By Navy SEAL Commander Mark Divine
When SEAL Admiral McRaven gave the commencement address to his alma mater, the University of Texas, on May 17, 2014, he probably did not expect the speech to go viral.
He was just doing what he normally does—an excellent job at thinking, leading and communicating.
Admiral McRaven is an authentic leader, hardened through years as an elite Navy SEAL commando who is not afraid to risk greatly, fail hard and yet keep moving forward.
His ten thoughts on how the UT graduates can take responsibility to change the world around them are so good I wanted to share them again with commentary.
I was fortunate to have Commander McRaven as my boss at SEAL Team THREE in the early 1990’s; then, again in the later 90’s and into 2000, this time as Captain McRaven, at Naval Special Warfare Group ONE.
So I consider the Admiral to be very smart and competent and one of my mentors. Clearly the military and political establishment agree, having put him in charge of all special ops forces as Commanding Officer the Special Operations Command (SOCOM). He is largely responsible for leading the ten year hunt for Osama Bin Laden.
I learned some valuable lessons in his presence, which I will cover in my next two BLOG Posts called My Personal 10.
TIP #1 : MAKE YOUR BED IN THE MORNING
During SEAL training, there is a room inspection each morning at o-dark thirty. The room must be spotless, floor waxed and the bed tight. Admiral McRaven points out the power of this simple act of making one’s bed every morning.
Though it is mundane, and may appear to be unrelated to the training to become a badass Navy SEAL, it forces you to get out of bed with a purpose and to accomplish your first task for the day. You are taking time to perform a simple task well.
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It leads to a deep respect for your sanctuary – a place of rest and recovery, while developing a daily disciplined ritual which cultivates your mind and character. The act of making your bed well, every day, leads to a feeling of satisfaction which provides positive momentum to your next accomplishment.
An overall sense of confidence and of being on top of things ensures. So, the Admiral says that if you want to change the world, start by making your bed each morning.
TIP #2: FIND SOMEONE TO HELP YOU PADDLE
No Rambo will ever make it through SEAL training, and lone wolves are not very productive members of society. In BUD/S you are assigned a swim buddy to develop a sense of responsibility and accountability to a teammate.
Then when your boat crew is assembled, you must quickly learn to navigate the heavy surf and rocky shoreline. Soon you find that if you are not all paddling together, and putting in the same effort, you will be thrown into the surf or onto the rocks. The team must sync efforts of the team, and everyone must carry their weight.
SEALFIT Academy First Day – 45 Minute Plank Hold
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In these moments of greatest challenge, an individualistic mindset leads to failure. So, the Admiral says to find someone you can trust to paddle with.
When an entire team paddles together, you can change the world.
TIP #3 JUDGE OTHERS BY THE SIZE OF THEIR HEARTS, NOT THE SIZE OF THEIR FLIPPERS
When I went through training in 1990, we called the short guy boat crew “the Smurf crew.” It was not considered derogatory; in fact to balance it out we also had “the giants” and “the turtles.” There is a smurf crew in each class. Interestingly, in my class these guys put out and threw their heart into each evolution.
Something about growing up as “the short guy,” having to prove themselves day in a day out, gave them a leg up in SEAL training.
Makes sense, doesn’t it?
Nobody expected them to be good athletes, or brilliant leaders. But we expect that of the tall, dark handsome types. Yet those tall and natural athletes, those to whom things came easy, were often the first to quit training. The smurf crew, who came from all ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, soldiered on with a steady demeanor.
Now, Admiral McRaven went through training about 13 years before me, so did not have the benefit of knowing about the Smurf’s silly TV show.
His class called the short guys the “munchkins” after the characters in the Wizard of Oz. His munchkin crew was every bit as hard core and spirited as our smurf crew was. So, as the Admiral says,if you want to change the world, judge someone by the size of their heart, not the size of their flippers.
TIP #4 GET OVER BEING THE SUGAR COOKIE
Anyone who has been to SEALFIT training has been a sugar cookie. After submerging completely in the frigid waters of the Pacific, they enjoyed rolling around in the soft sand for 5 minutes to ensure that sand gets everywhere. Then they had their swim buddy add the finishing touch by putting sand in their hair and other nooks and crannies they may have missed.
