Lessons on Changing the World

It’s graduation season again, and campuses throughout the country have become a forum for speakers hoping to motivate and inspire the Class of 2014.  One commencement address in particular caught my attention this year (and only partly because I’m a Longhorn):  Admiral William McRaven’s address to the class of 2014 at his alma mater, The University of Texas at Austin.

Adm. McRaven is the ninth commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, a Navy admiral and former commander of SEAL Team 3 who is acclaimed for leading the mission to find Osama bin Laden.  In his commencement address, he urged graduates to find the courage to change the world and listed the ten lessons on changing the world he learned from basic SEAL training that he hoped would help give them that courage.  Watch the full 20-minute video of his speech here here or scroll down for the highlights.

10 Lessons on Changing the World

If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.

Sounds simplistic, but the point is that starting off your day by accomplishing something, no matter how small, will give you encouragement to keep moving forward and will reinforce the idea that little things matter.  As Adm. McRaven says, “If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.”

If you want to change the world, find someone to help you paddle.

During their daily paddles through the crashing San Diego surf, the SEALs learned that the only way to make it through the 8 to 10 foot swells was for everyone to paddle in unison to the coxwain’s stroke count.  The lesson – you can’t change the world alone, you’ll need some help.

If you want to change the world, measure a person by the size of their heart, not the size of their flippers.

One team of SEALs in particular always out paddled, out-ran, and out swam all the other boat crews.  It wasn’t the crew of hulking quarterbacks, it was the so-called “Munchkin Crew” who were teased by the big men in the other boat crews about the tiny little flippers they put on their tiny little feet.  The key to their success was their will to succeed, not the size of their flippers.

If you want to change the world get over being a sugar cookie and keep moving forward.

Several times per week, the instructors would conduct a uniform inspection.   Those who failed the inspection had to run, fully clothed into the surfzone and then, wet from head to toe, roll around on the beach until every part of their body was covered with sand.  The effect was known as a “sugar cookie.”   The recruit stayed in that uniform the rest of the day—cold, wet and sandy.  The successful recruits realized that sometimes no matter how well you prepare or how well you perform you still end up as a sugar cookie.

If you want to change the world, don’t be afraid of the circuses.

Every day, SEALs faced multiple physical events which had time standards that had to be met.  Those who failed to meet those standards had their names posted on a list and at the end of the day were invited to a “circus” – two hours of additional calisthenics designed to wear them down, to break their spirit, to force them to quit.  At some point, everyone made the circus list.  The interesting thing was that those who found themselves constantly on the list got stronger and stronger thanks to the extra work.  The key is to use life’s failures to build inner strength and resiliency.

If you want to change the world sometimes you have to slide down the obstacle head first.

The record for the obstacle course the recruits had to run twice a week had stood for years.   Many had tried and failed to break the record. Then one resourceful recruit decided to go down the formidable slide obstacle head first rather than feet first.  As a result, he finished the obstacle course several minutes ahead of the record.  What he learned was to be bold rather than being bound by convention.

If you want to change the world, don’t back down from the sharks.

Prior to their swims in the shark-infested waters off San Clemente, the recruits were taught that if a shark begins to circle—stand your ground. Do not swim away or act afraid. If he darts towards you, then punch him in the snout and he will swim away. The lesson – there are a lot of sharks in the world. If you hope to complete the swim, then you’ll have to deal with them.

If you want to change the world, you must be your very best in the darkest moment.

One of the jobs of a Navy SEAL is to conduct underwater attacks against enemy shipping. This is a technique that is practiced extensively during basic training.  The most difficult part of the mission is when the SEAL is underneath the keel. The keel is the darkest part of the ship. You cannot see your hand in front of your face and where the noise from the ship’s machinery is deafening. It is also easy to get disoriented and fail. During this time of darkness, the SEAL must dig deep, remain calm, and composed.

If you want to change the world, start singing when you’re up to your neck in mud.

On Wednesday of Hell Week, the especially grueling ninth week of training, recruits must paddle down to the Tijuana mud flats. They then spend the next 15 hours trying to survive the freezing cold mud, the howling wind, and the incessant pressure to quit from the instructors. Rather than quitting, one recruit began to sing. The song quickly spread, despite threats from the instructors. And the mud didn’t seem as cold. Dawn also seemed much closer.  The power of one person can be extraordinary. One person can change the world by giving people hope.

If you want to change the world don’t ever, ever ring the bell.

In the center of the SEAL training compound hangs a brass bell.  At any time if a recruit wants to quit, all they have to do is to ring the bell.  Those who change the world never ring the bell.

If you’d like to read the full transcript of Adm. McRaven’s speech, click here.

lessons on changing the world

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