Growing up, how many times were you told “make your bed!” It turns out, parents are onto something important — more important than just a tidy bedroom. It appears that “making your bed,” is a precursor to a life filled with purpose.
When Admiral William H. McRaven delivered the commencement address to the University of Texas class of 2014, this simple message was the cornerstone of his speech — a speech he never dreamed would go viral, now viewed by millions of people.
The Admiral explained to the graduates that the first thing he does when he wakes up each day is make his bed. In fact, that one small task is such a crucial discipline, that he’s even written a book about it. Now sitting on the York Times best-seller list, “Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life…And Maybe the World,” is generating a lot of buzz around the world.
McRaven, a four-star admiral, explained that his dedication to bed-making dovetailed with his meteoric rise through the ranks in the U.S. Navy. The steadfastness in making his bed (and doing it well), began during basic Navy SEAL training and continued as he rose from a junior officer, to the commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command – the position he held until he retired in 2014 after 37 years of exemplary service.
Okay, so what’s the big deal about making your bed?
McRaven, now the Chancellor at the University of Texas System, told USA Today: “Learn to do the little things well, learn to make your bed right. And that transcends into a lot of other things you do. There’s a power behind making your bed every morning.”
Of course his book is not just about ‘making your bed.’ In the book, McRaven speaks to valuable lessons about leadership, moving beyond failure, standing up to bullies and on the importance of giving others hope. The reader quickly learns that Admiral McRaven is a fierce believer in the power of grit and determination to overcome daunting obstacles in life.
In his 2014 commencement speech, The Admiral encouraged the graduating class to change a world of eight billion people, 10 people at a time. He rightfully reasons that after five generations of change, 800 million people’s lives would have been changed for the better by the 8,000 people sitting in that room. McRaven shares 10 very powerful lessons and principles of the bed, paddle, heart, sugar cookie, circus, obstacle, shark, dark moment, song, and bell — each one a remarkable metaphor for an important life area and and proof that change for the better starts with one very important person – you!
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. If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.” Making our bed seems so simple, but if we don’t do the simple things with consistency, how can we ever hope to have the discipline to do the big things that can change the world?
2. The lesson of the group and the paddle
“If you want to change the world, find someone to help you paddle. 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 good will of strangers and a strong coxswain to guide them.”
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. SEAL training was a great equalizer. Nothing mattered but your will to succeed. Not your color, not your ethnic background, not your education and not your social status.”
We should all get our priorities in order — what does it matter if someone is the strongest, tallest or best looking? Measure a person by their love, compassion, energy and focus.
4. The lesson of having a bad day and being a sugar cookie
Keep moving forward: “Sometimes no matter how well you prepare or how well you perform you still end up as a sugar cookie.”
“For failing the uniform inspection, the student [in Basic SEAL training] had to run, fully clothed into the surfzone and then, wet from head to toe, roll around on the beach until every part of your body was covered with sand. The effect was known as a ‘sugar cookie.’ You stayed in that uniform the rest of the day — cold, wet and sandy.”
Sometimes, no matter how well you plan and hope, some things just don’t turn out the way you want them to — 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.
“There were many a student who just couldn’t accept the fact that all their effort was in vain. . . Those students didn’t understand the purpose of the drill. You were never going to succeed. You were never going to have a perfect uniform.”
When we have a bad day, push through it and look forward to having a better day tomorrow — you can’t change the world if you can’t accept some set-backs.
5. The lesson of the ‘circuses’ and doing the extra work
“But if you want to change the world, don’t be afraid of the circuses. Every day during training, you were challenged with multiple physical events — long runs, long swims, obstacle courses, hours of calisthenics — something designed to test your mettle. Every event had standards — times you had to meet. If you failed to meet those standards your name was posted on a list, and at the end of the day those on the list were invited to a ‘circus.’ A circus was two hours of additional calisthenics designed to wear you down, to break your spirit, to force you to quit.”
“Life is filled with 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.”
