It’s the time of year when notables share their wisdom with college graduates, in the form of commencement addresses. Unfortunately, most of these speeches are sort of boring and trite: Do what you love. Dream big. Work hard. Never give up.
Every once in a while, though, a speech stands out. We called out some of the notable ones in “Wit, Wisdom, Wisecracks and Sunscreen.” Among them: the pitch Apple CEO Steve Jobs made in 2005 to Stanford University students on living every day as though it was their last; J.K. Rowling’s 2008 address at Harvard University on facing your fears to survive and thrive; and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s 1941 call to arms before World War II, which gave life to the famous line, “Never give in.”
Thanks to Admiral William H. McRaven, we’ve now got another one to add to the list.
McRaven, who has been a Navy SEAL for 36 years, addressed graduates at the University of Texas at Austin last week. In a little less than 20 minutes, he offered up some of the pithiest advice graduates–or the rest of us–are likely to get any time soon. As of this writing, the YouTube video of his address has been viewed nearly a million times.
His big theme was that it’s easier than you think to change the lives of people around you. Even small decisions can have big consequences. Noting that a soldier’s decision to take a left instead of a right down a Baghdad road saved the lives of a 10-person squad, McRaven talked about how that decision spared the families of those soldiers from great pain–and also affected future generations.
“That great paragon of analytical rigour, Ask.Com, says that the average American will meet 10,000 people in their lifetime. If every one of you changed the lives of just 10 people, and each one of those folks changed the lives of another 10 people–just 10–then in five generations–125 years–the class of 2014 will have changed the lives of 800 million people,” McRaven said. “Eight hundred million people–think of it–over twice the population of the United States. Go one more generation and you can change the entire population of the world: one billion people.”
How do you change the world? Here’s where McRaven shines, with life lessons learned from his years in the military, but that he notes apply to everyone. “Our struggles in this world are similar, and the lessons to overcome those struggles and to move forward–changing ourselves and the world around us–will apply equally to all.”
Here are five of his lessons I want to call out (thanks to Business Insider for the transcript).
- If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right. McRaven says that soldiers are required to make their bed every morning as the first task they accomplish for the day. “It will give you a small sense of pride and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another…And, if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made–that you made–and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better.
- You will fail. Embrace the sugar cookie. OK, this one needs some explaining. McRaven says that soldiers were required to have their uniforms pressed and their shoes and buckles shiny to pass inspection. But they were also called out for failing to measure up–no matter how hard they tried. Their punishment was to wade into the surf and get soaked, roll around in the sand, and then spend the day cold, wet and sandy. The effect was known as a “sugar cookie.” The lesson learned was how to cope with failure. “You were never going to succeed. You were never going to have a perfect uniform. 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,” he said. “If you want to change the world get over being a sugar cookie and keep moving forward.”
- Face down the bullies. One of the final tests a SEAL faces is completing a long night swim through shark-infested waters. No kidding. McRaven says the soldiers are told that if sharks start to circle, you can’t back down. “Stand your ground. Do not swim away. Do not act afraid,” he said. “If the shark, hungry for a midnight snack, darts towards you, then summon up all your strength and punch him in the snout and he will turn and swim away. There are a lot of sharks in the world. If you hope to complete the swim, you will have to deal with them.”
- Never give up. There’s always hope. One of the other grueling tests the SEALs face is being buried up to the neck in cold, west mud for hours on end, McRaven said. Instructors tell the recruits that if just five of them quit, then they can all get out of the mud. In one case, someone started singing–off-key, but enthusiastically. “One voice became two and two became three and before long everyone in the class was singing. We knew that if one man could rise above the misery then others could as well. The instructors threatened us with more time in the mud if we kept up the singing–but the singing persisted. And somehow–the mud seemed a little warmer, the wind a little tamer and the dawn not so far away.”
Now I know some of you might find these military-inspired takeaways a bit too much. I mean, why do you have to swim through shark-infested waters or roll around in the sand to prove you have what it takes to be an excellent soldier? Especially since most of us are not soldiers?
I get it. But I still think McRaven makes some good points. Since I already make my bed in the morning, I guess I’ll just have to memorize the lyrics to a new song for those days I end up in the mud–at least metaphorically. Suggestions welcome.
This article was originally published on One Thing New.