Advice from the Guy Who Commanded US Navy Seals
By Ken K. Gourdin
While at Youtube, I happened upon an excerpt of the May 16, 2014 commencement address delivered by Admiral William H. McRaven (now Retired), former commander of United States Special Operations Command, to University of Texas at Austin graduates. Special Operations Command, or SOCOM, is responsible for training, equipping, and deploying military Special Forces such as Navy SEALs.
While the training of an average, every-day, run-of-the-mill military recruit (granting, solely for the sake of this discussion, that such a creature exists) is arduous enough, by orders of magnitude, Special Forces training exceeds even that. It’s little wonder that they lay claim to the title “The Best of the Best.”
Admiral McRaven pointed out that if each one of the 8,000 graduates that day were to change the lives of just ten people, who then went on, themselves, to change the lives of ten people, and so on, in five generations (125 years), those people would change the lives of 800 million people. In another generation, those people would change the lives of a population as great as that of the entire earth: 8 billion people.
Admiral McRaven urged graduates to not underestimate their ability to impact the lives of others, saying he’d seen examples of just that in the lives of a platoon leader who directs his platoon away from a close-in ambush and of a squad leader who directs his squad out of the path of an improvised explosive device.
In my current circumstances, being unemployed, I’m not sure how to “operationalize” many of the principles Admiral McRaven talked about. In comparison to his accomplishments—and, in fact, even in comparison to the accomplishments of many of the graduates to whom he was speaking—to say that many of my own accomplishments have been rather modest would be to vastly overstate the case.
As I just noted, I’m not sure how, exactly, to operationalize the principles of which the admiral speaks. Frankly, I consider it a victory to get out of bed, to make myself reasonably presentable for public view (though one of the advantages of talking on the phone all workday every workday, as I have done for the better part of the last four years, though currently I am unemployed, is that, in that circumstance, perhaps “presentable for public view” is a different, lower bar than it would be otherwise), to make it to work in one piece, to make it through my workday, and then to make it back home at the end of my workday.
With those caveats out of the way, Admiral McRaven gives the following advice in the speech, which I found here (this and all other sites last accessed May 16, 2020):
Start the day off with a task completed. Admiral McRaven suggests making your bed. He says that he couldn’t understand why, when he was in SEAL training, his instructors were so fanatical about a bed being neatly made to even the most miniscule, exacting standard. Gradually, however, he came to draw a sense of satisfaction from the fact whatever else happened—whatever might go wrong or whatever obstacle he might have to face that day—he could point to the simple accomplishment of having made his bed neatly.
Find someone to help you through life. In contrast to an individual athletic contest, in which the aim is to provide an opportunity for one person to excel all others in that particular event, one of the aims of SEAL training is to help recruits realize that it will be impossible for them to succeed without the full efforts of every member of the team. I’ve had much more than my share of help through life, even if I cannot name everyone who has provided that help: doctors, nurses, physical therapists (not to mention behavioral health therapists!), parents, other family members, friends, and coworkers.
Respect everyone. Admiral McRaven says that one of the teams during his SEAL training was comprised of “runts” (my word), recruits who, compared to many of their fellows, were rather diminutive or short in stature. While other recruits made fun of the physical characteristics of that particular team at first, they quickly came to realize (though these are my words and not the Admiral’s) that the team exemplified the old adage that it’s not the size of the dog in the fight; it’s the size of the fight in the dog.
Life is not always fair; move forward. Admiral McRaven says that often, recruits were singled out for alleged violations of seemingly-inane, arbitrary protocols and made to undertake additional tasks and to perform additional, even more arduous, physical training. (Sometimes the violations were genuine, but more often than not, they were imaginary, and the Admiral points out that this was by design: the instructors wanted to make people angry, and to make them feel like quitting.) “Violators” were made to become “sugar cookies” by braving the surf off of the San Diego coast and then, having done that, to roll around in the sand until in that wet uniform seemingly every inch of them was covered in sand—and then to spend the rest of the day in that miserable, wet, sandy uniform. However, he noticed that, seeming unfairness aside, those recruits (at least, the ones who stuck it out: all one had to do to quit was to ring a bell, and nobody wanted to ring the bell) proved the old adage (though these are my words, not the Admiral’s) that what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.
Don’t be afraid to fail often. (This is the part of the speech I felt best about. Mission accomplished?!) Very probably, given the insurmountable odds I faced, and given the fact that even some well-meaning people told me I might be better off quitting, somehow, still, I was able to make it through law school. The last full-time job I’d had before enrolling in law school was answering phones all workday, every workday, and the next full-time job I took after I lost my nerve and took a leave of absence was answering phones all workday, every workday. (I don’t know what to make of the fact that I’ve spent all workday, every workday for more than the past three years answering phones anyway, but there you have it.) As unsure as I might have been about my prospects for somehow carving out some kind of a niche in the law, the one thing I was sure of is that I didn’t want to answer phones for the rest of my life. If, ultimately, my protracted law school misadventure and its meandering aftermath ends up being a failure because I’m never licensed and/or because I never work a day of law-related employment in my life, at least I’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that such a “failure” didn’t occur because I couldn’t hack it in law school.
Attack the rope head-first. Changing the world might mean finding a new way to do something—a way which no one has ever tried before. The Admiral tells of a trainee who, rather than attacking a rope course hand-over-hand from underneath, as it was usually done, decided to go head-first and hand-over-hand on top of the rope. While it was a perilous and risky move, daring to attack that rope in a way that had never been done before enabled that trainee to finish the rope course in record time. “If you want to change the world, you have to slide down the rope head-first,” the Admiral said.
Be prepared to fend off the sharks. Part of SEAL training was swimming in shark-infested waters. Instructors strenuously advised recruits to resist the urge to swim away rapidly if a shark started to circle or to dart toward them. Rather, they were advised to punch the shark as hard as they could in the snout, and it would be deterred and would swim away. Life, said the Admiral, will have its share of sharks, and his listeners should be prepared to deal with them.
Be your best in the darkest moments. SEAL training also involves being trained in underwater operations. Recruits are made to swim two miles to a ship using only a depth gauge and a compass, then to swim under the ship where all ambient light from above is blocked out. In those circumstances, as easy as it might be to panic and to become disoriented, those are the times when it’s most necessary that one keep his wits about him. While the Admiral didn’t quote Rudyard Kipling in his speech, I’m reminded of the last lines of Kipling’s poem, “If”: “If you can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, yours is the Earth, and everything that’s in it. And, which is more, you’ll be a man, my son!” See Kipling’s full poem here: