5 Ways to Change the World According to a Navy SEAL Admiral

Buck Stewart
Feb 11 · 9 min read

Admiral William McRaven crashed into another jumper’s opened parachute.

The other jumper had slipped beneath McRaven and deployed his chute, not realizing someone was above him.

Unable to maneuver away, he crashed into the top of the opened chute. He bounced off, attempted to regain control of his plummeting body, and pulled the cord. As his parachute ripped from the pack, it wrapped itself around his leg, tearing his pelvis in two before untangling and fully deploying.

Admiral McRaven

The admiral discusses the myriad of ways in which he almost lost his life during his career with the Navy SEALs in his short but powerful book, Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life…And Maybe the World. He uses those experiences to highlight the lessons he’s learned along the way.

William McRaven commanded the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) from 2008 to 2011 where he most notably oversaw the mission that killed Osama bin Laden. He held numerous high ranking positions in the military before retiring as a four-star Admiral in August 2014.

Following his stellar military career, he accepted a position as the Chancellor of his alma mater, the University of Texas. There, he gave a commencement speech to the graduating class of 2014 that has since been viewed over 6 million times on YouTube.

2014 Commencement Speech

What made McRaven’s speech so popular among audiences? The fact that it was something we all need to hear from someone who has done it. His ways to “change yourself and maybe the world,” represent the basics.

I’ve always responded well to “tell it like it is” advise. My dad was well known around our neighborhood for giving us kids a good (metaphorical) kick in the pants when we were feeling down or sorry for ourselves. It wasn’t always what we wanted to hear, but it was always what we needed to hear.

His speech gave anyone who watched it the same kick in the pants.

Not in a way that makes you feel worse about your situation. But in a way that inspires you to get up. Dust yourself off. And keep moving forward.

In Make Your Bed, McRaven expands on his commencement speech, providing readers with a closer, but not overly detailed look at his experiences in both war and peace, and the lessons he was able to glean from those situations.

Below are 5 of those lessons to help you change yourself…and maybe the world.

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

Admiral McRaven began his commencement speech by explaining that any one decision has wider-reaching implications than we often recognize.

“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. But, if you think about it, 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.” -William McRaven

His military training instilled in him the importance of beginning every day with one consistent and disciplined decision. To make his bed.

Making your bed means, no matter how bad the rest of your day gets, you have accomplished at least one thing.

It is a small task upon which you can build others. It positions you to continue making purposeful decisions, decisions that could have significant implications.

The admiral has used this strategy throughout in his career, even at times when incapacitated. He knew that if he could make his bed, he could keep going.

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

During the grueling Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL Training (BUD/S) course, McRaven was working as hard as anyone to make it through. One day, while carrying out a training evolution, a BUD/S instructor told him to go become a “sugar cookie.” The term represents a process of diving into the cold Pacific Ocean, then rolling around on the beach until completely covered in sand, creating an appearance that resembles…a sugar cookie.

McRaven did as he was told. He returned to the instructor for an assessment of his new appearance. The instructor asked if he knew what he did wrong.

“No, Sir,” McRaven replied.

The instructor explained that sometimes you can do everything right and things will still go against you. The world isn’t fair, and the sooner you realize it the better off you’ll be.

Though we all know life isn’t fair, we still expect it to be. Excuses, arguing, and pointing the finger won’t change the situation. In fact, those responses often tend to make circumstances we view as “unfair” even worse.

The sooner we can accept that sometimes things don’t work out the way we think they should, the sooner we can move on.

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

There is a saying that is referenced frequently in writings about BUD/S.

“It pays to be a winner.”

During training evolutions, instructors break the BUD/S class into smaller sub-groups, pitting them against each other in competition.

The first team to finish is often given a longer respite and a lesser degree of physical punishment. The teams that come in last will face added pain and discomfort.

McRaven and another classmate came in last place during a swim. As punishment, they would be exposed to something referred to as the “circus.”

The circus is an intense calisthenics workout of hundreds of sit-ups, push-ups, pull-ups, burpees, and flutter kicks, among other exercises.

As the admiral describes it, “A circus was…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. But at some time during SEAL training, everyone — everyone — made the circus list.”

McRaven and his partner found themselves in circus after circus.

Though the temptation of quitting must have been increasingly alluring, the two kept at it and eventually, the circuses did as they were intended. The surge of effort made them stronger.

During the final swim test of the class, McRaven and his partner completed the evolution in first place. The circus, that almost certainly meant failure, made them both more physically capable and mentally resilient. Had they allowed the fear of the circus to consume their thoughts, they may have never become SEALs.

