By most accounts, Matthew McConaughey has a dream life today. He is an Academy Award-winning actor with millions of adoring fans. He is also a husband to a beautiful wife and a parent (with his wife) to three children.
However, like most highly successful people, his journey has been far from easy. There has been a lot of suffering and many personal and professional challenges along the way.
In fall 2020, McConaughey published an exceptional memoir titled Greenlights. It’s a fascinating behind-the-scenes look back at his life up to that point. The book is filled with dozens of personal stories and countless nuggets of wisdom.
One of the most memorable stories is from right after McConaughey graduates from high school. He signs up for a one-year program as an exchange student in Australia. Before his trip, his host family tells him that they live “in paradise” and on the “outskirts of Sydney.” He goes into the trip expecting a year of fun, sun, and surfing at the beach. What he gets is completely different.
A Life-Changing Student-Exchange Experience
When McConaughey arrives at Sydney International Airport for his year abroad, he meets his host family: Norvel (the father), Marjorie, (the mother), and Michael (the son).
They leave the airport, and McConaughey expects a short drive to their home. Over three hours later, they finally arrive. Their residence is actually located in a small town called Warnervale (population 305), and it is nowhere near Sydney or a beach. This is a sign of things to come.
On the fourth day of his trip, McConaughey agrees to prepare an American meal for his host family. He decides on cheeseburgers and says that the person who invented cheeseburgers was a genius.
Norvel then escorts him into another room and chastises him. McConaughey is told that during his stay, he will learn not “to voice his opinion for the masses.” This encounter strikes him as odd. However, he chalks it up to “cultural differences.”
Things just get even weirder though. There are more private lectures from Norvel on how to behave. Another time, Marjorie invites McConaughey into the living room, and asks him to kiss Michael’s girlfriend on the lips- in front of a group of 18 relatives. Later on, Norvel and Marjorie tell him to call them “Pop” and “Mum.” When McConaughey refuses, Marjorie cries uncontrollably.
After six months, McConaughey finally reaches his breaking point. He manages to find another family to take him in for the rest of his trip.
However, the night that he is supposed to leave for his new host family, Norvel tells him that he is not going anywhere. He tells McConaughey to unpack his bags.
McConaughey tries to rationalize with Norvel. However, Norvel persists. Then, McConaughey loses it. He punches a hole through his bedroom door, and tells Norvel in no uncertain terms to get out of his way.
Norvel backs down, and McConaughey goes to the bathroom and washes the blood off his arm. A few minutes later, his ride arrives, and the nightmare is over. He spends the rest of his trip with several other families. 1
Note: I’ve tried to capture some highlights of Matthew McConaughey’s year as an exchange student. However, you have to read the full story (about 20 pages in his book) to fully appreciate how difficult his time was with his first host family.
Two Life Lessons on Suffering
There are two life lessons that stand out from Matthew McConaughey’s story about Australia and from his reflections about the experience:
(1) When you make a commitment up-front, you can endure more suffering.
Before McConaughey went to Australia, the group that set up the trip wanted him to sign an agreement. They wanted him to guarantee that he would not return to the U.S. before his entire year abroad was complete. “Every exchange student gets severely homesick and tries to come home early,” he was told. “We can’t have that happen.”
McConaughey refused to sign the agreement, but he agreed to shake on it. “I’m in for the entire year,” he promised them.
That agreement ended up being one of the key factors that helped him persevere through one of the loneliest and most difficult periods of his life. As he writes in Greenlights, “To me, it was inevitable that I was staying the entire year because I’d shaken on it. I’d made a voluntary obligation with myself that there was no goin’ back.” 2
When you take on a big challenge, there will be times along the way when you will be tempted to quit. If you want to increase your odds of staying the course, make a commitment up-front to yourself and to another person(s) whose opinion matters to you. When things get tough, that commitment will give you another reason to keep going.
(2) A period of suffering can serve a larger purpose.
Before McConaughey left for Australia, he described his life as a teenager as “summertime year-round.” He had a loving family and lots of friends. He was a straight-A student. His classmates voted him as “Most Handsome.” He even dated the best-looking girl at his school while also dating the best-looking girl at the school across town.
His time in Australia forced him into what he described as “a winter.” He was over 9,000 miles from home and stuck with a crazy family. All of his normal comforts were gone. He had no choice but to embrace discomfort and get stronger. “Only later did I come to realize that the suffering and loneliness I experienced would be one of the most important sacrifices of my life,” he writes in Greenlights. “It was a year that shaped who I am today.” 3
We will all experience significant setbacks and times of suffering in our lives. When you find yourself in a place of despair, remind yourself that the experience can serve a larger purpose, and that it will probably not last forever. Keep your head up, and you will come out stronger on the other side.
As McConaughey writes, “The problems we face today eventually turn into blessings in the rearview mirror of life.” 4
And, to that, I say, “Alright, alright, alright.” 😊
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About the author: Pete Leibman is the Creator of StrongerHabits.com. He is a best-selling author, keynote speaker, and executive recruiter, and his work has been featured on Fox News, CBS Radio, and CNNMoney.com. His latest book is titled Work Stronger: Habits for More Energy, Less Stress, and Higher Performance at Work.
References for this article
- Matthew McConaughey, Greenlights (New York, Crown, 2020).