Friday, June 6, 2014

Graduation speech

As far as graduation speeches go, I never remember them. Though I've attended six of my own (preschool, kindergarten, middle and high schools, college, journalism school) and countless others, I can't recall who gave the speeches or what they were about. And it's not because I wasn't inspired or grateful. 

I'm a pretty sappy person (I will cry at graduations, weddings, recitals, first birthday parties, white coat ceremonies -- yes I'm that person) so you think I'd walk away remembering at least one wise morsel. I do remember the crying and feeling emotional. The snapping of photos. The slathering of sunscreen and still getting burnt to a crisp.  

This graduation speech, given by a US Navy Admiral at the University of Texas at Austin's commencement a few weeks ago, has been circulating the Internet. It's trending on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms and I think it's worth mentioning. 

Ten life lessons from a Navy SEAL. They're all good. I loved #1 because the lesson is so simple. And #8 really stuck with me. What about you?

#1. If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.

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 pulled tight, the pillow centered just under the headboard and the extra blanket folded neatly at the foot of the rack—rack—that’s Navy talk for bed.

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 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 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.

#8. If you want to change the world, you must be your very best in the darkest moment.

As Navy SEALs one of our jobs is to conduct underwater attacks against enemy shipping. We practiced this technique extensively during basic training.

The ship attack mission is where a pair of SEAL divers is dropped off outside an enemy harbor and then swims well over two miles—underwater—using nothing but a depth gauge and a compass to get to their target.

During the entire swim, even well below the surface there is some light that comes through. It is comforting to know that there is open water above you.

But as you approach the ship, which is tied to a pier, the light begins to fade. The steel structure of the ship blocks the moonlight—it blocks the surrounding street lamps—it blocks all ambient light.

To be successful in your mission, you have to swim under the ship and find the keel—the center line and the deepest part of the ship.

This is your objective. 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 must be calm, composed—when all your tactical skills, your physical power and all your inner strength must be brought to bear.

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 you take 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 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.


Illustration by Elaine Melko for the Chicago Tribune.

Interestingly enough, the commencement speaker, Admiral William H. McRaven, Commander of the US Special Operations Command, is a person of interest in the Oscar-nominated documentary, Dirty Wars (a must-see, by the way).