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

Pick up any Navy SEAL memoir, and you will inevitably find a chapter about the night swim. The night swim requires trainees to swim around San Clemente Island, which is surrounded by a multitude of different shark breeds, in the dark of night. Of particular concern, is the waters of San Clemente Island are notorious breeding grounds for Great White sharks.

McRaven recounts the advice of his instructor. “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, darts towards you — then summon up all your strength and punch him in the snout and he will turn and swim away.”

This advice serves as an excellent metaphor for the type of personalities one encounters in life. As McRaven puts it, “There are a lot of sharks in the world. If you hope to complete the swim you will have to deal with them.”

We encounter sharks from the day we first set foot in the schoolyard. Those same sharks grow up and have jobs in your workplace. At your gym. In the stands of your kid’s little league games. Part of life is learning to exhibit courage when the sharks are lurking.

“Without courage, the bullies of the world rise up. With it, you can accomplish any goal. With it, you can defy and defeat evil.” — William McRaven

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

McRaven describes a training evolution in which instructors forced the class to wade into freezing mud pits up to their necks. It was the middle of the night, and the class was to remain there until dismissed. The instructors offered a hot meal and warm blanket to the class, if they would just ring the bell. In BUD/S, the instructors carry a bell everywhere they go. In order to quit the class, one must only ring the bell.

As McRaven shivered in the mud, he witnessed another classmate move toward the shore. He attempted to grab the classmate’s arm, but the individual brushed it off and kept walking. Before his classmate could reach the shore, another person started singing. Another joined in. Then another. Soon the whole class became a chorus of resilience. The classmate quickly waded back into the water and joined in the singing.

“Once again, we had learned an important lesson: the power of one person to unite the group, the power of one person to inspire those around him, to give them hope. If that one person could sing while neck-deep in mud, then so could we.” -William McRaven

The admiral relates that experience to another example that he witnessed during a hospital visit to an injured soldier. McRaven stood bedside of the young man. The soldier remained unconscious following surgery after losing both of his legs. As the admiral started to leave a nurse stopped him and said the young man was awake and it would do him some good if the admiral said a few words.

The soldier was unable to speak but knew sign language. The nurse handed McRaven a sign language chart so the young man could communicate.

Overwhelmed by the sight, he could not muster any words to make the young man feel better about his predicament. Seeing that the admiral was struggling, the soldier signed “I’ll be okay” before falling back to sleep.

The moment was most certainly the darkest moment of that soldier’s life, but he harbored the belief that despite all evidence to the contrary, he would be okay.

“Life is filled with difficult times. But someone out there always has it worse than you do. If you fill your days with pity, sorrowful for the way you have been treated, bemoaning your lot in life, blaming your circumstances on someone or something else, then life will be long and hard. If, on the other hand, you refuse to give up on your dreams, stand tall and strong against the odds — then life will be what you make of it — and you can make it great.” -William McRaven


Admiral McRaven’s perspective and career are undoubtedly inspiring. But it’s what we do with that inspiration that helps us shape our own futures.

We look to examples like the Navy SEALs in general because they appear almost superhuman. We believe that if they can thrive in their careers, experiencing the trials and tribulations of combat, then we should be able to handle our 9 to 5 jobs with ease. But the reality is, they are human.

They make mistakes, they hurt, and they feel regret. And though many of our careers may never require us to swim in shark-infested waters or witness our colleagues lose their limbs, or worse, their lives, the same lessons apply.

Admiral McRaven makes his bed the same way as anyone else. But he makes it every day regardless of the situation.

After tearing his pelvis and remaining bed-ridden for months after his parachuting accident, he still made his bed to the best of his ability. He wanted to show that he was down but not out. And even if it was just the small, seemingly insignificant act of pulling his sheets to the top of the mattress, he knew that in the long run, that simple act would mean so much more for his ability to endure.

He knew that decision not only inspired his own recovery but the perspectives of his significant other, his doctors, and his shipmates. And with that inspiration, maybe they too would make a decision that could start a chain reaction that ultimately changes the world.

We hear stories of this type of resilience all the time. What is the piece they all have in common? It all begins with a will to succeed and a small step in the right direction, followed by another and another.

Make your bed.

If you enjoyed this article, please recommend it and check out my blog at www.theroadoftrials.com.

Originally published at www.theroadoftrials.com

Featured image courtesy of militarytimes.com.

Originally published at www.theroadoftrials.com

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness & fulfillment.

Buck Stewart

Written by

History Buff/Personal Development Enthusiast/Analyst. I run The Road of Trials, a site that teaches readers the life-changing value of embracing challenge

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness & fulfillment.