Admiral William H. McRaven has been a Navy SEAL for 36 years. At age 58, he is now the top Navy SEAL in the United States military, as Commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command. McRaven is the man who actually commanded the Navy SEAL mission to get Osama Bin Laden.
In other words, William H. McRaven is the type of man who, when he speaks, commands attention. On May 17, he returned to his own alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin, where he delivered the commencement address to the graduating class of 2014. In his speech, he offered 10 life lessons that we think are worth repeating. As McRaven said, while he learned these lessons in the Navy SEALs, they are just as valuable for people who have never worn a military uniform.
“It matters not your gender, your ethnic or religious background, your orientation, or your social status,” McRaven told the Texas Longhorn grads. “Our struggles in this world are similar and the lessons to overcome those struggles and to move forward — changing ourselves and the world around us — will apply equally to all.”
Quoted from his commencement address, here are 10 principles to live by, from the top Navy SEAL in the country, William H. McRaven:
#1. If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.
If you make your bed every morning, you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another.
By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter.
If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.
And, if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made — that you made — and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better.
#2. If you want to change the world, find someone to help you paddle.
During SEAL training, the students are broken down into boat crews. Each crew is seven students — three on each side of a small rubber boat and one coxswain to help guide the dingy.
Every day, your boat crew forms up on the beach and is instructed to get through the surf zone and paddle several miles down the coast.
For the boat to make it to its destination, everyone must paddle.
You can’t change the world alone — you will need some help — and to truly get from your starting point to your destination takes friends, colleagues, the good will of strangers and a strong coxswain to guide them.
#3. If you want to change the world, measure a person by the size of their heart, not the size of their flippers.
Over a few weeks of difficult training my SEAL class which started with 150 men was down to just 35. There were now six boat crews of seven men each.
I was in the boat with the tall guys, but the best boat crew we had was made up of the the little guys — the munchkin crew we called them — no one was over about 5-foot five.
Somehow these little guys, from every corner of the Nation and the world, always had the last laugh — swimming faster than everyone and reaching the shore long before the rest of us.
SEAL training was a great equalizer. Nothing mattered but your will to succeed. Not your color, not your ethnic background, not your education, and not your social status.
#4. If you want to change the world, get over being a sugar cookie and keep moving forward.
Several times a week, the instructors would line up the class and do a uniform inspection. It was exceptionally thorough.
But it seemed that no matter how much effort you put into starching your hat, or pressing your uniform, or polishing your belt buckle — it just wasn’t good enough.
For failing the uniform inspection, the student had to run, fully clothed, into the surfzone and then, wet from head to toe, roll around on the beach until every part of your body was covered with sand.
The effect was known as a “sugar cookie.” There were many a student who just couldn’t accept the fact that all their effort was in vain. Those students didn’t make it through training.
Those students didn’t understand the purpose of the drill. You were never going to succeed. You were never going to have a perfect uniform. Sometimes, no matter how well you prepare or how well you perform, you still end up as a sugar cookie.
It’s just the way life is sometimes.
#5. But if you want to change the world, don’t be afraid of the circuses.
Every event had standards — times you had to meet. If you failed to meet those standards, your name was posted on a list and at the end of the day those on the list were invited to — a “circus.” A circus was two hours of additional calisthenics — designed to wear you down, to break your spirit, to force you to quit.
No one wanted a circus. The pain of the circuses built inner strength–built physical resiliency.
Life is filled with circuses. You will fail. You will likely fail often. It will be painful. It will be discouraging. At times, it will test you to your very core.
#6. If you want to change the world, sometimes you have to slide down the obstacle head first.
At least twice a week, the trainees were required to run the obstacle course. The obstacle course contained 25 obstacles including a 10-foot high wall, a 30-foot cargo net, and a barbed wire crawl, to name a few.
But the most challenging obstacle was the slide for life. It had a three-level, 30-foot tower at one end. and a one-level tower at the other. In between was a 200-foot long rope.
The record for the obstacle course had stood for years when my class began training in 1977. The record seemed unbeatable, until one day, a student decided to go down the slide for life — head first.
It was a dangerous move — seemingly foolish, and fraught with risk. Failure could mean injury and being dropped from the training. Without hesitation — the student slid down the rope — perilously fast, instead of several minutes, it only took him half that time, and by the end of the course he had broken the record.
#7. If you want to change the world, don’t back down from the sharks.
During the land warfare phase of training, the students are flown out to San Clemente Island, which lies off the coast of San Diego.
The waters off San Clemente are a breeding ground for the great white sharks. Before the swim, the instructors joyfully brief the trainees on all the species of sharks that inhabit the waters off San Clemente.
They assure you, however, that no student has ever been eaten by a shark — at least not recently.
But, you are also taught that if a shark begins to circle your position — stand your ground. Do not swim away. Do not act afraid. There are a lot of sharks in the world. If you hope to complete the swim, you will have to deal with them.
#8. If you want to change the world, you must be your very best in the darkest moment.
As Navy SEALs, one of our jobs is to conduct underwater attacks against enemy shipping. We practiced this technique extensively during basic training.
As you approach the ship, which is tied to a pier, the light begins to fade. The steel structure of the ship blocks the moonlight — it blocks the surrounding street lamps — it blocks all ambient light.
To be successful in your mission, you have to swim under the ship and find the keel — the center line and the deepest part of the ship.
Every SEAL knows that under the keel, at the darkest moment of the mission — is the time when you must be calm, composed — when all your tactical skills, your physical power, and all your inner strength must be brought to bear.
#9 If you want to change the world, start singing when you’re up to your neck in mud.
The ninth week of training is referred to as “Hell Week.” It is six days of no sleep, constant physical and mental harassment, and one special day at the Mud Flats. It is on Wednesday of Hell Week that you paddle down to the mud flats and spend the next 15 hours trying to survive the freezing cold mud, the howling wind, and the incessant pressure to quit from the instructors.
The chattering teeth and shivering moans of the trainees were so loud it was hard to hear anything and then, one voice began to echo through the night — one voice raised in song. The song was terribly out of tune, but sung with great enthusiasm.
One voice became two, and two became three, and before long everyone in the class was singing. We knew that if one man could rise above the misery then others could as well. The instructors threatened us with more time in the mud if we kept up the singing — but the singing persisted.
If I have learned anything in my time traveling the world, it is the power of hope. The power of one person — Washington, Lincoln, King, Mandela, and even a young girl from Pakistan — Malala — one person can change the world by giving people hope.
#10. If you want to change the world, don’t ever, ever ring the bell.
Finally, in SEAL training there is a bell. A brass bell that hangs in the center of the compound for all the students to see. All you have to do to quit—is ring the bell. Ring the bell and you no longer have to wake up at 5 o’clock. Ring the bell and you no longer have to do the freezing cold swims.
Ring the bell and you no longer have to do the runs, the obstacle course, the PT — and you no longer have to endure the hardships of training. Just ring the bell.
Start each day with a task completed.
Find someone to help you through life.
Know that life is not fair and that you will fail often, but if you take take some risks, step up when the times are toughest, face down the bullies, lift up the downtrodden, and never, ever give up.
If you do these things, then next generation and the generations that follow will live in a world far better than the one we have today and—what started here will indeed have changed the world—for the better.