A few years ago a commencement speech given at the University of Texas by a retired Navy SEAL and Navy Admiral went viral. The message of the speech? Make your bed and you can change the world.
My guest today is the man who gave that speech and he’s recently published a book where he expands on the ideas he told UT college students back in 2014. His name is Admiral William McRaven and his book is Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life… And Maybe the World.
Today on the show, Admiral McRaven and I discuss why something as simple as making your bed every day can lay the foundation for success in every aspect of your life, how a parachuting accident taught him an important lesson on avoiding self-pity and learning to rely on the help of others, and why rolling in the sand as a SEAL trainee taught him how to become more resilient to the whims of life. We end our conversation by talking about how a leader can remain hopeful and share that hope with his team when all seems hopeless, and what you have to do to avoid “ringing the bell.”
This podcast will leave you fired up to make your bed, and become a better man.
- How can making your bed change the world?
- While nailing your first task of the day makes all the difference
- Why it’s okay to not get and/or expect praise for doing things well
- Admiral McRaven’s parachuting accident and how he overcame that setback
- What are “sugar cookies” in SEAL training and how does it build resilience?
- How failure can make your stronger — literally
- How you stay your best in dark moments
- Why you should sing in the mud
- The iconic bell of SEAL training, and how to stop yourself from ringing it
- Taking it one evolution at a time
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- Make Your Bed, Change the World original commencement speech
- How to Make Your Bed With Hospital Corners
- How to Create Habits That Stick
- What It Really Means to Be Self-Reliant
- My podcast with Angela Duckworth about the importance of grit
- General John Kelly
- Tommy Norris
- The Navy SEAL bell
Make Your Bed is a quick read, but is packed with actionable advice. Makes a great gift for a recent grad, and get a copy for yourself while you’re at it.
Connect With Admiral Bill McRaven
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. Well, a few years ago a commencement speech was given at the University of Texas by a former Navy SEAL and Navy Admiral that went viral. The message of that speech? Make your bed and you can change the world. Well, my guest today is the man who gave that speech and he’s recently published a book where he expands on the ideas he told UT college students back in 2014. His name is Admiral William McRaven and his book is Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Your Life … And Maybe the World.
Today on the show, Admiral McRaven and I discuss why something as simple as making your bed every day can lay the foundation for success in every aspect of your life, how a parachuting accident taught him an important lesson in avoiding self-pity and learning how to rely on others for help, and why rolling in the sand as a SEAL trainee taught him how to become more resilient to the whims of life. We end our conversation talking about how a leader can remain hopeful and share that hope with his team when all seems hopeless and what do you have to do to avoid ringing the bell.
This podcast will leave you fired up to make your bed and become a better man. After the show’s over, check out the show notes at AOM.is/Makeyourbed.
Admiral McRaven, welcome to the show.
Admiral McRaven: Thanks. Good to be here.
Brett McKay: Couple of years ago, you gave a commencement speech at the University of Texas. I’m an OU fan, so I don’t know how we’re going to do this here, but um …
Admiral McRaven: We’ll do just fine.
Brett McKay: We’ll do fine.
Admiral McRaven: We’ll take it out of the Red River Rivalry.
Brett McKay: Right. Right.
Well, this commencement speech you gave went viral and then you’ve just come out with the book where you expand on this commencement speech you gave. In the commencement speech the thing that stuck home with a lot of people was this idea of making your bed can change the world. How so? How can making your bed and paying attention to small details change the world?
Admiral McRaven: Yeah. You know, it’s interesting. I think probably most of our parents raised us to kind of make our bed and mine were no different. My mother was a teacher from Texas and my father was a military officer. Growing up, they always told me when I got up, “Make your bed.” But I’m not sure I really understood why that was important.
When I went to SEAL training, here we were, we’d come to SEAL training to become kind of battle hardened SEALs and in fact, the first thing we did every single day was we had a uniform inspection and we had a bed inspection. It became clear as I went through training and, frankly, as I went through the rest of my military career, why that was important.
The point was, one, it is the first take you do of the day. If you do it well it encourages you to do other tasks and others tasks and other tasks and so it kind of starts your day off right. But the other part of this is little things matter.
