When Navy Adm. William H. McRaven took the podium at the University of Texas at Austin to deliver the commencement speech for the graduating class of 2014, few people beyond the military’s close-knit special operations community knew who he was.
Those who did probably knew McRaven from “Dirty Wars,” a 2013 documentary marketed as a revelatory investigation into the blood-soaked exploits of the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, which McRaven helmed between 2008–2011. In the film, McRaven is portrayed as the enigmatic commander of a ruthless commando unit who’d taken the Afghan War into his own hands. However, the McRaven who stood in his Navy dress uniform that May before 8,000 college seniors, telling them they had the power to make the world better a place, was no boogeyman. He was the soon-to-be-appointed chancellor of the largest public university system in Texas, and, while he may not have looked the part, he certainly sounded it. A video of the pep talk went viral.
“If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day,” goes the famous speech. “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.”
McRaven, who graduated from the University of Texas in 1977 with a bachelor’s in journalism, retired from the military after 36 years as a Navy SEAL, but it wasn’t until his commencement address that those who had followed his career finally gained some insight into how he managed to rise to the top. If there’s one overarching takeaway from that speech, it’s this: Whether you’re a sailor vying to earn the SEAL Trident, or a recent college grad with dreams of running a Fortune 500 company, failure is all but guaranteed unless you embrace the struggle. “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,” he said. It’s not the most original message, but coming from a guy who concluded a long and illustrious military career by orchestrating the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, it might as well be gospel.
With McRaven’s “Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life…and Maybe the World,” a book based on the famous 2014 commencement speech, due to hit shelves on April 4, Task & Purpose spoke with the 61-year-old chancellor about post-military life, the future of the Navy SEALs, journalism’s place on the battlefield, and more. Below is a slightly edited version of that conversation.
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give a veteran preparing to leave the military?
I would recommend to them — and it’s what I’ve told a lot of the veterans I’ve talked to — it’s better that you adjust to the workforce you are entering than expect the workforce to adjust to you. So you have to learn the language and you have to learn the culture of the organization you’re joining. I’ve had a chance to talk about my Army Green Berets a lot of times with this. The Green Berets are masters at recognizing when they’re interfacing with village elders in Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Africa, or Asia, or anywhere else, that it’s about recognizing their culture. It’s about becoming more like their culture than having to get the village elders in Afghanistan to wear uniforms and act military. So when you come into a civilian organization, the first thing you need to do is listen, and learn, and see how you can adapt to their culture. Then what happens is those great skills that you learned in the service — the leadership skills, the teamwork skills — those are just going to become more appropriate and more shaping of the environment if you come in first with a little bit of deference and a little bit of willingness to learn, than if you jump right in thinking the only way is the Army way, or the Navy way, or the Marine way, or the Air Force way.
What do you say to veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who believe that all of the progress they made in those countries is now being completely reversed?
It is easy to kind of look at it as a broad, strategic landscape and wonder whether or not we achieved what we hoped to achieve. But if you take it down to the individual level — and if you spent time in Afghanistan and you said, how many young Afghan men and women did you save because you prevented a suicide bomber from blowing up a market. What will become of those young men and women? Will one of those go on to become the president of Afghanistan some day? Will one of them go to change the way we think about the world? Will one of those go on to invent something that we couldn’t even conceive of today? So I think if you get too strategic, you’ll lose sight of the fact that the individual actions that the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines took, and, frankly, a lot of the civilians took, and the effect they had on individuals in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, some of those individuals will go on to change the world. And they wouldn’t have had that opportunity had we not been in there and been in a position to, in some cases, change their lives, and, in some cases, shape their lives. I remain optimistic that the actions we took will change the world in a positive manner, even if it doesn’t look that way right now.
If you were speaking to a young woman considering a career as a Navy SEAL, what would you tell her?
