In the annals of history, when one is asked of the great commencement speeches, the mind often turns to Steve Jobs’ seminal wisdom dispensed at Stanford in 2005. But there are more of the same ilk, such as that of Navy SEAL Admiral William H. McRaven who in his commencement speech at his alma mater, University of Texas, provided graduating seniors with invaluable life lessons.
He outlined the lessons of the bed, paddle, heart, cookie, circus, obstacle, shark, dark moment, song, and bell, each a parable in its own right, and a metaphor for an important aspect of life. In the admiral’s own words,
“Tonight there are almost 8,000 students graduating from UT. That great paragon of analytical rigor, Ask.Com says that the average American will meet 10,000 people in their lifetime.
But, if every one of you changed the lives of just ten people—and each one of those folks changed the lives of another ten people—just ten—then in five generations—125 years—the class of 2014 will have changed the lives of 800 million people.
If you think it’s hard to change the lives of ten people—change their lives forever—you’re wrong. I saw it happen every day in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A young Army officer makes a decision to go left instead of right down a road in Baghdad and the ten soldiers in his squad are saved from close-in ambush. But, if you think about it, not only were these soldiers saved by the decisions of one person, but their children yet unborn—were also saved. And their children’s children—were saved. Generations were saved by one decision—by one person.
But changing the world can happen anywhere and anyone can do it.
So, what starts here can indeed change the world, but the question is…what will the world look like after you change it?”
And so, here are the lessons gleaned from a lifetime in the military, for you to implement change that can make the world a better place.
- Lesson of the bed
“If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed”
Simple as it seems, the advice has a universal grain of truth at its core; if you can’t do the simple things right, how will you get the big ones done? Start ticking off the small wins to get the big one.
- Lesson of the group
“If you want to change the world, find someone to help you paddle”
Face it, human beings are social animals. Alone, you can only do so much. Together, you can achieve so much more. So find a partner, and start paddling away to make progress.
- Lesson of the heart
“If you want to change the world, measure a person by the size of their heart, not the size of their flippers”
Motivation often trumps other attributes. As a philosopher once said, it is not the dog, but the size of the fight in the dog that matters. If you want to make a change, fight hard, and fight with all your heart.
- Lesson of having a bad day
“If you want to change the world get over being a sugar cookie and keep moving forward.”
Some days, you’re the boxer, on others, you’re the bag. At some point, you will fail, because no one is perfect. The “sugar cookie” exercise in Navy SEAL training is designed to put trainees through a stressful day where they’re just looking to get to the end of it somehow in one piece. So push through when things look grim, because tomorrow’s a new day. Keep moving forward.
- Lesson of doing the extra work
“If you want to change the world, don’t be afraid of the circus”
The Navy SEALs’ “circus” is an extra two hours of calisthenics for trainees that fail a daily physical training event, designed to build character, strength, and stamina if you don’t quit. In that sense, we all live though our own “circus” in life, but do that extra hours, grueling though it might be, because on the other side of a life-changing experience lies a new you.
- Lesson of overcoming your fear
“If you want to change the world sometimes you have to slide down the obstacle head first”
As a Navy SEAL, McRaven went on an obstacle course twice a week. The “slide for life” was a feared obstacle course; it was dangerous and put the SEALs at risk. Fear might paralyze, but it is also a powerful motivator, so take a chance and forge ahead through the valley of fear.
- Lesson of confronting “your daily shark”
“If you want to change the world, don’t back down from the sharks”
When you “swim with the sharks”, never back down. The predator’s mindset is such that they prefer to attack the weak, so never turn tail and run. Whether your “shark” attack is physical or verbal, don’t back down and respond while staying true to your values and ethics.
- Lesson of being your best while experiencing your worst
“If you want to change the world, you must be your very best in the darkest moment”
Some Navy SEAL training missions require them to perform dangerous underwater operations in complete darkness. We may not have SEAL training, but we all have our values and culture systems; dip deep into it to pull you through your darkest moments.
- Lesson of raising your voice
“If you want to change the world, start singing when you’re up to your neck in mud”
The ninth week of SEAL training was better known as “Hell Week”. It consisted of six days without sleep, continual physical and mental harassment, and a hellish day at the Mud Flats between San Diego and Tijuana. Often, many SEALs quit right here, but some find a way to power through.
At one moment, with McRaven’s group up to their necks in mud, one SEAL started singing and others joined in. Even in our darkest days, we can cling to something that offers light and hope, for nothing is as bad as it seems to be.
- Lesson of ringing your bell
“If you want to change the world don’t ever, ever ring the bell”
Any time a Navy SEAL wants to quit, all they have to do is go up to the bell and ring it. The question is, what is your bell, and when is it worth ringing? Nothing great was ever accomplished easily, and if you want to do likewise, never, ever ring that bell.
No words would be more fitting to close things out than Admiral McRaven’s own words; “Know that life is not fair and that you will fail often. But if take 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.
And what started here will indeed have changed the world — for the better.”