Make Your Bed, by Admiral William H. McRaven

Why I read it…   You might have seen the videos of Admiral William H. McRaven delivering a Commencement Speech at the University of Texas in 2014. It is perfect assembly fodder: here are links to the full speech, and the slightly dramatized version.  I don’t delve into works by armed forces personnel often, but I enjoyed his delivery style and the simplicity of his message; when I realised he had turned the concepts of the speech into a short book, I bought a copy for myself and each member of the Senior Leadership Team when I departed my previous school last summer.

In summary:

McRaven outlines 10 principles to live your life by, based on his long and distinguished career in the US Navy. Each principle is a bit of a cliché, but what some of them lack in originality, they make up for in clarity and authenticity. He uses many anecdotes from his career; not eye-bulging, macho-military stories, but tales of connection, spirit, and hope.

Key takeaways:

  1. Start your day with a task completed: this is where the title of the book comes from: in the military, you begin the day by making your bed. Starting the day with a task completed, McRaven argues, gives you a small sense of pride, and encourages you to complete another task; your day quickly becomes filled with many tasks completed, and teaches you that the little things matter. And whatever kind of day you have, you return home to a made bed!
  2. You can’t go it alone. McRaven spends a lot of the book talking about the importance of team work and community, often citing how, when members of a team struggle, the others need to pick up the slack and cover for them, knowing that it will be done for them in return when they need it. I wonder if we always treat our team mates with the same level of unwavering support?
  3. Don’t ring the bell – in the centre of the SEAL Training compound, there is a brass bell. Whenever you want to quit the training programme, just go and ring the bell. The instructors even encourage you to, knowing that there will be far greater temptations to quit when the SEALs are out in the field. McRaven encourages us to face up to our most challenging moments, and to never, ever, ring the bell, however tempting it seems at that moment.

Favourite quote:

Describing the ‘munchkin crew’ full of the shortest cadets in the cohort: ‘the other crews would make fun of the tiny little flippers they put on their tiny little feet. But somehow these guys, from every corner of the nation and the world, always had the last laugh, swimming faster than everyone and reaching the shore long before the rest of us. SEAL Training was a great equalizer; nothing mattered but your will to succeed.’

Favourite moment:

During Hell Week, Navy SEAL cadets are punished with a series of gruelling tasks; one of which involves them spending the night in the mud and water, freezing half to death. If they want to quit, all they have to do is ask. Many do. McRaven depicts the moment when the group of cadets are at breaking point, and some are beginning to crawl towards the instructors. And then a voice rises in the wind; a cadet is singing. The group begins to join in; they link arms, knuckle down, and find solidarity and strength in communal song.

Question and reflect

  • The bonds that service members seem to forge are quite profound; most of our jobs aren’t so high stakes, but can we improve our sense of community and shared responsibility as a team?
  • The ‘make your bed’ mantra is simple but effective; what habits can we work into our morning routines to start the day with a task completed? Admittedly, mine is walking the dog, which feels like a win at the moment!
  • What I loved about the speech that the book is based upon, is the spirit and pride that McRaven possesses when he speaks to these college students. I wonder, if you or I were going to deliver such a speech, what words of hope and inspiration from our lives would we offer?

Read this if…

You like concise, easy to follow motivational books

You are planning to share simple, effective strategies to motivate young people (the speech is great for assemblies!)

Support bookshops and buy it here

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