Lessons from Commencement Speeches

For some reason, I have always been a big fan of commencement addresses. Since high school, I have taken great pleasure in reading and listening to these lofty, inspirational addresses to groups of bright-eyed graduates ready to embark on life’s journey. It is this strange love of commencement addresses and my hunger for collecting wisdom from those older and wiser than me that drove my desire to serve as one of the 2015 Yale Class Day Co-Chairs.

From Steve Jobs’ famous 2005 Stanford commencement speech, I learned to “stay hungry and stay foolish.”

From Ellen DeGeneres’ humor-laden address to Tulane in 2009, I learned the importance of integrity and living a life full of honesty and compassion.

From John Kerry’s commencement address this year at Yale, I learned to “disturb the universe.”

For more landmark commencement addresses, take a look at NPR’s brilliant and beautifully designed archive of the “best commencement speeches, ever.”

However, in my years of following commencement addresses, I think the best one, by far, that I have ever heard is Bill McRaven’s commencement address this year at the University of Texas at Austin.  McRaven is an Admiral in the United States Navy and the Commander of the United States Special Operations Command. He was responsible for organizing and executing the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. 

You can read the entire commencement address here. The speech centers on lessons drawn from McRaven’s Navy SEAL training. McRaven describes basic SEAL training as “six months of long torturous runs in the soft sand, midnight swims in the cold water off San Diego, obstacles courses, unending calisthenics, days without sleep and always being cold, wet and miserable. It is six months of being constantly harassed by professionally trained warriors who seek to find the weak of mind and body and eliminate them from ever becoming a Navy SEAL.” From that brutal training, the Navy finds those students “who can lead in an environment of constant stress, chaos, failure and hardships.”

Here are a few of my favorite lessons from that speech:

1) Make your bed every morning. Since childhood, this activity has drilled into my daily routine, but after McRaven’s speech, I understand more than ever why my mother insisted on that simple action.

If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another.

By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter.

If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.

And, if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made—that you made—and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better.

2) Change is a collaborative effort. It is never a one-man mission. After all, while we herald people like Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr., we must acknowledge that their achievements would never have been possible without their support network. 

During SEAL training the students are broken down into boat crews. Each crew is seven students…

In the winter, the surf off San Diego can get to be 8 to 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.

You can’t change the world alone—you will need some help— and to truly get from your starting point to your destination takes friends, colleagues, the good will of strangers and a strong coxswain to guide them.

If you want to change the world, find someone to help you paddle.

3) Perseverance in the face of pain. The strongest souls emerge from pain and suffering.

Every event had standards—times you had to meet. If you failed to meet those standards your name was posted on a list and at the end of the day those on the list were invited to—a “circus.”

A circus was two hours of additional calisthenics—designed to wear you down, to break your spirit, to force you to quit.

A circus meant that for that day you didn’t measure up. A circus meant more fatigue—and more fatigue meant that the following day would be more difficult—and more circuses were likely.

But at some time during SEAL training, everyone—everyone—made the circus list.

But an interesting thing happened to those who were constantly on the list. Overtime those students—who did two hours of extra calisthenics—got stronger and stronger.

The pain of the circuses built inner strength-built physical resiliency.

Life is filled with circuses.

You will fail. You will likely fail often. It will be painful. It will be discouraging. At times it will test you to your very core.

4) Tackle your fears.

The waters off San Clemente are a breeding ground for the great white sharks. To pass SEAL training there are a series of long swims that must be completed. One—is the night swim.

Before the swim the instructors joyfully brief the trainees on all the species of sharks that inhabit the waters off San Clemente.

But, you 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, hungry for a midnight snack, darts towards you—then summons 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.

So, If you want to change the world, don’t back down from the sharks.

5) Trust yourself  - even at your darkest moments.

Every SEAL knows that under the keel, at the darkest moment of the mission—is the time when you must be calm, composed—when all your tactical skills, your physical power and all your inner strength must be brought to bear.

If you want to change the world, you must be your very best in the darkest moment.

6) Never, ever lose hope. 

The ninth week of training is referred to as “Hell Week.” It is six days of no sleep, constant physical and mental harassment and—one special day at the Mud Flats….a swampy patch of terrain where the mud will engulf you…

The mud consumed each man till there was nothing visible but our heads. The instructors told us we could leave the mud if only five men would quit—just five men and we could get out of the oppressive cold.

Looking around the mud flat it was apparent that some students were about to give up. It was still over eight hours till the sun came up—eight more hours of bone chilling cold.

The chattering teeth and shivering moans of the trainees were so loud it was hard to hear anything and then, one voice began to echo through the night—one voice raised in song.

The song was terribly out of tune, but sung with great enthusiasm.

One voice became two and two became three and before long everyone in the class was singing.

We knew that if one man could rise above the misery then others could as well.

The instructors threatened us with more time in the mud if we kept up the singing—but the singing persisted.

And somehow—the mud seemed a little warmer, the wind a little tamer and the dawn not so far away.

If I have learned anything in my time traveling the world, it is the power of hope. The power of one person—Washington, Lincoln, King, Mandela and even a young girl from Pakistan—Malala—one person can change the world by giving people hope.

So, if you want to change the world, start singing when you’re up to your neck in mud.

The three qualities that I admire most in people are resilience, integrity (a catch-all for honesty, respect for self and others, and loyalty) and kindness. In my years of following commencement speeches, I believe these are the qualities that speakers most often urge students to strive to embody. I believe that Admiral McRaven captures these values - and many more - in a speech punctuated by honesty and steely resolve. 

The late Dr. Maya Angelou once said “I’ve learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way (s)he handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights.”

Greet a rainy day with joy, for it is a gift from God, a sign of the Earth’s vitality. Love the lush green and the fresh air. 

Don’t let lost luggage ruin a trip. If you’ve arrived safely, that is a blessing in and of itself. At the end of the day, they are just things. Experiences and memories are far more important.

As for the Christmas tree lights - keep trying to untangle them. Even if it takes hours, even if you need to come back to them, keep untangling. 

I am young and still have much to learn from the world, but from what I can glean of these lessons from elders, these are values that will stay with me forever.

Akinyi OchiengComment