A Wise Man Once Said

In a new book, Chancellor McRaven expands on life lessons from his famous commencement speech.

The first piece of advice Admiral William H. McRaven, BJ ’77, Life Member, Distinguished Alumnus, gave UT’s Class of 2014 was: Make your bed. Filled with life lessons from his time as a Navy SEAL, the speech went viral, garnering more than 10 million views. Now chancellor of the UT System, McRaven released an extended version of the speech in April. The book, aptly titled Make Your Bed, centers on McRaven’s famous 10 lessons, such as: “Don’t back down from the sharks” and, “Don’t ever ring the bell.” Each lesson is accompanied by military stories such as SEAL training mishaps and a parachuting accident that crushed McRaven’s back and pelvis. The Alcalde caught up with McRaven about the new book and post-military life.

When did you decide to turn your famous speech into a book?

Ever since the commencement speech, every single day someone comes up to me and says, “Hey, I make my bed” or, “I don’t back down from the sharks.” I was asked a number of times by publishing companies to do this and finally, I agreed to turn it into a small gift book. I really wanted to highlight the folks who have inspired me and the incidents that I found both inspiring and challenging.

How did you make your advice relatable to everyone?

I spent 37 years in the military. But I like to think that, much like the speech, you don’t have to have served a day in uniform to appreciate the importance of these lessons. We all make mistakes. We all need people to help us get through life. We are all going to face bullies at some time in our life and our career. I guarantee you the lessons learned are applicable universally—to the young, to the old, to people across the divide.

Do you write often?

Sunday is my writing day because I tend to write all of my own speeches. Over a period of seven or eight months, whenever I had an opportunity, I’d sit down on a Sunday afternoon and after writing my upcoming speeches, I’d take an hour or so and write one of these vignettes that went with the lesson. It’s not a long book—about 130 pages or so. The stories were fresh in my mind. They’re stories I’ve lived and so it was a fun thing to do.

Was writing the book cathartic?

I don’t think I was trying to release anything, but I will tell you it was really enjoyable. I enjoy the craft of writing. I was a journalism major, and you do a lot of writing in the military. We always love to tell stories about our time in the military.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

It’s as simple as just don’t quit. My last story is about ringing the bell, and everybody in life has moments where it’s difficult. They fail. They don’t achieve their own expectations. It’s easy to get down. It’s easy to give up. If there’s a single lesson in all of this, it’s that you just don’t quit.

Have you ever given up on something?

I’ve been close. I outlined in the book where I was fired. It’s never a good thing to be fired—it’s particularly bad to be fired in the military. To my boss’ credit, he didn’t kill my career, and that allowed me a second chance. I was at what I thought one of the prime jobs as a Navy SEAL, and the next thing you know, I was out of that job. My wife was very helpful. She told me, “Look, you’ve never quit anything in your life, and you’re not going to start now.” You have to have those people that in those tough moments convince you that you’re better than your failure.

What lessons have you learned since becoming chancellor?

As I was taking the job, there were a lot of people that thought as I came in as a Navy admiral that we’d be marching around and we’d have bells on the quarterdeck and we’d salute. I’m being a little facetious of course, but they thought that I would bring this military rigor to the job. But my responsibility as the leader is to adjust to the environment I’m in. My job was to learn everything about higher education, to learn everything I could about clinical care, to make sure that I understood the role of the chancellor.

Do you typically have someone edit your speeches?

I’m a little bit superstitious. I don’t show my speeches to anybody—not even my wife. I had written another speech for the commencement, and three days before, I realized the speech I had written just didn’t work. So I went to my wife and she said to write about something you know. And I was a little bit cautious of that because I was about to speak to 8,000 graduates, and I didn’t know if they wanted to hear about my military experience. But of course it was the only thing I really knew. I had to write about something that I really understood and make it applicable to the broader audience. But again, I never gave the speech to anybody before I presented it. It’s just a little bit of my superstition.

 

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