This treatment came directly from SEAL training, where it meant that you or the class at large had messed up some detail, such as being only 4 minutes early instead of 5.
But the funny thing was, everyone was always a sugar cookie. Does that mean that we were all messed up?
SEALFIT Kokoro with CrossFit Elite Athletes
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Nope, it just meant that we needed to get over being a sugar cookie and just press forward. The point is to learn to be comfortable with discomfort, to be able to drown out the distraction of the sand, cold, wetness and chafing to continue to perform. When you are comfortable being uncomfortable, then you are able to lead when the shit hits the fan and things get uncomfortable fast.
So, as the Admiral says, if you want to change the world, get over being a sugar cookie. Better yet – learn to enjoy being a sugar cookie – it makes everything else seem easy.
TIP #5: DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE CIRCUSES
In training, if you didn’t keep up on a run or swim, and found yourself in the bottom quartile of the class, then you were rounded up and put through some remedial training. In my time this remedial training was called a “goon squad.” Admiral McRaven’s instructors called it a “circus.”
Both names are apropos to describe the delightful training tool. If you couldn’t keep up on the run and “got gooned”, you went from behind the power-curve to way behind the power curve. Often a few goon squads would be enough to drive someone to quit training altogether.
With the constant daily grind and need to perform to standard, there is little leeway for error and precious little time for recovery. The trainee who found themself on the goon squad had a choice – find the mettle to learn and grow from the experience, or fail.
Those who could dig deeper and keep their hearts in the game, got stronger. This was noted by the instructors and eventually they found themselves on the goon squad less…and then not at all.
So, as the Admiral says, if you want to change the world, don’t be afraid of the circuses of life. They will always be there to test you…use them to get stronger.
TIP #6: SOMETIMES YOU HAVE TO SLIDE DOWN HEADFIRST
The BUDS O-course (obstacle course) has had the same set of obstacles since the early 1980’s, though it has been upgraded a few times. One of the scarier obstacles is called the “slide for life.” It has three towers that must be scaled without ropes or ladders.
When at the top, a long rope must be descended which stretches from the top tower, about 80 feet off the ground, to a post 50 yards away 10 feet off the ground. The standard operating procedure is to hook your feet over the rope and jimmy down feet first, upside down. In my class, when you got to third phase you could opt for a faster, but sketchy headfirst method.
This new method required a leap of faith, to say the least.
According to the Admiral, one of his classmates was the first to pioneer this headfirst method, earning a new course record in the process. As with anything new, it was met with skepticism, then gradual acceptance as other students succeeded with the method. Had someone been seriously injured, the method would have been banned.
Conversely, had the pioneer not taken the bold move to try it once, no one would have known they could do it. It was a breakthrough born of boldness. So as the Admiral says, if you want to change the world, sometimes you have to be the first to slide down headfirst.
TIP #7: DON’T BACK DOWN FROM THE SHARKS
No SEAL has ever been attacked or eaten by a shark. The sharks must be afraid of SEALs. In actuality that statement may not be far from the truth. In BUD/S training we endured long ocean swims at night in areas known to be breeding grounds for Great Whites and Tiger Sharks (amongst other gnarly sea creatures). The running joke was: if attacked by a shark, stab your buddy and swim like hell.
In actuality, we learned to be aware of when the sharks were lurking. If approached by one we were taught to hold ground and strike them hard in the nose. The mental and emotional control this required goes without saying!
Let’s hope you never have to test our method in person.
But there are sharks everywhere in life, not just the oceans. These people don’t care about you. They will steal, or worse, to get what they can’t earn. Most of these sharks deserve to be punched in the nose also. So, as the Admiral says, if you want to change the world, you can’t back down from the sharks.
TIP #8: BE YOUR VERY BEST IN THE DARKEST MOMENTS
On a dive mission a buddy of mine found himself trapped in the muck under a barge for over an hour when he miscalculated how fast the tide was going out.
The rushing tide caused the barge to settle quickly into the muck, pinning him underneath. There was only one thing to do – wait until the tide came back in. He survived to tell the story. Admiral McRaven talks about the SEAL ship attack mission as one of the most dangerous and confusing that SEALs undertake.
I can attest to that, having many close calls under the belly of a ship at night. It is hard to convey how intense it can get where the noisy ships turns the night water into an inky black hell. It requires you to focus with all of your might and pay attention to the smallest of details.