So, for the SEAL instructors, you were given very specific guidelines on how to make your bed. You had to have hospital corners at a 45 degree angle, your pillow had to be positioned right at the base of the headboard and right in the middle, the blanket had to be folded correctly, and they wanted to make sure that you did it to exacting standards. Their point was, “Look, if you can’t even make your bed right, how are you ever going to run a SEAL mission?”
In addition to it being the first task of the day, the fact of the matter was the little things in life matter. Do the little things well and you’ll end up doing the big things equally well.
Brett McKay: The other point you made is that you’re not going to get praise for these things. It’s just something you have to do. No one’s going to slap you on the back for making your bed or doing these small tasks.
Admiral McRaven: Right. Well, part of SEAL training also was learning how to fail, but you’re right. Routinely you would do something that was exceptional, your uniform would look great, your brass was great, your shoes were polished, you had excelled, but the instructors didn’t really care because, hey, that’s the standard. You want to be great. This is what the expectation is. Don’t expect somebody’s going to come around and give you a participation trophy or a pat on the back. Do your job and do it to the very best that you can.
Brett McKay: In one section you talk about a parachuting accident you had. Can you tell us a little bit about that and how you overcame that set back?
Admiral McRaven: Yeah. This was in 2001. We were going out for a routine training jump, free fall jump, and a beautiful California day in San Diego. We were jumping from 12,999 feet, right below 13,000, and normally on a jump like that you jump out and about 5,000 you look around, you wave off, as we say, to make sure the people around you know you’re going to pull, and you pull your ripcord.
Well, in that particular day, I jumped out and everything was going fine and as I got to about 5,500 feet I looked below me and a jumper had slid below me. So, he was a couple of hundred feet me and I realized that I needed to move out of his way, but I didn’t move out fast enough. He opened his parachute and in relative terms, of course, he was coming up while I was going down, so I hit his parachute as he was moving upward in relative motion.
I spun around. Kind of knocked me a little bit, I don’t want to say it completely knocked me out, but it dazed me. I didn’t know where I was in terms of distance to the ground, so I pulled my parachute. When I pulled the ripcord, the pilot chute wrapped around one leg and the riser around the other, and I was falling, and my parachute had not opened. As I’m falling kind of headfirst to the ground tangled up in the parachute, the good news was the parachute opened. The bad news was when it opened it was wrapped around my legs and it basically broke my body in half, one leg going one way, one leg going the other. Broke my pelvis, ripped the muscles out of my stomach, broke part of my back.
The point in the book was that I had to recuperate. I had to recover. As tough as I was, and I was in command of all the SEALs on the West Coast at the time, I’d had a lot of incidents in my life that were kind of near life threatening, but I’d always managed to get out of them. But not this time. As I lay in my hospital bed, it took a lot of people to get me up out of that bed, to save my career. My wife ended up doing nursing duties. My boss Admiral Eric Olson helped me in my career. Friends came by. You realize at that point in time that I don’t care how tough you are, you need other people to help you make it through life.
That was a little bit of the moral of that story. But I will also tell you that my accident pales in comparison to the injuries and the wounds that I saw in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan and other places. These young men and women today, the wounds that they suffer from IEDs and from gunshot wounds put it all in perspective, but even those folks when that happens, we all need a little bit of help making it through life.
Brett McKay: Well, I’m sure. Was that hard for you? I’m sure it’s hard for a lot of soldiers who are very self-reliant and want to pull their weight. Was that hard for you to take help?
Admiral McRaven: Yeah. It was. Again, I had been, as you pointed out, self-reliant for my whole life and my whole career. Then all of a sudden, you know, I can’t even walk. I need somebody to get me out of bed. I need somebody to change my bed pan. I need physical therapists to come by. My career looked like it was over. I needed somebody to get my career back on track. All of a sudden you realize that there are a whole lot of people out there at the end of the day that you are probably reliant on whether you know it or not, but when you have an event like that, an accident like that, you begin to find out who those people are and you’re very, very appreciative of everything they do to take care of you.
Brett McKay: Throughout the book you talk about SEAL training and one aspect of SEAL training is sugar cookies. What are the sugar cookies and what did the sugar cookies teach you about being resilient?
