Admiral William H. McRaven offers aphoristic life advice underscored by a Navy officer’s viewpoint.
William H. McRaven was a United States Navy SEAL for 37 years. Having led troops and served in combat, he became the commander of all US special operations forces prior to his retirement.
In this #1 New York Times bestseller, McRaven asserts that committing to acts of discipline, completing incremental tasks and persevering are what matter most. He offers a short collection of aphoristic advice punctuated with stories from his distinguished military career. McRaven’s unique perspective – and surprising humility from such a tough warrior – may inspire you even as his simplistic viewpoint may tweak your impatience.
Making my bed correctly was not going to be an opportunity for praise. It was expected of me.William H. McRaven
McRaven explains that the ultimate test of a well-made bed is to bounce a quarter on it. Making your bed correctly, he insists, builds discipline. No matter what happens for the rest of the day, if you make your bed properly, you have the satisfaction of completing one task well. Readers who find excessive order oppressive or anathema to a creative outlook may disagree. Throughout McRaven’s naval career, he relates, he always made his bed. You may think: What a sound basis for a disciplined life. Or, you may think, as he notes, what else would you expect?
McRaven was recovering from a parachuting injury when terrorists struck the New York City’s World Trade Towers and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. Noticing his self-pity at his enforced passivity, McRaven’s wife Georgeann reminded him that he’d never been a quitter and, she said, he wasn’t going to become one. McRaven credits her extremely tough love as an inspiration.
I sometimes fell short of being the best, but I never fell short of giving it my best. William H. McRaven
By the fall of 2003, he recounts, he was in Iraq, sleeping in a sleeping bag on an Army cot. Every morning, he neatly rolled up his bag and centered his pillow. McRaven claims – in his eyes imparting a significant lesson – that after US forces captured Saddam Hussein and provided him with an Army cot with sheets and blankets, Hussein never, ever made his bed. McRaven apparently doesn’t consider that as Iraq’s supreme ruler for decades, Hussein had an infinity of servants and most likely never made a bed in his adult life.
Navy SEALs-in-training must prove that their size, ethnicity, background, economic status or lack of a specific talent don’t matter. After assuming that a SEAL he met was too small to survive the rigorous training, McRaven reports his shock at learning the man was Lieutenant Tom Norris, a legendary SEAL known for daring missions during the Vietnam War. Renowned for his toughness, Norris almost didn’t gain admittance to SEAL training because recruiters thought he was too small. McRaven laughed at himself for assuming that anything mattered more than the size of a person’s heart – a lesson that exemplifies the book’s themes.
During his training, McRaven remembers his instructor zeroed in on him for a minor infraction. As punishment, McRaven had to jump into the ocean, fall facedown on the beach and roll around until he was covered with sand. For many trainees, the random nature of such punishment was its most difficult aspect of training.
If you fill your days with pity…blaming your circumstances on someone or something else, then life will be long and hard.William H. McRaven
The author underscores that the Navy expects SEALS to make their best effort constantly, so officers never praise mere strong efforts. Lt. Phillip “Moki” Martin, McRaven’s instructor, told him, for example, that his punishment sprang from life being unfair and that he should simply accept that. And, McRaven insists, he did. A year later, a biking accident paralyzed Martin. In the ensuing 35 years, McRaven never heard Martin complain. The author admires how Martin persevered and went on to become an accomplished painter.
In 1983, the Navy fired McRaven as a squadron leader. His next assignment was running a 12-man platoon in a remote location. Failure taught him that everybody makes mistakes, so learn from your errors and more on. The resilience lesson he drew from his military experience is now featured in nearly every business book.
You will face a lot of Circuses. You will pay for your failures. But, if you persevere, if you let those failures teach you and strengthen you, then you will be prepared to handle life’s toughest moments.William H. McRaven
Special operations forces embrace high risks, but they think through each step carefully based on understanding their capacity and skill. Hammering his central lesson, McRaven warns that living in constant fear of failure squanders your potential. You won’t know what you can achieve, he avows, unless you try. If you lack courage you let external forces define your life. Instead, if you have courage, you can stand up to bullies and triumph over evil.
During Hell Week, SEAL boot campers face nonstop training and punishing challenges with no sleep and constant harassment. Trainees carry out constant, exhausting exercises in chest-deep mud. McRaven recalls how a commanding officer tried to lure men to climb up from the mudflats and quit the SEALS, urging them to get out of the filth and come enjoy coffee and soup served by a fire.
We will all find ourselves neck deep in mud someday. That is the time to sing loudly, to smile broadly, to lift up those around you.William H. McRaven
All the men could join him by the fire, he said, if only five men quit the program. The man next to McRaven moved toward the food and warmth. McRaven knew if one man left, others would follow. Another man started singing a bawdy song all the trainees knew. Soon every trainee was singing, and not a single man quit. Thus, McRaven says, he learned how much one person can unite and inspire a group.
McRaven’s short, enjoyable collection of advice includes many ideas you’ve heard before – most, probably, in the Boy or Girl Scouts – but his unique perspective may intrigue readers who could otherwise reject a veteran’s willfully reductive approach to complex life problems. McRaven is not a simple thinker, even though he apparently enjoys concealing his complexity behind aphorisms and one-point tales.
It was my first task of the day, and doing it right was important. It demonstrated my discipline.William H. McRaven
McRaven relies on repetition in service of his primary mantra: that winners never quit and quitters never win, which, of course, simply isn’t true. However, his lessons and his approach prove applicable daily in the military and could bolster those facing tough challenges. However, most civilians may crave a more nuanced view, even as they marvel at McRaven’s commitment, courage, patriotism and sense of honor.
Admiral William H. McRaven’s books include Spec Ops, The Hero Code, Sea Stories and, for kids, Make Your Bed with Skipper the Seal, which he co-authored with Howard McWilliam.