Every now and then email delivers a real gem mined from the Internet, and that happened just recently. It was a video of Admiral William McRaven giving the commencement address at the University of Texas on May 17.
I had never seen Admiral McRaven in action before, although he must have been on TV often in 2011. A SEAL and the commander of U.S. Special Operations, he directed the mission that took out Osama bin Laden.
I sat down to watch the video just to be polite, but I was soon riveted. When it was over, I realized that I had just seen the most inspiring speech of my life. I felt extraordinarily grateful for the quality of leadership I had just witnessed, for the inspiration and the wisdom I needed to hear as much as probably everybody else in this country, including the young graduates. In a way it was a huge relief, like being richly fed after decades on soda crackers.
So what was so great about it? I need to insert at the beginning that I served as speechwriter for a number of fancy men during my career, so my attention was analytical even as I was enthralled. The way Admiral McRaven structured his talk was brilliant, and anyone who ever speaks publicly could learn from this.
The conventional wisdom is that any speaker who leaves the audience with just three points that they can remember has had a successful moment at the podium. Admiral McRaven left us with ten memorable points. He did it through imagery. The human brain can much more readily remember an image than data or an abstract idea alone.
The structure was a journey through all the important life lessons he had gleaned from the brutal, six-month training required to be a SEAL. As he went through each lesson an image emerged. Examples are a bed, a sugar cookie, and a bell.
Doesn’t sound too macho, does it? And that was part of the beauty of the talk. Anyone hearing it, of whatever sex, ethnicity, and disposition, has had moments that related to the ten images, moments when we were frustrated, frightened, or exhausted and when we kept on going in spite of them or sadly failed. In remembering some of my own disappointments, I realized that McRaven was there to encourage every single person listening to keep at it, get through the tough times, and continue trying to live up to our potential.
I was on board from the get-go because of his first lesson. It was about the importance of this very simple task SEAL candidates are taught from day one: “Make your bed.” I never wanted to be a SEAL–I didn’t even know what a SEAL was until a few years ago–but my bed is made every morning while it’s still warm, and that simple accomplishment has transcended every ensuing challenge of every day of my life. As McRaven pointed out, no matter how everything else turns out, you come home to a bed that is made.
And it’s just that simple, McRaven was saying, if we are going to change the world for the better. With all ten lessons always in mind, each of us will make the most of life, and life will make the most of us. Those ten lessons pertain to every person on this planet. The concept of leadership was suddenly elevated to a level I personally have never seen before.
But judge for yourself. The commencement address had been seen on You Tube about 40,000 times when I last looked, and I hope it continues to travel. I’m keeping it handy so that I can be SEAL-brain prepared for the tough times that may be coming.