Admiral McRaven: Well, the sugar cookie is a term we use when you are required to go jump in the ocean, so jump in the surf zone and you’re in full uniform. Back then we wore these green utility uniforms. You go jump in the surf zone and then you come back on the beach and you roll around in the sand until you are covered head to toe in sand, therefore the term sugar cookie.
The point about the sugar cookie that really bothered a lot of the trainees, the students, was that it was very arbitrary. There were certain events when you failed an event, a timed run or a timed swim, you knew you had failed it and therefore you knew that there would be some sort of accountability and harassment and punishment to follow, but in the case of the sugar cookie, sometimes it was just if an instructor didn’t like you, if the instructor just didn’t think something was right, you could become a sugar cookie. The arbitrariness of it bothered a lot of the students.
There were days, I remember a young officer that was with me, he would always have a perfect uniform. The hat was perfectly starched, the uniform looked great, his brass was polished, the boots shined, but every morning he would be told to get a sugar cookie, go jump in the surf and roll around, and he just didn’t understand it. The point the instructors were trying to make was, hey, look. Life’s not fair. Some days you are perfect, you give everything you’ve got, and life still punches you in the gut.
This was, I think, the lesson they were trying to teach is, hey, get over it. Don’t wallow in self-pity. You’re better than that. Just keep moving forward.
Brett McKay: I’m sure that’s an important mindset for a SEAL to have because you can do everything right on a mission, but things out of your control just break up your plans.
Another aspect of SEAL training was the circus, which also seemed unfair and terrible. What’s the circus in SEAL training and what did that teach you about becoming stronger?
Admiral McRaven: The circus was a little different in that the circus was actually a function of whether you failed an event. If you didn’t make a timed run, if you didn’t make your swim on time or you came in last in a swim, then the circus was generally an additional one and a half to two hours of additional physical training at the end of every day. The hard part about the circus was you would go all day doing physical training. I mean, you’d start off the morning early with a long run and then a long swim and then an obstacle course and then more calisthenics. I mean that was the nature of the average day at SEAL training. Then when everybody went home, if you’d made the circus list, then you had an additional two hours.
The problem is the next day you would come in, you’d be exhausted, and invariably you wouldn’t make the run time again and so it could become a bit of a death spiral in terms of your ability to hang tough and to kind of get over these failures. A lot of those students, again, had trouble realizing that “I’m never going to get out of this death spiral because every day it looks like I fail another event. I’m back in another circus.” But what we found, my swim buddy Mark Thomas and I found that, and while we weren’t in the circuses every day, we were in enough of them, and if you did the additional two hours, if you failed and then you were held responsible, but you worked through it, you had more push-ups, more pull ups, more sit-ups, you actually became stronger.
The point of the message was sometimes failure can make you stronger. If you learn from the lessons, if you hang in there and just keep pushing through the failure, at the end of the day you come out on the other end. I tell the story of Mark Thomas and I who were not particularly a good swim pair. We were almost always invariably last in the swims, so we would find ourselves frequently at the circuses, but on the very last swim of the SEAL training, we ended up being first. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that Mark and I had a lot of extra physical training.
Brett McKay: How’d you push yourself through that? When you’re going to circus after circus, is it just pure grit? You’ve just got to find something inside of you to keep going? I’m sure a lot of guys give up. I’m sure a lot of guys ring the bell when they got caught in the circus.
Admiral McRaven: Well, that’s exactly right because I think they realize that “My gosh, I am in this death spiral. If I have to go two or three circuses in a row, will I ever be able to make it?” A lot of them did ring the bell.
I think it’s like anything else in SEAL training or in life. We’re all going to have tough times. Point is you have to work through them. You just don’t quit. It’s not rocket science. It’s not deeply profound. You just don’t quit.
Again, whether it’s SEAL training or something else in life, we’re all going to get stuck in the circus at some point in time. Hang in there. Work through the tough times and you’ll be fine on the other end of it.
Brett McKay: So, there’s a section you titled Be Your Very Best In The Darkest Occasions. You’ve gone through some dark occasions. Your parachute accident and then you’ve also had to, you know, you’re in charge of the SEALS and I’m sure you were in charge of missions where men died or injured. How do you stay your best in those dark moments when all you want to do is wallow in self-pity, moan and groan? Are there any tactics you use to just keep your best?
