William H. McRaven, retired US Navy Admiral, graduate of the University of Texas, and former SEAL Team SIX member, is now serving as Chancellor of The University of Texas System.
In Admiral McRaven’s commencement speech at the University of Texas (oh, did I mention he is a Longhorn?), he told graduates that in SEAL training, there is a bell. A brass bell that hangs in the center of the compound for all the students to see. All you have to do to quit—is ring the bell. Ring the bell and you no longer have to wake up at 5 a.m. to do freezing cold swims, runs, and obstacle courses—and you no longer have to endure the hardships of training. Just ring the bell.
But McRaven’s advice was this: If you want to change the world, don’t ever, ever ring the bell.
During SEAL training the students are broken down into boat crews. Every day your boat crew forms up on the beach and is instructed to get through the surf zone and paddle several miles down the coast. In the winter, the surf off San Diego can get to be 8 or 10 feet high and it is exceedingly difficult to paddle through the plunging surf—unless everyone digs in. Every paddle must be synchronized to the stroke count of the coxswain.
Everyone must exert equal effort or the boat will turn against the wave and be unceremoniously tossed back on the beach. For the boat to make it to its destination, everyone must paddle. To truly get from your starting point to your destination, it takes friends, colleagues, the good will of strangers, and a strong coxswain to guide them.
His message: If you want to change the world, find someone to help you paddle.
For failing the daily uniform inspection, the students had to run, fully clothed into the surf zone and then, wet from head to toe, roll around on the beach until every part of your body was covered with sand, known as a “sugar cookie.” You stayed in that uniform the rest of the day—cold, wet, and sandy.
There were many students who just couldn’t accept the fact that all their efforts were in vain. That no matter how hard they tried to get the uniform right, it was unappreciated. Those students didn’t make it through training.
Those students didn’t understand the purpose of the drill. You were never going to succeed. You were never going to have a perfect uniform. Sometimes, no matter how well you prepare or how well you perform, you still end up a sugar cookie. It’s just the way life is sometimes.
But, if you want to change the world, get over being a sugar cookie and keep moving forward.
Before each daily swim, the instructors joyfully brief the trainees on all the species of sharks that inhabit the waters off San Clemente. But, they are also taught that if a shark begins to circle your position, stand your ground. Do not swim away. Do not act afraid. And if the shark darts towards you, then summon up all your strength and punch him in the snout, and he will turn and swim away.
There are a lot of sharks in the world. If you hope to complete the swim you will have to deal with them.
If you want to change the world, don’t back down from the shark.
At the end of each day, there was a trailer board which listed poorly performing trainees targeted for dismissal. They were made to do extra calisthenics to wear them down. Each trainee on the trailer list got two extra hours of training, while the day’s “winners” watched. What the SEALs found was that many of the trainees on the trailer board moved ahead of several “winners” because their repeated failures made them stronger—physically and mentally.
If you want to change the world, it is up to you whether you want to gloat on the sidelines or work extra hard to catch up and become competitive.
Marcus Luttrell, former Navy SEAL, recounts in his book Lone Survivor the story of the beginning of Navy SEAL Hell Week, the toughest physical and mental challenge in their training.
On Sunday night, while waiting for Hell Week to commence, suddenly there was a loud shout, and someone kicked open the side door. A guy carrying a machine gun, followed by two others, came charging in, firing from the hip. The lights went off, and then all three gunmen opened fire, spraying the room with bullets.
There were piercing blasts from whistles. Another door was kicked open. More men came in. More gunfire. Nothing but deafening gunfire. They were certainly blanks, but they sounded real. Shouting was drowned by whistles, and everything was drowned by the gunfire.
“All of you, out! Move, you guys! Move! Move! Move! Let’s go!”
Each man struggled to his feet and joined the stampede to the door. Then the instructors opened fire for real, this time with high pressure hoses, knocking them down. The place was awash with water, they couldn’t see a thing and couldn’t hear anything above the fire.
“Crawl to the whistle, men! Crawl to the whistle! And keep your heads down!”
Some of the guys were suffering from mass confusion. One of them ran for his life, straight over to the beach and into the ocean—he’d lost it completely. This was a simulated scene from the Normandy beaches, which induced panic, because no one knew what was happening.
Instructors moved among them, imploring them to quit while there was still time. “All you gotta do is ring that little bell up there.”
But if you want to change the world, don’t ever, ever ring the bell.
At some point, we all just have to expose ourselves to failure and avoid doing only the things that we are already good at doing. A “mistake avoidance” mindset could be an underlying condition that’s keeping us from trying and, therefore, having a chance at winning the game.
There’s not a game in which you can only win, because that’s not a game, that’s merely a trick. The only way you can win is by exposing yourself to failure.
So, if you want to change the world, don’t hit the snooze button. If you gotta get up, then get up.
Susan Arledge, is president of site selection and incentives services, as well as resident sugar cookie, at ESRP Real Estate in Dallas.