Make Your Bed: Little things that can change your life…and maybe the world
By Admiral William H. McRaven
Reviewed by Nina Walsh, June 28, 2017 at Chautauqua Institution
This is a magical little book that can bring one hope, healing, and health. It is the kind of book which is good to buy in quantity and keep in a closet, so that you can give a copy to a those you come across who need it.
Admiral William McRaven, US Navy Retired, used the ten lessons he learned as a Navy SEAL as the outline for the Commencement Address he gave in 2014 to the graduates at the University of Texas at Austin. These ten lessons are basic, not only to the military, but to dealing with the challenges life brings. Since that speech, many who heard him that day wanted to know the back stories which shaped his life and inspired his career. So Make Your Bed was published this spring.
Lesson 1: Start your day with a task completed. The Admiral’s SEAL training was at Coronado, across the bridge from San Diego. The SEALs in training slept in a room with four beds and a closet for uniforms. Immediately upon rolling out of bed, a trainee begins the day by making his bed. A day he knows will be filled with uniform inspections, long swims, longer runs, obstacle courses, and constant harassment from the SEAL instructors.
The bed consisted of a steel frame with mattress. The bedding included a sheet to cover the mattress, a top sheet, a gray wool blanket which had to be tucked tight, a second blanket required to be folded expertly into a rectangle and placed at the foot of the bed. The single pillow needed to be centered at the top of the bed intersecting at a 90 degree angle with the blanket at the bottom. Any deviation from this standard was an automatic “hit the surf,” then roll in the sand until one was covered from head to toe with sand – called a “sugar cookie.”
The trainee stood where he could watch the instructor from the corner of his eye. The instructor checked the hospital corners, took a quarter from his pocket, flipped it in the air several times, then allowed the quarter to fall to the bed where it should bounce several inches allowing the instructor to catch it mid-air. The instructor then swung around to face the trainee, not saying a word, but looking in the trainee’s eye, nod. There was no praise, as he had reached expectation. The Admiral writes, “doing it right was important. It demonstrated my discipline. It showed my attention to detail, and at the end of the day it would be a reminder that I had done something well, something to be proud of, no matter how small the task.”
Years later, as a young SEAL aboard a special operation submarine, he was berthed in sick bay where the beds were stacked four high. The doctor insisted that the men make their rack every morning, remarking, “if the beds were not made and the room not clean, how could the sailors expect the best medical care?”
When Saddam Hussein was captured at the end of 2003, the Admiral would visit him once a day to ensure his soldiers were caring for him properly. He writes, “I noticed, with some sense of amusement, that Saddam did not make his bed.”
He ends the first chapter with these words: “…all understood that life is hard and that sometimes there is little you can do to affect the outcome of your day…soldiers die, families grieve, your days are long and filled with anxious moments. You search for something that … that can motivate you to begin your day, that can be a sense of pride in an oftentimes ugly world. … not just combat. It is daily life that needs this same sense of structure. Nothing can replace the strength and comfort of one’s faith, but sometimes the simple act of making your bed can give you the lift you need to start your day and provide you the satisfaction to end it right. If you want to change your life and maybe the world—start off by making your bed!”
Lesson 2: You Can’t Go It Alone. McRaven discovered in SEAL training that you must rely on someone else to help in difficult tasks. During early training, they were required to carry a rubber raft everywhere. If someone was ill or injured, others had to pick up the slack. This lesson taught them you cannot make it in combat alone. You need help.
Twenty-five years later, McRaven jumped from a C-130 Hercules at twelve thousand feet. It was a doomed jump from the start as the propeller blast thrust him tilting forward. Once leveled out, he then found a jumper directly beneath him who was just opening his chute, hitting McRaven at 120 miles per hour. He pulled his rip cord and somehow he managed to entangle both legs in his risers, each leg bound by a different riser. Struggling to become free, when his canopy caught air, his pelvis was pulled apart. He landed two miles from the drop zone, was quickly rescued and taken to a hospital. His wife was given the duty of nursing him. As he felt sorry for himself thinking he may never be a SEAL again, his wife gave him the tough love he needed. He writes, “None of us are immune from life’s tragic moments. . . You cannot paddle the boat alone. Find someone to share your life with. Make as many friends as possible, and never forget that your success depends on others.”
Lesson 3: Only the Size of Your Heart Matters. Wearing and carrying their morning swim equipment, the SEALS in training stood on the beach for their instructors to harass them some more. The surf was eight feet high that day and coming in lines of three. The tall instructor asked the shortest recruit if he could survive those waves, encouraging him to think about quitting before he was hurt. Then he leaned into the young man whispering something to him. This short recruit was among the first to finish the swim that day. McRaven asked what the instructor had whispered to him. “Prove me wrong!” And the young man did! I have to say, when I read this portion, with the outcome, it literally gave me chills. But now I have given it away and spoiled that cool response for you. Sorry.
