Wisdom for the Start of the Year

Last spring, Naval Admiral William H. McRaven, ninth commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, gave a terrific commencement speech at his alma mater, the University of Texas commencement. I’m grateful to Sherm Hotchkiss ’63 for making me aware of it. Everyone can learn something from this speech, especially as we begin a new year. I’ve quoted below his ten “life lessons” and a few other points he makes along the way. For the life lessons to make sense, however, you’ll have to read or watch the entire speech. It’s not too long and I encourage you to do so.

The Admiral’s overarching point is that we need people who hope to change the world, in small ways and large, but that we need certain habits in order to do so.

He writes, “It matters not your gender, your ethnic or religious background, your orientation, or your social status…

“[Navy SEAL training] also seeks to find those students who can lead in an environment of constant stress, chaos, failure and hardships…

“If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.

  1. If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.
  2. If you want to change the world, find someone to help you paddle.
  3. If you want to change the world, measure a person by the size of their heart, not the size of their flippers.
  4. If you want to change the world get over being a sugar cookie and keep moving forward.
  5. But if you want to change the world, don’t be afraid of the circuses.
  6. If you want to change the world sometimes you have to slide down the obstacle head first.
  7. So, if you want to change the world, don’t back down from the sharks.
  8. If you want to change the world, you must be your very best in the darkest moment.
  9. So, if you want to change the world, start singing when you’re up to your neck in mud.
  10. If you want to change the world don’t ever, ever ring the bell.

“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 take 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 and what started here will indeed have changed the world—for the better.”

Most of us won’t be Navy SEALs but we can pursue the character traits necessary to impact the world around us-beginning with our school-for the good. It’s important to note that the Admiral is not saying that much, if any of this, is possible through sheer force of willpower or acting alone. Being strong as an individual is certainly important but, like so many other things, that’s a muscle that must be developed. More important is the strength of the community of which you are a part and choosing to surround yourselves with great people-adults and peers-who will be those that will “help you through life.” My own life attests to that, from high school, through college, and continuing today. We all have a lot to learn and so much to look forward to.

Read or watch the entirety of Admiral McCraven’s speech here.