10 Life Lessons from Admiral William H. McRaven

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In his 2014 commencement speech, former Navy SEAL Admiral William H. McRaven offered 10 life lessons to the University of Texas at Austin’s graduating class. Through his experience in the military and basic Navy Seal training, he developed 10 salient elements to help the graduating students understand how they can help change the world as their journey begins beyond college life.

I would encourage you all to watch his full speech. It will be 19 minutes and 26 seconds well spent!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yaQZFhrW0fU

This speech is not only profound and entertaining from a man that has accomplished much in his life, but it is also simplistic in nature. He talks about how the little things, when done well, can and will lead to changes in your life, drive your destiny, and in turn, will be a step forward in changing the world. These lessons are very humbling yet develop great character. Whether you apply these to your business, home life, or your life in general, they can have a profound effect on changing your life and the world around you.

After his introduction, he starts with the University of Texas’ motto, “What starts here changes the world.” Then he goes on to put this motto into context for his speech:

“It matters not whether you ever serve a day in uniform. It matters not your gender, your ethnic or religious background, your sexual orientation, or your social status. Our struggles in this world are similar. And the lessons to overcome those struggles, and to move forward, changing ourselves and changing the world around us, will apply equally to all.”

Then Admiral McRaven takes a deep dive into 10 drills and exercises from basic Navy Seal training, that although they may seem mundane, and at times brutal or abusive, he took a lesson out of each one and applied it to his journey through his career and life.

 

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

Every morning, the drill instructor would come into the barracks for bed inspection. Every bed had to be tucked perfectly and folded a certain way. Although this seemed trivial and a mundane task, it developed a sense of accomplishment to start your day; something you can take pride in a job well done. This task is about holding yourself accountable to start your day on a positive note with a task completed perfectly. The little things do matter, so start your day with something simple with a task completed.

 

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

Divided into groups of six, students had to paddle a rubber boat through rough seas to a specific destination. Each paddler had to be synchronized with the others and work as a team with equal effort from each person in the boat. Going out of sync would cause the boat to go off course. This exercise is about having confidence in others and the importance of a team effort. You can’t do it alone. Seeking help from others, whether it’s friends, business associates, vendors, coworkers, or credible strangers, all can help guide your boat in the right direction through life.

 

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

Admiral McRaven recalls one boat crew made up of all little guys, 5’ 5” and smaller, and they called them The Munchkin Crew. The taller guys would always make fun of their little flippers. This incentivized the Munchkin Crew to work harder as a team, with a lot of heartfelt energy, and they would routinely outpace and outperform the taller guys. The lesson learned here is that physical stature, or any physical characteristic for that matter, does not determine one’s success. We should respect everyone’s talents no matter their size, ethnicity, race, or social standing and how they can have a positive impact.

 

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

Throughout each week during training, the drill instructor would conduct a uniform inspection. No matter how perfect the uniform was, the instructor would always find something wrong with someone’s uniform. Whoever failed the uniform inspection for any reason would have to run fully uniformed to the surf on the beach, dive in to get wet, and then roll in the sand on the beach until they were covered in sand. They called this the “Sugar Cookie” drill. Some of the students would get frustrated knowing that no matter how perfect their uniform was, the instructor would always find a flaw. The ones that couldn’t accept this fact never made it through the training. The message here is that life is not always fair. Suck it up and move on.

 

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

Every day of training was filled with physical activity. Running, swimming, calisthenics, obstacle courses, and the like. There were minimum times set to complete these exercises, and if you didn’t meet these standards, your name was put on a list to get invited to “The Circus.” This was an extra two hours’ worth of exercises designed to break you down and make you want to quit. Everyone in training made the list at one time or another, yet those that made the list consistently and didn’t quit got stronger and better. This teaches us not to be afraid to fail often, learn from it, work hard, and get better.

 

  1. If you want to change the world, sometimes you have to slide down the obstacle headfirst.

During training, all the students are required to complete a 25-step obstacle course. One section of the course involved using a rope attached to a 30-foot-tall tower and climbing down this rope for 200 feet until you reached the end. There was a very impressive, best record that hadn’t been touched for years until one of Admiral McRaven’s classmates decided to slide down the top of the rope headfirst. This was very dangerous because he had to balance himself to prevent falling to the ground while laying on top of the rope sliding downward. He took the risk anyway and beat the record by half. Go ahead and take calculated risks.

 

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

During a section of their training, they had to swim in the water along San Clemente Island, a breeding ground for Great White sharks. The students were made aware of the presents of sharks in these waters and the different species. Night swims were also part of this drill, making it appear even more dangerous. They were told that if they encountered a shark to “stand your ground” and do not swim away or act afraid. And if the shark did get close, to kick or punch it in the head. Easier said than done, but they did it. Admiral McRaven says that we will run into a lot of sharks and bullies in the world, but we should face them down, hold our ground, and deal with them.

 

  1. If you want to change the world, be your very best in the darkest moments.

While training for underwater attacks against enemy ships, the students had to swim two miles underwater at night to an enemy ship with nothing but a depth gauge and a compass to get them there. There was some ambient light, but once they got close to the ship, the ship blocked the little light they had. The divers are expected to swim to find the center of the ship, known as the keel. At this depth and with the ship blocking any light, the diver can become disorientated and panicked. The divers are told to stay calm and composed at this moment and to focus on the job at hand. The lesson here is to stay calm and step up when times are the toughest.

 

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

During the 9th week of training, “Hell Week” starts. This is where the students have six days of no sleep and continuous physical activity and mental harassment. Then to top the week off, this is followed by a day in the mudflats. The students were expected to spend 15 hours in a mud swamp in freezing cold while the instructors yelled and encouraged them to quit. They were told that they could leave if only five men would quit. As they shivered from the cold, one man began to sing, and slowly the others followed. As they sang in unison, it lifted their spirits and helped them get through the drill without quitting. Life’s lesson: Lifting the oppressed and those badly treated by authority will give them hope.

 

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

There is a brass bell hanging in the center of the training compound, and if you want to quit, all you have to do is ring the bell. No more 5:00 am wake-up calls, brutal drills, harassment, and abuse. Some quit; others stay the course so they can change the world. The point here is that no matter how tough things get in business or life, never give up.

 

Our lives are not as brutal and tough as Navy Seal training, yet simple lessons can be learned from their training tactics that can change our lives and change the world. Start each day with a simple task completed. Find others to help you through life. Show respect to everyone, especially those that we consider different than us. Remember that life is not fair and that you will fail often. Take calculated risks and step up during the tough times. Facedown the bullies, lift up the oppressed, and never give up.

If we all follow Admiral McRaven’s advice and pass it along to others, we can change our business, change our lives, and change the world!

 

Steve Mores is the Vice President of Training and Sales at Dynamic Air Quality Solutions.

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