Life lessons to help change the world

2 June 2014

This is commencement season, a time to recognize the toil and dedication of students who have successfully completed their degree requirements. Leading up to graduation, the students have a specific, clearly defined job—follow the curriculum, do well. But commencement signals a new beginning; graduates must set their own goals, forge their own paths, and often gauge their own success.

Each year we hear about a few select commencement addresses that particularly resonate, giving new graduates food for thought as they begin their professional lives. I urge you to read one such address that was given to University of Texas graduates on May 17 by Admiral William H. McRaven. The admiral, who currently heads the US Special Operations Command, recounted 10 lessons in life that he distilled from enduring the six months of intensive basic training given to all who want to be called Navy SEALs. SEAL training pushes recruits to the limits of physical and emotional endurance, specifically, to strengthen their ability to handle dangerous and unpredictable situations in many environments with the goal of surviving and succeeding in the mission. Those who can survive such training are likely to show determination and leadership in stressful environments for the rest of their lives.

You might wonder how this elite training experience could translate to lessons for an average citizen. McRaven admits that more than two thirds of his own training class withdrew after the first few weeks. But to him and his surviving cohorts, the life lessons they learned during that time profoundly defined their persons. McRaven felt that the challenges “crammed into those six months” guided him through 36 years in the Special Forces. Although SEALs-in-training might have come by the lessons the hard way—some by learning to calmly swim two miles in cold, dark waters for a mission below an enemy ship—the lessons were actually quite simple . . . and applicable to anyone, in any occupation.

His first lesson: Make your bed every day. “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 . . . Making your bed every day will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter.”

Another seemingly mundane task for a macho soldier is the appearance of his uniform. Navy SEAL recruits were rarely given passing grades in this department and forced to dunk in the ocean and roll in sand after failing inspections for minor infractions. Spending the rest of day cold and covered in sand like a “sugar cookie” was a lesson in dealing with failure. Recruits were to learn that this was a task in which they were never going to succeed. “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.” The lesson: “If you want to change the world, get over being a sugar cookie and keep moving forward.”

Basic SEAL training includes endless physical drills—running, calisthenics, swims, and obstacle courses. If at the end of a long, arduous day a recruit was not given a passing grade, he was invited for an extra two hours of exercise—the so-called “circus.” Those who repeatedly, but reluctantly, had to join the circus were rewarded with better physical and mental conditioning. The lesson: “If you want to change the world, don’t be afraid of circuses.”

Admiral McRaven’s other seven lessons are equally compelling. Reading his full address will be well worth your time. Because his words hold such wide appeal, it has been reprinted by many news outlets, including The Wall Street Journal on May 24. I’ll leave you with McRaven’s closing words:

“Start each day with a task completed. Find someone to help you through life. Respect everyone. Know that life is not fair and that you will fail often, but if you 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 the next generation and the generations that follow will live in a world far better than the one we have today.”