Here is the full transcript of Admiral William H. McRaven’s inspiring 2014 commencement address at University of Texas at Austin. This event occurred on May 17, 2014. To learn more about the speaker, read the full bio here.
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William H. McRaven – Former United States Navy admiral
Thank you very much. Thank you.
Well, thank you. President Powers, Provost Fenves, Deans, members of the faculty, family and friends and most importantly, the Class of 2014. It is indeed an honor for me to be here tonight.
It’s been almost 37 years to the day that I graduated from UT. I remember a lot of things about that day. I remember I had a throbbing headache from a party the night before. I remember I had a serious girlfriend, whom I later married — that’s important to remember by the way — and I remember I was getting commissioned in the Navy that day.
But of all the things I remember, I don’t have a clue who the commencement speaker was, and I certainly don’t remember anything they said. So, acknowledging that fact, if I can’t make this commencement speech memorable, I will at least try to make it short.
So the University’s slogan is: “What starts here changes the world.” Well, I’ve got to admit — I kind of like it. “What starts here changes the world.”
Tonight there are almost 8,000 students – or, there are more than 8000 students — graduating from UT. So that great paragon of analytical rigor, Ask.Com, says that the average American will meet 10,000 people in their lifetime. 10,000 people! That’s a lot of folks. But, if every one of you changed the lives of just 10 people — and each one of those people changed the lives of another 10 people and another 10, then in five generations — 125 years — the Class of 2014 will have changed the lives of 800 million people. 800 million people! Think about it. Over twice the population of the United States. Go one more generation and you can change the entire population of the world – 8 billion people.
If you think it’s hard to change the lives of 10 people — change their lives forever — you’re wrong. I saw it happen every day in Iraq and Afghanistan: A young Army officer makes a decision to go left instead of right down a road in Baghdad and the 10 soldiers with him are saved from a close-in ambush. In Kandahar province, Afghanistan, a non-commissioned officer from the Female Engagement Team senses that something isn’t right and directs the infantry platoon away from a 500-pound IED, saving the lives of a dozen soldiers.
But, if you think about it, not only were these soldiers saved by the decisions of one person, but their children were saved. And their children’s children. Generations were saved by one decision, by one person.
But changing the world can happen anywhere and anyone can do it. So, what starts here can indeed change the world, but the question is: what will the world look like after you change it?
Well, I am confident that it will look much, much better. But if you will humor this old sailor for just a moment, I have a few suggestions that may help you on your way to a better world. And while these lessons were learned during my time in the military, I can assure you that it matters not whether you ever served a day in uniform. It matters not your gender, your ethnic or religious background, your orientation or your social status.
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.
I have been a Navy SEAL for 36 years. But it all began when I left UT for Basic SEAL training in Coronado, California. Basic SEAL training is six months of long torturous runs in the soft sand, midnight swims in the cold water off San Diego, obstacles courses, unending calisthenics, days without sleep and always being cold, wet and miserable. It is six months of being constantly harassed by professionally trained warriors who seek to find the weak of mind and body and eliminate them from ever becoming a Navy SEAL.
But, the training also seeks to find those students who can lead in an environment of constant stress, chaos, failure and hardships. To me basic SEAL training was a lifetime of challenges crammed into six months.
So, here are the 10 lessons I learned from basic SEAL training that hopefully will be of value to you as you move forward in life.
- Make Your Bed Every Morning
Every morning in basic SEAL training, my instructors, who at the time were all Vietnam veterans, would show up in my barracks room and the first thing they would inspect was your bed. If you did it right, the corners would be square, the covers would be pulled tight, the pillow centered just under the headboard and the extra blanket folded neatly at the foot of the rack. It was a simple task — mundane at best. But every morning we were required to make our bed to perfection. It seemed a little ridiculous at the time, particularly in light of the fact that we were aspiring to be real warriors, tough battle-hardened SEALs, but the wisdom of this simple act has been proven to me many times over.
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. 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 in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you will never be able to do the big things right.
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.
So if you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.
- Find Someone to Help You Paddle
During SEAL training the students are all broken down into boat crews. Each crew is seven students — three on each side of a small rubber boat and one coxswain to help guide the dingy. Every day your boat crew forms up on the beach and is instructed to get through the surf zone and paddle several miles down the coast. In the winter, the surf off San Diego can get to be 8 to 10 feet high and it is exceedingly difficult to paddle through the plunging surf unless everyone digs in. Every paddle must be synchronized to the stroke count of the coxswain. Everyone must exert equal effort or the boat will turn against the wave and be unceremoniously dumped back on the beach.
For the boat to make it to its destination, everyone must paddle. 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. If you want to change the world, find someone to help you paddle.
- Measure a Person by the Size of Their Heart, Not by the Size of Their Flippers
Over a few weeks of difficult training my SEAL class, which started with 150 men, was down to just 35. There were now six boat crews of seven men each. I was in the boat with the tall guys, but the best boat crew we had was made up of little guys — the munchkin crew we called them — no one was over about five-foot-five.
The munchkin boat crew had one American Indian, one African American, one Polish American, one Greek American, one Italian American, and two tough kids from the Midwest. They out-paddled, out-ran and out-swam all the other boat crews. The big men in the other boat crews would always make goodnatured 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.