SEAL training was always about proving something. While in college, McRaven was in ROTC and came to Coronado to visit the training facility. In the hallway, he saw tall, muscular men who looked like SEALS. Then he saw a slight, almost frail looking man studying the photos on the hall walls. McRaven was thinking, only in his dreams could this slight man ever become a SEAL. McRaven was called into an office to talk to a recruiting officer. After they talked a few minutes, the officer called to the thin man in the hall. He proceeded to introduce McRaven to Tommy Norris, the last Medal of Honor recipient in Vietnam. This man had rescued airmen deep behind enemy lines. This quiet, reserved man was one of the toughest SEALs ever. “Norris proved. . . It’s not the size of your flippers that count, just the size of your heart.”
Lesson 4: Life’s Not Fair—Drive On! For some unknown reason, probably just at whim, McRaven was ordered to make himself into a sugar cookie. Dressed in green utilities, short-billed hat, and combat boots, he dove into the ocean, then proceeded to roll in the sand until every part of his uniform and exposed skin were drenched in sand. Nothing could be more uncomfortable than having sand down your back and in every crevice on your body. Being a sugar cookie tested your patience and determination. His instructor asked him, “Mr. Mac, do you have any idea why you are a sugar cookie this morning?”
“No, Instructor Martin,” he dutifully responded.
“Because, Mr. Mac, life isn’t fair and the sooner you learn that the better off you will be.”
Martin was known as Moki to his friends. After completing SEAL training, McRaven had the privilege of working with Moki, a phenomenal athlete. Daily, he rode his bike the 30 miles of the Coronado Silver Strand. One day, he had a head-on bike collision. The other biker was fine, but Moki was paralyzed from the waist down. Through the years, he became an accomplished painter. The author states, “The common people and the great men and women are all defined by how they deal with life’s unfairness: Helen Keller, Nelson Mandela, Stephen Hawking, Malal Yousafizai, and—Moki Martin.” Remember: Life’s not fair—drive on!
Lesson 5: Failure Can Make You Stronger. While in the choppy ocean with his swim buddy, also from ROTC, the two came in last in the class. Your swim buddy was very important to your success. You had each other’s back, were physically tied to each other on underwater dives, partner on long swims, helped you study, kept you motivated, thus becoming your closest ally in training. If one of you failed, you both failed. Teamwork was of utmost importance. The swim instructor harassed them with calisthenics, humiliated them, kicked sand in their faces, and pronounced they don’t deserve to be SEALs. Then he informed them they made the Circus list, saying they probably wouldn’t survive another week. In the Circus, they were given extra exercise, so that they were exhausted the next day, failing to achieve the standards again. It was a downward spiral. After two days of the Circus, McRaven writes, we “began to improve and move up in the pack. The Circus, which had started as a punishment for failure, was making us stronger, faster, and more confident in the water.”
The final test in the training period was to swim five miles in the open ocean off the coast of San Clemente Island. Completion within the time limit was essential to graduation as a SEAL. After two hours, the pairs were so spread apart, they didn’t know where they stood in the pack. After four hours, they reached the beach, numb, exhausted, and freezing cold. The instructor yelled, “Drop down! Once again you two officers have embarrassed your class.” More pairs of boots appeared in the sand. “You have made all your teammates look bad. Recover, gentlemen!” As they stood, they realized they were the first to finish! “You embarrassed them all right.” The instructor smiled. “The second pair isn’t even in sight.”
McRaven’s admonition is “In life 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.”
Later, McRaven, as the leader of a SEAL squadron, was fired for trying to change the organization, the training, and the mission. However, he was allowed to transfer to another SEAL team, in spite of his tainted reputation. He could have quit, but he chose to weather the storm and regain respect. Over time, he managed to rise as commander of all the SEALs on the West Coast, and eventually, was in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan as a one-star Admiral. He realized his past failures had strengthened him and taught him no one is immune from mistakes. His quote: “True leaders must learn from their failures.”
Lesson 6: You Must Dare Greatly. Using a personal example, McRaven described how important it is to be risky to accomplish goals. In a training course, a rope is attached to a thirty foot tower at the top and anchored to the ground one hundred feet away. He chose to hang under the rope with his feet aiding to make his way to the end. He knew that was the slow way. It would be much faster, but riskier, to go head first down the rope. An old vet said with contempt, “That obstacle course is going to beat you every time unless you start taking some risks.” A week later, he took the plunge earning a personal best. He said the lesson to overcome one’s anxieties and trust your abilities was a lesson to serve him well.
Operations which SEAL units were forced to work under, meant they always did risky but calculated procedures. SEALS always push the limits of themselves and their machinery to be successful. That is what sets them apart. The motto of the British Special Air Service is “Who Dares Wins.” McRaven believes each of us should approach life that way. There is always the potential for failure. If you operate within the fear of failure, you will not succeed. It is essential to push the limits to know what is truly possible in your life.
