Master your Life: 10 Lessons from a Navy SEAL

READING TIME: 9 MINUTES


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Back in 2014, Admiral William H. McRaven gave an amazing commencement speech at the University of Texas at Austin. What I love is that even though his insights were born out of intense basic SEAL training, what McRaven learned back then applies to each of us today.

Admiral McRaven talks about the power of changing the world, 10 people at a time: if you make their world better, and they do the same in turn, and those next ten people do the same, within five generations you will have changed the lives of 800 million people. 

It’s astonishing how quickly the numbers add up. And so do the insights he shares: if you do each of these things, a little at a time, every single time, eventually you will have changed your own life exponentially.

Here’s what McRaven says:

1. Start each day with a task completed.

No need to overthink this: just make your bed. According to Admiral McRaven, this simple, mundane task sets the tone for the rest of your day:

If you make your bed every morning, you will have accomplished the first task of 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 by the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you’ll never be able to do the big things right.

2. Find someone to help you through life.

When McRaven’s Navy SEAL boat team rowed out into the surf, everyone had to paddle equally hard for them to get where they were going: nobody could do it on their own, and everyone had to go all in. 

But if Navy SEALs know the value of pulling together as a team, why do so many of us still insist on doing things all alone? I’ve noticed that many high achievers, especially, tend to want to go at it alone: they’re used to getting big things done and think they can continue that way forever. But there’s only so much we can accomplish without a team at our side:

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.

3. Measure a person by the size of their heart, not the size of their flippers.

McRaven’s SEAL training class of 150 men dwindled to 35 after the first intense weeks of training. That left six boat crews, and the very best crew (not McRaven’s!) was nicknamed the “munchkin crew” because nobody in it was taller than 5’ 5’’. This so-called munchkin crew quickly showed McRaven and his teammates what real heart looked like: 

The big men in the other boat crews would always make good-natured fun of the tiny little flippers the munchkins put on their tiny little feet prior to every swim. But somehow these little guys, from every corner of the nation and the world, always had the last laugh, swimming faster than everyone and reaching the shore long before the rest of us. SEAL training was a great equalizer: nothing mattered but your will to succeed.

4. Get over being a sugar cookie and keep moving forward.

McRaven’s training class lined up for uniform inspections several times per week, and instructors would meticulously check that they had perfectly-starched hats, crisply-pressed uniforms, and smudge-free belt buckles. Failing the inspection meant running into the surf fully-clothed, then rolling around in the sand until you resembled a sugar cookie. 

No matter how careful they were, nobody escaped the sugar cookie treatment. The instructors would always find something wrong. And according to McRaven, those who didn’t make it through training didn’t understand the purpose of the drill:

You were never going to succeed. You were never going to have a perfect uniform. The instructors weren’t going to allow it. 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...Know that life is not fair and you will fail often.

5. Don’t be afraid of the circuses.

If you failed to meet the standards for each physical event during the day’s SEAL training, you had to do a “circus”—two additional hours of training meant to “wear you down, to break your spirit, to force you to quit.” But those circuses had an upside:

No one wanted a circus...but an interesting things happened to those who were constantly on the list. Over time, those students who did two hours of extra calisthenics got stronger and stronger. The pain of the circuses built inner strength and physical resiliency.

Life is filled with circuses. You will fail. You will likely fail often. It will be painful. It will be discouraging. But if you want to change the world, don’t be afraid of the circuses.

6. Sometimes you have to slide down the obstacles head first.

One of the most notorious obstacles SEAL trainees face is the “slide for life.” It consists of two tall towers connected by a sloping, 200-foot rope. The ways trainees usually traversed the rope was by swinging underneath it and pulling themselves across, hand over hand, which took several minutes. Until one day, a trainee did something different…

One day a student decided to go down the Slide for Life headfirst...he bravely mounted the top of the rope and thrust himself forward. It was a dangerous move, seemingly foolish and fraught with risk. Failure could mean injury and being dropped from the course. Without hesitation, the student slid down the rope perilously fast. Instead of several minutes, it took him half that time. And by the end of the course, he had broken the record.

7. Don’t back down from the sharks.

SEAL trainees have to complete a series of long swims through the shark-infested waters off San Clemente. The instructors gleefully brief them on all the shark species lurking below the surface, and what to do in case of an attack. (Although, they add, nobody had been eaten by a shark...recently). What McRaven learns about dealing with sharks applies to the rest of us, too...whether our sharks are out in the water or out in our daily lives.

If a shark begins to circle your position, stand your ground. Do not swim away. Do not act afraid. And 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.

8. You must be your very best in the darkest moments.

SEAL recruits are taught to attack enemy ships by swimming more than two miles underwater, in the dark, until they reach the opponent's harbor.

To be successful in your mission, you have to swim under the ship and find the keel...but the keel is also the darkest part of the ship, where you cannot see your hand in front of your face, where the noise from the ship’s machinery is deafening and where it is easy to get disoriented and fail. Every SEAL knows that under the keel, at the darkest moment of the mission, is the time when you need to be calm, where you must be calm, when all your tactical skills, your physical power, and all your inner strength must be brought to bear.

9. Start singing when you’re up to your neck in mud.

McRaven underscores the power of hope when things appear hopeless...and the magic that happens when we bring that hope to others. 

During the physically excruciating “Hell Week,” SEAL recruits are taken to the swampy mud flats between San Diego and Tijuana, where they spend 15 hours braving the elements: freezing mud, punishing winds, and the constant pressure to quit. That particular evening, the instructors punished McRaven’s training class for some “egregious infraction of the rules” by ordering them into the cold mud for the night.

The mud consumed each man till there was nothing visible but our heads...The chattering teeth and shivering moans of the trainees were so loud it was hard to hear anything. And then, one voice began to echo through the night: one voice raised in song. The song was terribly out of tune, but sung with great enthusiasm. 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.

McRaven goes on to say that if he’s learned anything, it’s the power of hope:

One person can change the world by giving people hope.

10. Don’t ever, ever ring the bell.

Finally: don’t quit! It’s so easy to quit, McRaven reminds us. You can walk away from anything at any time. But if you want to change the world, then you can’t take the easy way out:

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 be in 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. All you have to do is ring the bell to get out.

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

A final thought

What did you think of McRaven’s commencement speech, and which of his lessons resonated most with you? I think that each of them is a powerful reminder of how our lives can change the moment we change our perspective. That is, each day we have the choice to:

...accomplish something little, or nothing at all;

…ask for the help we need, or take on too much alone;

...respect people for who they are, or judge them for what they aren’t;

...understand that life can be unfair, or complain when it is;

...accept the challenges that make us stronger, or dread and avoid them;

...risk a new way of doing things, or stay stuck where we are;

...stand up to the sharks, or let them consume us;

...trust ourselves in the darkness, or be disoriented by fear;

...spread hope, or spread despair;

...get up and do it all again tomorrow!

If you are interested, you can watch the entire speech here.

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