Admiral McRaven: Yeah. I think this is a recognition that in all of us there is something inside of us. I’m convinced that every man and woman has it within them to rise to the occasion in these dark moments. The point of the story was I’ve seen this. I’ve seen it time and time and time again when families came together, when brothers who lost brothers stepped up to help the mother and father who had had to go through this terrible tragedy. Entire towns came out when a young ranger was killed and you saw people rising to the occasion in their dark moments.
This is not something I think you can, you can’t train for it. I don’t know that anybody can teach you how to do well in a dark moment. The point is, I think you have to realize that we all have it within us to overcome those dark moments. You have to dig deep to find it, but I think it’s in every one of us. I’ve seen it in young men, young ladies who overcome terrible tragedies and keep going and they are the last people, maybe, you would have expected to rise to the occasion, but they do because I’m convinced it’s been put inside all of us and you just have to look hard for it.
Brett McKay: That leads to one section you talk about providing hope as a leader when all seems hopeless. I guess, part of that is just setting the example because courage is contagious.
Admiral McRaven: Exactly right. I talk about, in the book, start singing when you’re up to your neck in mud and that refers to an event called Hell Week that we have as we go through training. Back in the day, when I went through, they had these things called the mud flats. The mud flats were three or four feet deep of mud and you would have to sit in the mud and you were up to your neck in mud. It was cold and it was wet and they generally had this about the third day of Hell Week, so Hell Week was for us six days of no sleep, constant harassment by the instructors to weed out those that didn’t really want to be SEALS.
The third day of Hell Week was down at the mud flats. By this time you haven’t slept in a couple of days and you’re right on the beach so the wind is howling and it’s cold. I remember one point in time we were all in the mud and it’s dark outside and the instructor came up and he had a cup of coffee in his hand and there was a fire nearby and a couple of the other instructors were hanging around the fire and he said, “Hey, look. This is easy guys.” He said, “Why don’t y’all come on out. Look, you know, you’ve got a cup of coffee here. We even have some chicken soup. Kind of sit by the fire. It’s all easy. Easy. All I need is for five of you to quit. If five of you quit, then the rest of the class can come on out here.”
Of course, he was baiting the class, but there was a guy right next to me, we were all at arm’s length, and I remember the guy next to me starting to bolt. He was ready to have that cup of coffee and the fire. And then one of the trainees started singing. I’m often asked what was the song? I’ve told people not a song I can repeat in mixed company or in public, but having said that, others started singing as well. The instructors, of course, got mad, so we ended up staying in the mud for another hour or so. We did not get out and get our cup of coffee, but the point was that one individual gave the rest of us hope.
I think in the book I talk about General John Kelly, who is now the Secretary of Homeland Security, and he had lost his son in combat. I watched as he and others, but he in particular, we all had to go to Dover to greet the families who had loved ones that were killed when we had a helicopter shoot down in Afghanistan. John Kelly was able to talk to these families in a way that nobody else could and all of us around him, we were inspired by how he inspired the families and how he and his wife overcame this terrible tragedy that they had to deal with.
One person can truly make a difference whether you’re a John Kelly or whether you’re a guy stuck in the mud flats.
Brett McKay: Speaking of people who can make a difference, one guy you highlight in your book is a former SEAL, Tommy Norris. Can you tell us a little bit about him and the lessons he taught you.
Admiral McRaven: Well, Tommy Norris is a great story because if you were to meet Tommy Norris on the street, you might not give him a second look. He’s of medium stature, kind of small framed, not the kind of guy you would think of as a big tough Navy SEAL. The story I tell in the book is the first time I met Tommy Norris, I was at the SEAL compound, the headquarters. I was a senior in college and I was going there just to have a quick discussion with one of the SEAL instructors to find out what training was all about. I looked down the hall and I saw this fellow down the hall, again, small-framed individual, and in my own mind I was thinking, “Does this guy really think he could be a Navy SEAL?” Because my impression was all Navy SEALs were 6’2″ or 6’4″, 220 pounds, muscle-bound. And I remember thinking, “This poor guy,” because he was looking at pictures of Vietnam Era SEALS.