Lesson 7: Stand Up to the Bullies. Another SEAL test was a four hour night swim in the waters off San Clemente. The waters in which they swam were full of sharks – leopard, mako, hammerhead, thresher, and the worst – the great white. Their goal, to become a SEAL, gave them courage. Without courage, fear will define your path. Bullies are the same as sharks. MeRaven writes, “They thrive on fear and intimidation…They are like sharks that sense fear in the water. They will circle to see if their prey is struggling. They will probe to see if their victim is weak. If you don’t find the courage to stand your ground, they will strike. In life, to achieve your goals, to complete the night swim, you will have to be men and women of great courage. That courage is within all of us. Dig deep, and you will find it in abundance.” That is a great statement for graduates.
Lesson 8: Rise to the Occasion. The culmination of the dive phase of training had come, the most technically difficult part of training. Looking across San Diego Bay at the moored warships, there was a smaller vessel, which was their target, between the trainees and the ships. The men had learned to use the basic SCUBA and the bubbleless Emerson closed-circuit diving rig, known as the death rig as it sometimes malfunctioned. The object was to swim two thousand meters underwater, place their limpet mine on the keel of that boat without being detected. If they missed their target, they would end up in the channel where a Navy destroyer could be pulling into the bay. Not a good place to be!
The divers were called into a circle where the chief petty officer in charge spoke, “Gentlemen, tonight we find out which of you sailors really want to be frogmen.” He continued telling them how dark, cold, and murky it will be, and easy to become disoriented. If they become separated from their buddy, he will not be able to find you. “You must rise above your fears, your doubts, and your fatigue. No matter how dark it gets, you must complete the mission. This is what separates you from everyone else.” That admonition stuck with McRaven for the next thirty years.
The remainder of this chapter details the moving, dignified ceremonies afforded every fallen warrior as they are taken home to their family. He ends the chapter by writing that we all will have a dark moment at some time. If it isn’t a death, it is something that crushes your spirit and jeopardizes your future. He encourages us to “reach deep inside yourself and be your very best.”
Lesson 9: Give People Hope. McRaven called Hell Week the “seminal” event for Phase One of SEAL training. I assumed seminal meant final. But I looked it up to be sure. It is one of those words you can use to mean any number of things. The synonyms or definitions I found which seem to fit the use here include: critical, important, crucial, distinctive, incomparable, extraordinary, innovative, unconventional, momentous. But, you will note, these words are not synonyms with each other. Hell Week is six days chest-deep in the Mudflats of Tijuana, punctuated with long runs, ocean swims, obstacle courses, rope climbs, endless calisthenics, etc., with no sleep and unrelenting harassment from the instructors. Only those tough enough to be SEALs survive. On day three, they were cold, hands and feet swollen, painful skin, when an instructor, using a bullhorn, suggested they join him at the fire for coffee and chicken soup, then relax. All they needed was five men to quit, and everyone could have relief. The trainee next to McRaven started to move. McRaven grabbed his arm, but he pulled away. The instructor was smiling, because, if one gives up, four more will quickly follow. But then, a Dr. Seuss Whoville moment came when one trainee started a song and slowly everyone joined in. The trainee giving up, returned and looped his arm around McRaven’s. The instructor grabbed his bullhorn and shouted for everyone to quit singing. As the threats increased, the volume increased. The instructor smiled. The men had learned another 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.”
Lesson 10: Never, Ever Quit! We are at the last chapter; the last lesson. McRaven reveals 150 men started in his training class. They were told on the first day, if they wanted to quit, all they had to do was ring the bell in the courtyard three times. Six months later, only 33 were graduating. He says, of those who quit, they will regret it for the rest of their lives. He writes, “Of all the lessons I learned in SEAL training, this was the most important. Never quit.”
In this final chapter, he relates the story of visiting one of his soldiers in the hospital who had stepped on a pressure plate mine. His legs had been amputated, blast burns streaked across his body. After only one week in combat, his life had changed forever. The man seemed to be unconscious and sedated. So McRaven touched his shoulder, said a prayer, and turned to leave the room as a nurse entered. She explained his serious condition, but said his chance for survival was good. He thanked her and turned to leave saying he would return when the soldier was conscious. She said, “He is conscious.” He can’t speak now, but his mother is deaf, so he knows sign language. She handed him a card showing sign language symbols. What do you say to a man who has lost his legs? How do you make him feel better? The patient seemed to sense McRaven’s discomfort. He began to sign: “I—will—be—OK.” A year later, McRaven encountered this young man again – wearing his dress uniform and standing tall on his prosthetic legs.
The last two paragraphs of the book need to be quoted. “Life is full of difficult times. But someone out there always has it worse than you do. If you fill your days with pty, 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. Never, ever, ring the bell!
“Remember. . . start each day with a task completed. Find someone to help you through life. Respect everyone. Know that life is not fair and that you will fail often. But if you take some risks, step up when times are toughest, face down the bullies, lift up the downtrodden, and never, ever give up—if you do these things, then you can change your life for the better. . . and maybe the world!”