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Make Your Bed by Admiral William H. McRaven (U.S. Navy, Retired)

Little things that can change your life...and maybe the world.

Having had the opportunity to sit at the feet of several military leaders, I have discovered some interesting commonalities. At a certain rank, the air gets rather thin. Many can serve and experience a modicum of success in the military, but there are a rare few who have the ability and integrity to lead thousands into battle while considering the value of the individual lives of those they command. The author is one of those men.

William Henry McRaven is a retired United States Navy admiral who spent 37 years in the Navy and last served as the ninth commander of the United States Special Operations Command. This book is based on a commencement speech he delivered to the graduating class of the University of Texas in 2014. In it he outlines 10 lessons he learned from his Navy SEAL training, and explains how following these principles can change an individual and change the world.

Principle #1: Make your bed. A simple and seemingly unimportant task serves as a catalyst for accomplishing great things. Any of you who understands the process of making a tight military corner in sheet and blanket, leaving a crisp, smooth surface on which a quarter will bounce high enough for the instructor to catch it upon inspection, can begin to understand McRaven’s point. Begin your day with a task completed. Not only accomplished, but done to exacting standards. He goes on to explain how this simple act was a comforting standard that followed him throughout his life.

As McRaven moves through the other nine principles there is great wisdom and insight brought to bear that applies just as effectively in business and personal life as it does to military training. His clear and concise description of the principles and their application is delivered with just the right amount of military precision and effective storytelling to make this a very enjoyable read.

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Chapter Three is one of my favorites, “Only the Size of Your Heart Matters.” Here he relates a story of an early morning swim. Gathered on the sand with flippers, mask, and snorkel, the trainees were being inspected by an instructor. One of the recruits was only 5-foot 4 inches and the instructor started in on him. “You’re a tiny little man. Are you sure you really want to head out into that water? Those waves are over 8 feet tall and may very well snap you in half! You should think about quitting right now before you get hurt.” The recruit looked at the instructor and said firmly, “I will not quit, sir!” The instructor leaned in and whispered something in his ear.

The recruits were all ordered into the water. An hour later, McRaven dragged himself out of the surf to find the short recruit had beat him there. He asked the man, “What did the instructor whisper to you?” The recruit smiled and returned, “Prove me wrong,” he said.

It’s these types of experiences that make this book so real and impactful. Hard lessons learned by hard men in impossible circumstances. Men who dedicated their careers and their lives to being the best in the world at what they do. Men willing to put their lives at risk to fight for what they believe in.

The chapters are as follows:

  1. Start your day with a task completed
  2. You can’t go at it alone
  3. Only the size of your heart matters
  4. Life’s not fair—drive on!
  5. Failure can make you stronger
  6. You must dare greatly
  7. Stand up to the bullies
  8. Rise to the occasion
  9. Give people hope
  10. Never, ever quit!

The culmination of this book is summed up in the title of the last chapter, “Never ever quit.” Standing at attention on the first day of training with the full complement of 150 potential SEALs ready for anything, the instructor barks, “Today is the first day of SEAL training. For the next six months you will undergo the toughest course of instruction in the United States military. You will be tested like no time in your life. Most of you will not make it through. I will see to that.”

The instructor shouted with a gleam in his eye. “I will do everything in my power to make you quit!” He emphasized the last three words, “I will harass you unmercifully. I will embarrass you in front of your teammates. I will push you beyond your limits.” Then a slight grin crossed his face, “And there will be pain; lots and lots of pain.

“But if you don’t like the pain, if you don’t like all the harassment, then there is an easy way out. Just reach up here and ring this bell three times. Ring the bell and you don’t have to get up early, ring the bell and you don’t have to endure the long runs, the cold swims, the obstacle course. Ring the bell and you can avoid all this pain.

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“But let me tell you something,” continued the instructor, “If you ring this bell you will regret it for the rest of your life. Quitting never makes anything easier.” Sure enough, at the end of training only 33 of the 150 recruits were left standing.

This book is filled with real-life inspiration, toil, and hardship. Its principles will serve you well regardless of the challenges you face. McRaven’s final words are incredible:

“Know that life is not fair, 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.”