We all live though our own “circuses,” and they can be exhausting, bewildering and sometimes downright debilitating. But, if we really focus on what went wrong, we can glimpse insight and gain perspective — so don’t give up, but instead, learn, understand and keep going, because that’s the only way to change the world.
6. Sometimes you have to slide down the obstacle head first – 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, completing a difficult obstacle course was required as part of McRaven’s SEAL training — one of the most dreaded obstacle course challenges was the “slide for life.” This particular challenge was dangerous and it put the SEALs at risk. Combined with a 3-tiered 30 foot tower and a 200 foot long rope, the standing record for best time had been untouched for years — that is until one of McRaven’s classmates went down head first. Yes, it was dangerous, some say foolish, and it put the trainee at risk, but he nonetheless braved the challenge and cut the record time by half.
The message? Fear can paralyze us if we allow it to, so sometimes, you just have to take on a challenge head-first, with resolve and awareness (note: the Admiral is not advocating being fool-hearty, but is simply relating a story from his Navy SEAL training).
7. Confronting the “Sharks”
“There are a lot of sharks in the world. If you hope to complete the swim you will have to deal with them,” so if you truly want to change the world, don’t back down from the sharks.
Part of their SEAL training took place on San Clemente Island, where the waters were a known breeding ground for great white sharks. Long swims, including nighttime swims, were required to pass training. As if this wasn’t terrifying enough, right before they got into the water, the instructors educated them on all the different species of sharks and told them to “stand your ground, don’t swim away or act afraid” if a shark appeared.
Since most of us will never experience what the SEAL’s did in training, we should nonetheless be prepared for the sharks in life — be strong, confident and knowledgeable in your life.
8. If you want to change the world, you must be your very best in even the darkest moment
“At the darkest moment of the mission is the time when you must be calm, composed—when all your tactical skills, your physical power and all your inner strength must be brought to bear.”
Navy SEALS sometimes have to carry-out dangerous missions under water, in almost complete darkness — their missions are fraught with danger and in almost total darkness, it’s easy to become disoriented. Every Seal knows that during these missions, their lives depend on them being calm and composed so that they can recall their training and mission objectives. We in civilian life must do the same — we must be focused, prepared, aware and engaged.
9. If you want to change the world, start singing when you’re up to your neck in mud
“If I have learned anything in my time traveling the world, it is the power of hope. The power of one person—Washington, Lincoln, King, Mandela and even a young girl from Pakistan, Malala—one person can change the world by giving people hope.”
“Hell Week” — six days of no sleep, continuous physical and mental torment, followed by a grueling day at the ‘Mud Flats.’ The trainees had to spend 15 hours in the freezing cold as the instructors persistently pushed each member to give-up and quit. As McRaven’s team was engulfed in the mud and the cold, with eight hours still to go, they were told that they could all leave if just five of the men would quit. Despite aching bodies and the bitter cold, through chattering teeth, one voice began to sing. One voice then became two, and then three — before long, everyone in the class was singing — no one would be quitting that day.
“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.”
10. If you want to change the world don’t ever, ever ring the bell
“In SEAL training there is a bell. A brass bell that hangs in the center of the compound for all the students to see. All you have to do to quit—is ring the bell. Ring the bell and you no longer have to wake up at 5 o’clock. Ring the bell and you no longer have to do the freezing cold swims. Ring the bell and you no longer have to do the runs, the obstacle course, the PT—and you no longer have to endure the hardships of training. Just ring the bell. If you want to change the world don’t ever, ever ring the bell.”
In civilian life, we have a bell, but it’s more a metaphorical bell — try with all of your heart and soul to never ring the bell of defeat. Fortify your mind, body and soul and keep going — if you fail, try again. If you feel like you’re at the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on.
Some quotes from Admiral McRaven that stand out as especially inspiring:
“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”.
“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 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.”
“Changing the world can happen anywhere and anyone can do it.”
Do yourself a favor and watch the commencement speech and read the book, which gives much more insight into the 10 principles McRaven has learned and which have helped him overcome challenges not only in his training and long Naval career, but also throughout his life. McRaven explains how anyone can use these basic lessons to change themselves and the whole world, for the better.