With that focus you can accomplish anything. A great feeling of relief and presence is your reward. Dark, noisy and confusing times are part of life, and how we learn to navigate them is crucial. Do they set us back because we lose focus or don’t pay attention to the small details?
Or, do they propel us forward because we are ready for the challenge?
So as the Admiral says, if you want to change the world, be your very best in the darkest of moments.
TIP #9: START SINGING WHEN YOU ARE UP TO YOUR NECK IN MUD
One of the key tools for mental toughness is to keep your mind positive and focused on uplifting, rather than depressing, things. This gets harder to do the harder things get. The mud flats in BUD/S training were a classic example of a shitty, miserable deal.
There is simply no reason to be there unless you are forced there to develop intestinal fortitude in SEAL training. The mud flats are a classic evolution used to produce maximum discomfort. (They are not used any longer due to the health risks.) The way to survive the flats is by taking them one nasty moment at a time.
But to endure those moments, humor and a song go a long way. A song is heard, faint at first. You join in, then another. Soon everyone is belting it out, laughing and having a good ole time. A song sung with gusto, when in extreme discomfort, will help pass the time quickly and with a positive outcome.
It may also mean the difference between success and failure…or even survival. So as the Admiral says, if you want to change the world, learn to sing when you are up to your neck in mud in your life.
TIP #10: DON’T RING THE BELL
The quitting bell at BUD/S is legendary. If a trainee voluntarily drops from training, they are expected to ring the bell. A class, when it secures from training, will also ring the bell to symbolically mark the end of training as they head to the Teams. The bell gives a visual and auditory expression to what it means to end the trial by fire.
Some ring it voluntarily; a few others ring it by sticking it out to the end.
Everyone experiences the dark night of the souls at moments when they despair about whether they can take one more step, endure one more day, face one more circus. Failures rack up, the pain keeps raining down and the sugar cookie moments become unbearable.
Making the bed didn’t help, the teammates have forsaken them and the sharks are circling. You can’t find the courage to slide down the obstacles headfirst.
The bell beckons you…all you have to do is saunter over and give it a resounding ring. Then lay your helmet down alongside the others, get warm and call it a day.
But you can’t.
Something deep inside holds you back.
You say to yourself “over my dead body” and turn your mind back to training.
Some military social re-engineers have tried to do away with the bell, thinking it shameful and that it would hurt the feelings of the quitter. The training command has resisted these efforts, knowing that the bell provides a formidable barrier in that quit moment.
It also provides a steady reminder to the others to say silently: “over my dead body.” When the bell rings, a friend moves on, yet the team gets stronger. So as the good Admiral says, if you want to change the world, you must NEVER ring that bell.
I would like to personally thank Admiral McRaven for his service and leadership as a SEAL, as well as for the wisdom embedded in these ten lessons. I will pick up this leadership topic again next with my Personal 10: Ten ways you can prepare yourself and your team to reach the top. Until then, make your bed every day!
Mark Divine graduated as Honor Man(#1-ranked trainee) from SEAL BUD/S class number 170. He served for nine years total on active duty and eleven as a Reserve SEAL, retiring as Commander in 2011. His leadership of teams was so effective the government tasked him with creating a nationwide mentoring program for SEAL trainees. Not only did it increase the quality of SEAL candidates, it reduced BUD/S attrition rate up to five percent. He is the author of several books, including Way of the SEAL, and is the founder of SEALFIT.
Admiral William H. McRaven is a retired U.S. Navy Four-Star admiral and the former Chancellor of the University of Texas System. During his time in the military, he commanded special operations forces at every level, eventually taking charge of the U.S. Special Operations Command. His career included combat during Desert Storm and both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. He commanded the troops that captured Saddam Hussein and rescued Captain Phillips. McRaven is also credited with developing the plan and leading the Osama bin Laden mission in 2011.
QUESTION: Where can I get more info on how to create success like a Navy SEAL?
ANSWER: Check out this article: How to Make Your Success.
QUESTION: I have been working on running but I can’t seem to better my mile run time. Do you have some ways I can get past this block?
ANSWER: Here is an article I wrote when an athlete wrote me with the same question—Tips to Improve Your Mile Run Time.