In his 2014 commencement speech, former Navy SEAL Admiral William H. McRaven offered 10 lessons to the University of Texas at Austin graduating class. He outlined the lessons of the bed, paddle, heart, cookie, circus, obstacle, shark, dark moment, song, and bell. Each one was a metaphor for an important life area.
The Admiral offered this wisdom to encourage the class of 2014 to change a world of eight billion people — 10 people at a time. He reasoned that after five generations of change, 800 million people’s lives would have been changed by the 8,000 people sitting in that room. However, the video of his speech has already been viewed by over 2.2 million viewers!
But let’s start with one person: you! Use your imagination and look in the mirror. Who do you see? Are you there yet? Is the world defining you or is it the other way around? What is your bed, paddle, heart, cookie, circus, obstacle, shark, dark moment, song, and bell?
So are you ready to learn these lessons from the Navy SEALs? Here is how we can apply each lesson to our daily lives.
1. The lesson of the bed.
“If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.” Making our bed seems simple, but if we don’t do the simple things right … well … you know how that goes! Bed making is strictly enforced in the military for this reason. After we all get up in the morning, we look at ourselves in the mirror and decide how to “make our lives.” So if we can get the bed part of our day right every morning, maybe we can get our lives right too!
2. The lesson of the group.
“If you want to change the world, find someone to help you paddle.” Are we changing “my” world or “our” world? Humans tend to do stuff together. Getting along with each other takes time and patience and perseverance but in the long run, it’s worth it. So paddle away and ask for some companionship. Get some more Navy SEALs! The more paddles the better!
3. The 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.” I have a theory about height and size. Seems like the shorter folks I know tend to put more effort into everything they do. They have a bigger heart inside their smaller body. I never ever want to cross a person who is shorter than I am. And two-year-olds can eat my lunch if I am not careful. Motivation seems to trump intelligence and if we work at strengthening both, we can change the world.
4. The 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 no matter what you do, no matter how hard you try, things will not turn out as planned. Failure will be experienced, and because we are not perfect as human beings, we need to prepare for that situation. The “sugar cookie” exercise in Navy SEAL training is designed to put the trainee into this environment to learn how to push through to the end of the day and survive the ordeal. So when we have a bad day, push through it and look forward to having a better day tomorrow.
5. The lesson of doing the extra work.
“But if you want to change the world, don’t be afraid of the circuses.” When you fail a daily physical training event, the Navy SEALs’ “circus” is having to do two hours more of additional calisthenics — designed to wear you down, to break your spirit, to force you to quit. But that extra training actually can help build strength and stamina if you don’t quit. We all live though our own “circuses” in life and they can be exhausting, confusing and sometimes downright depressing. Many times, we can glimpse insight and perspective during those trials, if we are looking for them. When you do the extra work, you become stronger, more experienced, and more confident. Doing the minimum is sometimes not enough, so practice the maximum! Go the extra mile. That pivot to a more committed and prepared approach can sometimes be life changing!
6. The lesson of overcoming your fear.
“If you want to change the world sometimes you have to slide down the obstacle head first.” Twice a week an obstacle course was required for McRaven’s SEAL training. One of the most feared obstacle course challenges was the “slide for life.” It was dangerous and it put the SEALs at risk. In the movie “Dune,” the character Paul says to himself, “Fear is the mind killer.” It’s true, because while it’s good to be wary, if fear paralyzes our intellect and our motivation, then we are truly lost. Sometimes we have to take that chance and “risk” it. But it needs to be with purpose, resolve, and awareness.
7. The lesson of confronting “your daily shark.”
“So, if you want to change the world, don’t back down from the sharks.” Like it or not, we will be living our lives “swimming with the sharks.” McRaven’s lesson #6, above, reminds us that fear can diminish our capacity. But if we prepare for the “shark” encounter, our response may surprise us. Top survivalists know something about the predator’s mindset. Attackers prefer to attack the weak not the strong: “Don’t ever behave like prey and run unless that is your last resort.” Your shark could be a physical attacker, so self-defense classes (personally I prefer Aikido) can give you some confidence so you can avoid being easy prey. But your more common “shark” attack is likely to be verbal. Now here is where you can adequately prepare your response. Lock in on your values and ethics. The “Win-Win” response is a good place to start, particularly if you are in a group setting. Getting ahead at the expense of someone else needs to be examined, so take a stand for yourself and others may follow suit.
8. The 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 of the Navy SEAL training missions require them to perform dangerous underwater operations in complete darkness. All of their training needs to carry them through that moment. No one knows when we will take our last breath. We may not have SEAL training but we do have our values, our spirituality, and our relationships to pull us through these darkest moments. It’s not how you start but how you finish that counts!
9. The lesson of raising your voice.
“So, if you want to change the world, start singing when you’re up to your neck in mud.” The ninth week of McRaven’s SEAL training (a.k.a. Hell Week) consisted of six days without sleep, continual physical and mental harassment, and a hellish day at the Mud Flats between San Diego and Tijuana. This was one of the most difficult Navy SEAL exercises of their training. Often, many SEALs quit right here, but some find a way to get through it.
While McRaven’s group were up to their necks in mud, one such SEAL started singing through the ordeal and others joined him in chorus. It was something that gave them hope. It was an affirmation of what can be not what is. So you can use your voice in music (no matter how bad it is) to transform a dark moment into hope so long as you seize it. So shout it now: Carpe diem!
10. The 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 their training and leave, all they have to do is go up to the bell and ring it. The question is, “What is our bell?” Let it be our last breath and let each of us have a life worth living … again!