amazing voice I could listen to all day long. (There’s an audiobook version he reads, too.) But mostly because he’s put into words some things I’ve been mulling over for the past year, past lifetime in some areas. He’s put them into short, simple phrases that stick with me. Here are some of them:
When you say “I can’t”:
“He looked at me, put his hands on my shoulders and said ‘you see son? You were just having trouble.”
“Even if you are struggling to do it 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.”
On writing goals:
Wrote out a list of goals in 1992 and never looked at them again, never remembered them…or did he? Was writing them out what made the difference? There were things he wrote out (like win an Oscar for best actor) he didn’t even think about at the time. Wasn’t even an actor yet.
On telling his dad he wanted to go to film school instead of law school:
“You sure that’s what you want to do, son?”
“Don’t half-ass it.”
On consuming content and living life:
“Less impressed; more involved”
Write in your journal on the good days. Record what went well, what was good, why it was good. So when you look back, you see what helped you and what you were doing and what to repeat to get to more good days, more greenlights.
When you’re thinking “when is this gonna end?”
“Okay McConaughey. What are we gonna forgive, and what are we going to say “enough’s a fucking-nough. And let’s shake hands on this because you’re the only son of a bitch I can’t get rid of.
Figure out what you’re forgiving and what you’re fucking getting rid of, and all of a sudden there comes some grace.”
When you can’t figure something out:
“Force yourself to remain in the discomfort of the questions, instead of going, ‘I give. Where’s the bottle or some attention or entertainment.’”
“What did you not handle to get to this point? You dropped the ball somewhere along the way.”
Of all of those, I struggle the most with being “less impressed, more involved”.
It’s easier for me to read someone else’s book, listen to someone else’s podcast, write words based on someone else’s life.
I even debated writing this Note at all – maybe I needed to scrap it and start over and make sure it’s mine, and I’m being more involved with my own life rather than being impressed with Matthew McConaughey’s.
Well, maybe. And then again maybe not. Maybe one of the things I’m really good at is being a curator of good content, and working through it to make it make sense – to me, and to others. I know I’m good at recommendations and connecting people and inspiring others to read and write and consume and create.
So, if reading either this Note or his book gives you a little boost, a little greenlight amongst the red lights, that’s enough for me. And this is another drop in the ocean of thoughts I’ve got swirling around, which I haven’t gathered together yet in one theme…but I’m working on it.
I did get inspired from his book to start a #100dayschallenge, which I’ll tell you about in next week’s Note. (And you can check it out here on Instagram.)
(These Notes are emailed out every Saturday. If you’d like to be on the list, sign up here.)
P.S. I loved the artwork from the Tim Ferriss podcast so much that I tried to copy it and….well, as you can see I’ve nailed it so completely you can’t tell which one is the original. You’re welcome. And I’m sorry Matthew. Hit a bit of a red light here but greenlights are coming.