10 Life Lessons from Admiral William McRaven

With graduation approaching, I can’t stop thinking about how it’s only been a year since I walked across that stage and watched the world’s greatest fireworks show. With front row tickets I may add (go pharmacy!). The emotions are real you guys. It’s such an overwhelming time in your life. And believe me, your Forty Acres family will do everything in their power to tug at your heartstrings as much as possible.

Last year, Admiral William McRaven graciously agreed to give a commencement address at our university wide graduation ceremony. It had been 37 years since he had been in our shoes as a new UT graduate. He began his speech by talking about our slogan here at UT: “what start’s here changes the world“. Through his experiences in the military and basic Navy Seal training, he was able to formulate 10 key points to help us change the world.

“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”.

Now bear with me. This isn’t one of those short Buzzfeed-like blogs. I decided to take a deeper perspective when writing for you guys this time around, because I think this one is important. I encourage you to read through to the end. And I hope that if anything, you are left with some courage and confidence for what your future holds.

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

Every morning during training, the instructors would come into his room and inspect his bed. It was a requirement that they make their bed to perfection. Even though it felt ridiculous at first that such a mundane task was of the utmost importance, Admiral McRaven learned how critical it was. “If you make your bed every morning, you will have achieved the first task of the day”. Not only will it give you a sense of pride and encourage you to do other tasks, but it will also reinforce that the little things in life matter. Seems easy right? I personally believe that his message is in holding yourself accountable. It’s more than just tucking in your sheets every morning.

“And if all else fails, you will come home at the end of the day to a bed that is made.”

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

Divided into groups, his class would struggle to paddle through the surf during the worst of the weather. Every paddle that was made was to be synchronized, with each member exerting equal effort. If they didn’t paddle in unison, they wouldn’t make their destination. “You can’t change the world alone. You will need some help. And to truly get from your starting point to your destination takes friends, colleagues, the goodwill of strangers, and a strong coxswain to guide you”.

Yes, it is OKAY to allow yourself to confide in others. The most successful didn’t get where they are today on their own.

3. 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 talked about how there was a boat crew of “little guys”, which they called the Munchkin Crew. No one was over 5’5”. All of them of different racial and cultural backgrounds. The taller guys would always make fun of the little flippers the Munchkin Crew had on their feet. However, the little guys would always out-run and out-swim the rest of the crews. “Nothing mattered but your will to succeed. Not your color, not your ethnic background, not your education, not your social status.”

We are all one in the same. My size of my flippers is a reflection of my anatomy, not of who I am inside.

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

Several times a week the crew would get uniform inspection. Just like making the bed, the standards were unbelievably high. No matter how polished your belt buckle nor how starched your uniform, it was never enough. If inspection was failed, the students had to run fully clothed to the surf zone, and while wet, roll around on the beach until every part of their bodies was covered in sand. This effect was called the “sugar cookie”. Some students struggled with the fact that the instructors were never going to let them succeed. They couldn’t accept that their uniform would never be perfect. Those students didn’t make it through training. “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.”

Yeah, not those kind of sugar cookies.

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

As one would assume, training was consumed with daily physical events. Long runs, long swims, obstacle courses, etc. If your times were not met, your name was posted on a list. At the end of the day, every name that was posted on the list was invited to a “circus”. An additional 2 hours of hard work formulated to test your mind, break you down, and make you want to quit. It was inevitable. At some point during training, every student would make the circus list. But see, for those that were constantly on the list, they got stronger. “Life is full of circuses. You will fail. You will likely fail often. It will be painful. It will be discouraging. At times it will test you to your very core.”

But you can be afraid of clowns. Because clowns are creepy.

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

During training all of the students were required to complete a 25 piece obstacle course. The most challenging obstacle was the “slide for life”. Combined with a 3-tiered 30 foot tower and a 200 foot long rope, the record for best time had been untouched for years. Until one of Admiral McRaven’s class members went down head first. It seemed dangerous, foolish, and put the student at risk for injury. Nonetheless, he braved the challenge and cut the record time by half.

And you know how us Longhorns are. We like to be the best.

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

Part of their time at camp was spent on San Clemente Island, where the waters served as breeding grounds for great white sharks. Long swims were required to pass training, including night swims. As if this wasn’t terrifying enough, the instructors made it a point to educate them on the all the different species of sharks right before their journey. They would reassure that no student has ever been eaten by one. Or at least, not to their knowledge. They were told to “stand your ground” if a shark appeared to start circling your position. To not swim away or act afraid. “There are a lot of sharks in the world. If you hope to complete the swim, you will have to deal with them.”

Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming.

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

Navy Seals have a job to conduct underwater attacks against enemy shipping. To practice, during training they would be dropped off outside an enemy harbor and swim over 2 miles underwater using nothing but a depth gauge and a compass to get to their target. There is always SOME light that comes through throughout the swim. But when approaching the ship, the light begins to fade. The Seal divers are expected to swim under the ship and find the “keel”, the centerline of the ship. The darkest part of the ship. Where you can be easily disoriented. Where you can fail. Every Seal knows that this is a time when you need to be calm. When you must be calm. And composed. “When all your tactical skills, your physical power and all your inner strength must be brought to bear.”

You will never regret being the one who was calm and collected during moments of crisis.

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

“Hell Week” started the ninth week of training. Six days of no sleep, continuous physical and mental harassment, followed by a day at the Mud Flats. A swampy patch of land where the mud can literally eat you alive. The students were expected to spend 15 hours in the freezing cold as the instructors persistently pushed each member to quit. As his team was engulfed in mud, they were told that they could leave if only five men would quit. With eight hours to go. Through chattering teeth, one voice began to sing. One voice became two, and then two become three. Before long, everyone in the class was singing. Admiral McRaven remembers thinking that the mud seemed a little warmer, the wind a little tamer, and the ending closer. “If I have learned anything in my time traveling the world, it is the power of hope. The power of one person. A Washington, a Lincoln, King, Mandela, and even a young girl from Pakistan, Malala. One person can change the world by giving people hope.”

Even if you’re off-key, sing to those in need. So that they may find hope.

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

In training there is a brass bell that hangs in the center of the compound. All you had to do to quit camp was ring the bell. And you no longer have to wake up at 5 am. No longer have to swim in the freezing water. No longer have to do the obstacle courses. No longer have to endure the hardships of training. “All you had to do was ring the bell to get out. If you want to change the world, don’t ever, EVER, ring the bell.”

So there you have it. Ten simple tasks that, if executed appropriately, can change everything in your life from this point forward. 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 times are the toughest, face down the bullies, lift up the downtrodden, and never ever give up. If you do these things, the next generation and the generations that follow will live in a world far better than the one we have today.

I re-watched this speech for weeks following graduation. Call me corny, but it really had an effect on me. Here was a man whom has accomplished so much in his life, achieving goals most of us can only dream of. Yet his advice is simple. It focuses on how one’s ability to be able to change the world resides in their character. Their humbleness. Their will to selflessly act for the greater good. I think it is important that we remember how vital the little things in life really are. We all have different goals. Whether your goal is to be a business owner, a housewife, or the future president. Never forget how far the little things can get you. To say that this graduation day speech changed the way I viewed my future is an understatement. I hope this year’s commencement ceremony has a similar effect on you.

Congratulations to the class of 2015! You’ve been given the building blocks for ways to change the world during your days spent here on campus. Now is the time to put what you’ve been taught to use. And as you go forward as an alumnus, never forget to give back to future Longhorns, in return for what others have given to you.

Hook’em forever! \m/

-Hayley Gail

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