It wasn’t until later that morning when all of a sudden I was introduced to him and the introduction was, “Bill, this is Tommy Norris. He was the last SEAL Medal of Honor recipient from Vietnam.” Of course, you realize that, well, “Yeah, I think this guy’ll make it through SEAL training.” Not only will he make it through SEAL training, he went on to be one of the legends in the community and of course, went on to being on the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team as well.
The point was it’s easy to mistake folks. It’s really all about our heart. It doesn’t have anything to do with how fast you are, how strong you are. It’s all in your heart. With Tommy Norris, he was one of the gutsiest guys in the history of the SEAL teams, but also one of the more modest, humble guys you’ll ever meet.
Brett McKay: Love that. Last question before we go. Everyone knows about the iconic bell at SEAL training. You ring it and you’re out. What do you tell the folks who have their own bell, whatever that is in their life, and they’re just so tempted to ring it? How do you stop yourself from ringing it when everything in you wants to do that?
Admiral McRaven: Well, when we go through SEAL training, a lot of times we have this philosophy of take it one evolution at a time. The philosophy is you’re going to become a frogman, a Navy SEAL is a frogman from the World War II days, so you start off as a tadpole and you are evolving from a tadpole to a frogman. So, we call them evolutions. They’re separate events.
What happens a lot of times is the students will look too far down the event horizon. They’ll wake up in the morning and, of course, the first thing you do is an hour and a half of calisthenics and you’re tired and you’re exhausted and you’re looking at that bell because it’s in the compound. It’s in the courtyard where we do our physical training and it seems to be ever present. If at that point in time when you are the most tired you look at that bell and you say, “Gosh a mighty. You know. The next evolution we have is going to be a long run and then after that we’re going to have a long swim and then after that we’re going to do an obstacle course and then after that…” Those students didn’t make it. They saw the bell and they just decided that they couldn’t keep going.
Sometimes it’s important to realize that you take it one event at a time. You’re going to have difficult times in your life. Try not to look too far down the road. Just handle the problem as it is right now, get over that, and then you’ll have the energy. You’ll have the inspiration, the fortitude to keep going.
I remember very early on in training, one of the instructors came out and he was kind of very proform, if you will. He said, “Gentlemen, you know, you’re here in the toughest military training in the world and all you have to do to quit is ring this bell. If you quit you won’t have to do the long runs, you won’t have to do the long swims anymore.” And then I remember he clearly kind of broke form and he was a Navy SEAL and he looked at all of us and there were about 150-55 of us when we started and he said, “But gentlemen, let me tell you something. If you quit you will regret it for the rest of your life.”
I think he was right. I think if you’re pursuing anything, I don’t care what you’re pursuing. If you want to be a doctor or a lawyer or a great musician or whatever you want to do in life. There are going to be times when you get beaten down, when you don’t think you’re going to make it, you just don’t quit. That bell will be in front of every person at some point in time in their life. When you see it, just realize that just keep going, put the bell behind you, and life will work out if you just don’t quit.
Brett McKay: Well, Admiral McRaven, this has been a fantastic conversation. Where can people find out more about your book?
Admiral McRaven: Thanks. Well, the book’s on sale at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, all the other distributors. It’s called Make Your Bed.
I think people will find it inspiring because it’s about the people that inspired me and there are a lot of them out there. I talk in my last story about Adam Bates, a young man who lost both of his legs, but he represents every single soldier, sailor, airman, and marine that ever served that had to go through tough times. But of course, it’s not just those in the military. We all encounter tough times at some point in time. I’m hoping that this small book called Make Your Bed will help people when they encounter those tough times.
Brett McKay: Admiral McRaven, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Admiral McRaven: The pleasure’s mine. Thank you very much.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Admiral William McRaven. He is the author of the book Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life … And Maybe The World. It’s available on Amazon.com. It’s a great book for college grads. Even if you’re not a college grad, go pick up this book. It’ll leave you fired up.
Also, check out show notes at AOM.is/makeyourbed where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com and if you enjoy this show or have got something out of it, I’d appreciate it if you’d give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. It helps us out a lot.
As always, thank you for your continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.