If You Want to Change the World …

July 7, 2015

I don’t generally repost other people’s writings. Today is an exception. This morning, I thought about this speech while I was making our bed after breakfast. (That will make sense as you read on.) After first reading it more than a year ago on SOFREP, my friend Brandon Webb’s site, I’ve been wanting to share it here. Today, in honor of Independence Day, I figured it’s about time.

What follows is a commencement speech given at the University of Texas, Austin, in May 2014, by Naval Admiral William H. McRaven. In June 2000, Captain McRaven (he was still a captain back then) was the man who signed Brandon’s certificate of graduation when he completed SEAL sniper school. More than a decade later, now a four-star admiral, he would be credited with organizing and executing Operation Neptune’s Spear, the spec ops mission that killed Osama bin Laden. The following month he was made commander of SOCOM, the entire U.S. Special Operations Command. When this man talks about changing the world, it’s not just theory … even when he starts out by suggesting you make your bed every day. — JDM

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 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 that 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 that evening — 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.

The University’s slogan is, “What starts here changes the world.” I have to admit: I kind of like it.

“What starts here changes the world.”

Tonight there are almost 8,000 students graduating from UT.

That great paragon of analytical rigor, Ask.Com, says that the average American will meet 10,000 people in their life time. That’s a lot of folks. But if every one of you changed the lives of just ten people, and each one of those folks changed the lives of another ten people — just ten — then in five generations, 125 years, the class of 2014 will have changed the lives of 800 million people.

800 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 — 8 billion people.

And if you think it’s hard to change the lives of ten people, to 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 ten soldiers in his squad are saved from close-in ambush.

In Kandahar province, Afghanistan, a non-commissioned officer from the Female Engagement Team senses something isn’t right and directs the infantry platoon away from a 500-pound IED, saving the lives of a dozen soldiers.

Not only were these soldiers saved by the decisions of one person, but their children yet unborn were also saved. And their children’s children were saved.

Generations were saved by one decision. By one person.

Changing the world can happen anywhere, and anyone can do it.

So, what starts here can indeed change the world. The question is, what will the world look like after you change it? 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 a 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 (BUD/S) 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 ten lessons I learned from basic SEAL training that I hope will be of value to you as you move forward in life.

1) If you want to change the world, make your bed.

Every morning in basic SEAL training, my instructors, who were all Vietnam War veterans, would show up in our 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 (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.

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.

During SEAL training the students are 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. 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 tossed 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 good will of strangers, and a strong coxswain to guide them.

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.

Over the first 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 the little guys — the munchkin crew, we called them — not one of them over five-foot-five.

The munchkin boat crew had one Native American, 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.

Prior to every swim, 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. 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. Not your color, not your ethnic background, not your education, not your social status, and not even your height.

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.

Several times a week, the instructors would line up the class and do a uniform inspection. It was exceptionally thorough. Your hat had to be perfectly starched, your uniform immaculately pressed, and your belt buckle shiny and devoid of any smudges.

But it seemed that no matter how much effort you put into starching your hat, or pressing your uniform, or polishing your belt buckle, it just wasn’t good enough.

The instructors would always find something wrong.

For failing the uniform inspection, the student had to run, fully clothed, into the surf zone and then, wet from head to toe, roll around on the beach until every part of his body was covered with sand. This effect was known as a “sugar cookie.”

You stayed in that soaked and sand-coated uniform for the rest of the day — cold, wet, and sandy.

There were many students who just could not accept the fact that all their effort was in vain. That no matter how hard they tried to get the uniform right, it was unappreciated.

Those students didn’t make it through training.

Those students didn’t understand the purpose of the drill. 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.

If you want to change the world get over being a sugar cookie and keep moving forward.

5) If you want to change the world, don’t be afraid of the circuses.

Every day during training you were challenged with multiple physical events: long runs, long swims, obstacle courses, hours of calisthenics, something designed to test your mettle.

Every event had its standards, times you had to meet. If you failed to meet those standards, your name was posted on a list and at the end of the day those on the list were invited to … a “circus.”

Yes, a circus.

A circus was two hours of additional calisthenics, designed to wear you down, to break your spirit, to force you to quit.

No one wanted a circus.

A circus meant that for that day, you didn’t measure up. A circus meant more fatigue, and more fatigue meant that the following day would be more difficult — and more circuses were likely.

At some point during SEAL training, everyone — everyone — made the circus list.

But an interesting thing happened to those who were constantly on the list. Over time those students who repeatedly did those two hours of extra calisthenics got stronger and stronger.

The pain of the circuses built inner strength — built physical resiliency.

Life is filled with circuses.

You will fail. You will likely fail often. It will be painful. It will be discouraging. At times it will test you to your very core.

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.