I would tell her to go for it. If she believes she has what it takes, I would encourage her to do so. I am around some remarkable women athletes here within the University of Texas system, and you see how incredibly strong and resilient these ladies are, and there is no doubt in my mind that a young woman prepared to go through SEAL training — if she is fit, if she is mentally tough — that she will make it through. Again, they will have to perform as every other SEAL does to show that they are professional, and can work with a team, and can lead in ways that are important, but I am convinced that they will step up and be able to do that and do it exceedingly well.
Do you think veterans should be playing a bigger role in politics?
I have very mixed feelings about senior officers in particular. One, it is a little bit of an unwritten rule, and it is unwritten — there is nothing that prevents senior officers from engaging in politics, obviously. Some of our great presidents, from Washington, to Eisenhower, to Grant — these were military men. So the military has a rich history of being engaged in politics. I think it is important that, as a retired military officer, nothing should prevent you from doing that if you feel strongly about a particular political position. Now, having said that, I do think it is important to recognize that, as a military officer, you do not speak for everybody in the military, and this is where I sometimes have issues with some of the senior officers who are promoting a position. They will say, I was in the Army, or the Navy, or the Air Force, or the Marines, and, therefore, you need to recognize that all of the soldiers think like I do. Of course, that’s not true. The military is not a homogeneous body. It is as diverse as the civilian population in many ways, so to imply that because they wore the uniform they represent the people who wore uniforms, I think that’s where you have to be very, very careful. If you want to get out and go from Adm. Bill McRaven to Bill McRaven who at one point in time served in the Navy, then I’m okay with that. But if you lead with your service and say, well, I was a Navy SEAL and, therefore, you ought to listen to what I have to say — I don’t think that’s the way to move forward. You need to stand on your own merits. If your own merits are that you know how to lead men and women in combat, you know how to run large organizations, you understand how Capitol Hill works — that’s all okay. But just be careful with leading with your uniform, so to speak. Be who you are, recognizing that your background makes you unique, but you don’t speak for everybody who wore a Trident, or a Ranger tab, or an Army uniform, or a Marine uniform.
Do you think journalists are justified in trying to parse out what happens when special operations missions, like the recent raid in Yemen, result in the deaths of service members and/or civilians?
My sense has always been that as long as whatever you’re covering, or however you’re portraying a particular event, if it doesn’t put other people’s lives at risk, then I think covering a particular mission after the fact is perfectly fine. Contrary to what a lot of folks may think, I’ve never really been against soldiers writing books, as long as those books were really about the heroism, and sacrifice, and the family life, and those sorts of things that the reader will look to and be pleased that we have such a great military. It is when they start to tell secrets about certain tactics, techniques, and procedures that potentially put the next mission at risk — that’s where I have some issues. So, as journalists — and, in your case, as former military — you will understand where that threshold is. I think you have to leave it up to the editors to decide what is newsworthy and what is not newsworthy, and sometimes, of course, the media likes to write a salacious headline that gets attention that brings people in to read the article. You have to be careful about that. As a journalist, you want to lay out the facts. If you’re going to editorialize, that’s something different. But if you are going to write an article that has the journalistic integrity that’s important, you need to lay out the facts and leave it at that and not do a lot of speculating. And again, I think you have to be careful that the facts you do lay out don’t put someone else’s life at risk.
Many young Americans have a pessimistic outlook on the future. They see more wars and possible climate change catastrophe on the horizon. What’s your message to them?
Having spent most the last 15 or 17 years of my career with this millennial generation, I would tell them that all you have to do is talk to these young men and women and you will realize that this nation is in great hands. This generation really is as patriotic and hardworking as their fathers, and grandfathers, and grandmothers before them. They are wonderful Americans. And sometimes the older generation, like myself, you have to get by some of the first blush — the music doesn’t sound like my music, some of them have earrings and tattoos. But if you get beyond that, which you can do pretty quickly, you realize that this is — the generation I worked with after 9/11 — will go down in history as the greatest generation of the 21st century. I am convinced of that. Remarkable young men and women doing remarkable things for the nation. They signed up at a time when they didn’t have to. This is an all-volunteer force. So you saw the young men and women who joined the military, their passion, their dedication, their commitment was just as strong as any of their fathers and mothers before them.