At least twice a week, the trainees were required to run the obstacle course. The obstacle course contained 25 obstacles, including a ten-foot-high wall, a thirty-foot cargo net, and a barbed wire crawl, to name just a few.

The most challenging obstacle was the “slide for life.” This one had a three-level thirty-foot tower at one end and a one-level tower at the other. Between the two was a 200-foot-long rope.

You had to climb the three-tiered tower and then, once at the top, you grabbed the rope, swung down underneath the rope, and pulled yourself across, hand over hand, until you reached the other end.

When my class began training in 1977, the time record for the entire obstacle course had stood for years. It seemed unbeatable.

Until one day, when a student in my class decided to go down the slide for life head first.

Instead of swinging his body underneath the rope and inching his way down, 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 training. Yet without hesitation the student slid down the rope, perilously fast, and instead of several minutes it took him only half that time.

By the end of the course he had broken the record.

If you want to change the world, sometimes you have to slide down the obstacle head first.

7) If you want to change the world, don’t back down from the sharks.

During the land warfare phase of training, the students are flown out to San Clemente Island, which lies far off the coast of San Diego.

The waters off San Clemente are a breeding ground for the great white sharks. To pass SEAL training there are a series of long swims that must be completed. One of these is the night swim.

Before the swim the instructors joyfully brief the trainees on all the species of sharks that inhabit the waters off San Clemente.

They assure you, however, that no student has ever been eaten by a shark — at least not recently.

You are also taught that 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, should dart toward you, you are told, 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.

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.

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

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 at least 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 light from 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 centerline 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 the most calm and composed, the moment when all your tactical skills, all your physical power, and all your inner strength must be brought to bear.

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

9) If you want to change the world, start singing when you’re up to your neck in mud.

The ninth week of training is referred to as Hell Week. This is six days of no sleep, constant physical and mental harassment, and one special day at the Mud Flats. The Mud Flats are an area between San Diego and Tijuana where the water runs off and creates the Tijuana slues: a swampy patch of terrain where the mud will engulf you.

It is on Wednesday of Hell Week that you paddle down to the Mud Flats and spend the next 15 hours trying to survive the freezing cold mud, the howling wind, and the incessant pressure to quit from the instructors.

As the sun began to set that Wednesday evening, my training class, having committed some “egregious infraction of the rules,” was ordered into the mud.

The mud consumed each man until there was nothing visible but our heads. The instructors told us we could leave the mud if only five men would quit. Just five men, and we could all get out of the oppressive cold.

Looking around the Mud Flats, it was apparent that some students were about to give up. It would still be more than right hours till the sun came up — eight more hours of bone-chilling cold.

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, 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.

If I have learned anything in my time traveling the world, it is the power of hope. The power of one person — Washington, Lincoln, King, Mandela, or even a young girl from Pakistan named Malala — one person can change the world by giving people hope.

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.

Finally, 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 five o’clock every morning.

Ring the bell, and you no longer have to do the freezing cold swims.

Ring the bell, and you no longer have to do the runs, the obstacle course, the PT, or endure all the other the hardships of SEAL training.

Just ring the bell.

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

To the graduating class of 2014: you are moments away from graduating. Moments away from beginning your journey through life. Moments away from starting to change the world for the better. It will not be easy. But you are the class of 2014 — the class that can affect the lives of 800 million people in the next century.

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.

Thank you very much. Hook ’em, Horns.



  1. Anna Bassett

    Hey John,

    Wow … this is wonderful and Bob and I are glad you reposted this!!

    There are so many lessons to be learned from this article and we can use it all in our daily lives and businesses.

    It’s all about helping and supporting each other and knowing that we can count on each other to do the best we can.

    Challenge yourself daily and never quit!!

    Be the best you can be and help others do the same.

    Thank you, John

    Warmest Regards,

    Bob and Anna Bassett

    • John David Mann

      Thanks, Anna — always great to hear from you folks! I’m working on a book right now with, among others, a Canadian sniper … we have great friends next door!

  2. Laura Steward

    I would be searching for paper if that was my commencement speaker. WOW. It really hit me hard. Each point he made and has given me renewed hope that I can make it out of this circus I have been in for so long now. Thank you for sharing it.

    • John David Mann

      Me too — scrambling to write down every word. McRaven’s talk was reprinted in scores of places, from websites to the Wall Street Journal. Not only inspiring, but tremendously practical.

  3. Mark Given

    Once again John……..you are the man!

    • John David Mann

      That’s a given! (Heh heh.)


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Free E-Book on iPad

Get “How to Write Good” download FREE

You may not be a published writer. But everyone tells stories. For a limited time, you can download “How to Write Good (Or At Least, Gooder)” for free. Right now this 130-page book is a JDM Readers Club exclusive. PLUS when you do you get an additional bonus free gift.

Find out more Logos