Make Your Bed - Critical summary review - William H. McRaven

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Make Your Bed - critical summary review

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Self Help & Motivation

This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life… And Maybe the World

Available for: Read online, read in our mobile apps for iPhone/Android and send in PDF/EPUB/MOBI to Amazon Kindle.

ISBN: 1455570249

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

Critical summary review

On May 17, 2014, about three months before retiring from the Navy, Four-Star Admiral William H. McRaven addressed the graduating class of 2014 of the University of Texas at Austin, his alma mater. The commencement speech – which shared 10 lessons McRaven had learned from SEAL training – went viral and, as of 2021, has been viewed more than 40 million times on YouTube. 

Built upon the core tenets laid down in the speech, the “superb, smart, and succinct” “Make Your Bed” gives a little context to these lessons and explains how they shaped the Admiral’s life and how they inspired him during his career. So, get ready for a few memorable anecdotes and 10 lessons of universal appeal, straight “from inside the national security vault” – hopefully, at least some of them will be of value to you as you move forward in life!

No. 1. Start your day with a task completed

One of the first things you learn as a Navy SEAL is the proper way to make your bed. The point of this seemingly banal daily practice is to instill cadets with “a sentiment of cleanliness and order” which they are then asked to apply to every aspect of the military. “It is not just combat,” writes McRaven, “it is daily life that needs some sense of structure as well.” And that structure must begin first thing in the morning – with a made bed.

Though making your bed might seem like a small task, it’s actually a very important one. It’s not the tidiness itself that matters, but the discipline you develop in time while attempting to keep and maintain it. It’s also the sense of accomplishment. By making your bed in the morning, you are already starting your day on a high note: with a task completed. The bonus – no matter how bad the rest of the day might turn out to be, at least you’ll always come back home at night to a made bed.

No. 2. You can't go it alone

There’s a reason why even superheroes have sidekicks: life is just too full of cruelty and challenges to get through it without any help. That is another important lesson McRaven learned in the Navy – that even superstars need teammates. No matter how strong and capable you might be by yourself, there will be many times in life when you’ll need someone else to rely on. 

For McRaven, such were the days following his near-fatal parachuting accident in 2001. Before the accident, he had always had the feeling that he was invincible; that his innate athletic abilities could get him out of even the most perilous situations. And then, out of the blue, he was physically not fit enough to even stand up. It was his wife Georgeann who helped him get through this period of incapacity and depression. It was also his numerous friends calling constantly to ask how he was doing.

“None of us are immune from life’s tragic moments,” writes McRaven. “It takes a good team of people to get you to your destination in life.  You cannot paddle the boat alone. Find someone to share your life with. Make as many friends as possible, and never forget that your success depends on others.”

No. 3. Only the size of your heart matters

“Life’s battles don’t always go to the stronger or faster man,” wrote a fairly obscure poet early in the 20th century, “but sooner or later the man who wins is the one who thinks he can!” McRaven’s third lesson is merely a variation of these two memorable verses. 

Take Lieutenant Tommy Norris, the man McRaven uses as a perfect illustration of his belief that determination and grit matter much more than talent. Small, frail and thin, Norris almost didn’t gain admittance to SEAL training when he first applied. Moreover, in 1969, he was almost booted out. 

However, by the time McRaven earned the privilege of meeting Norris, he had become nothing short of a legend. Renowned for his resilience and stoutness, he was respected by everybody in the military for his enthusiastic involvement in some of the most daring missions during the Vietnam War.

Norris proved something that you must too in life – that the only measurement of a man’s greatness is the size of their heart. A strange organ, the heart, don’t you think? As small as it might be, some people find enough room in it to pack tons of passion.

No. 4. Life’s not fair – drive on!

As renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is inclined to remind us from time to time, the universe is under no obligation to make sense to anyone. In other words, all those times you’ve blamed it for being unfair or unjust – well, you were just wasting your time. It wasn’t designed to be fair. Or even reasonable. 

McRaven learned this lesson from his first instructor, Lieutenant Phillip L. Martin, known to his friends as Moki. Once, after punishing McRaven severely for what was, at worst, a minor transgression, Moki poured salt over the wounds of his student by telling him the real reason for the penalty. “Mr. Mac,” he said, “you’re punished not because of something you did, but because life isn’t fair and the sooner you learn that the better off you will be.” 

One Saturday morning at the beginning of the 1980s, a freak biking incident left Moki paralyzed from the waist down. In the four decades since, says McRaven, he has never once heard his former instructor ask, “Why me?” It’s easy to blame your lot in life on some outside forces. However, it’s also wrong, because it will get you nowhere. What’s right is learning how to accept and rise above the unfairness. “The common people and the great men and women,” writes McRaven, “are all defined by how they deal with life’s unfairness.”

No. 5. Failure can make you stronger

“I don’t think you gentlemen are going to make it. I don’t think you have what it takes to be SEAL officers.” That’s what McRaven’s swimming instructor told him and his swim buddy Marc Thomas after the two finished last one day on their training swims. Of course, he didn’t stop there – McRaven and Thomas also made the dreaded Circus list.

Held every afternoon at the end of training, the Circus encompassed “two hours of additional calisthenics, combined with nonstop harassment by SEAL combat veterans who wanted only the strong to survive training.” What made this endurance test especially dreaded by students was not just the additional pain it incurred, but also the knowledge that the pain would inevitably lead to exhaustion and to another failure the following day.

However, McRaven and Thomas were resolved to break this vicious cycle from the start, and to use the Circus to become stronger, faster, and more confident swimmers. In the end, it worked: they graduated with acclaim. “Well done, gentlemen,” said the instructor after the two successfully completed their final five-miler. “It looks like all that extra pain and suffering paid off.” 

But, then again, if you know how to use it, it always does. None of us is immune from mistakes, but all of us can learn from them, and strengthen and improve because of our failures, not in spite of them. “You can’t avoid the Circus,” writes McRaven. “At some point we all make the list. But don’t be afraid of the Circus.” Keep calm, and fail forward.

No. 6. You must dare greatly

In 2004, McRaven had to oversee a daring hostage rescue mission in Iraq. Al-Qaeda terrorists were holding three people in a walled compound on the outskirts of Baghdad. To make matters worse, the terrorists were about to move the men, so the U.S. Army had to act quickly or risk losing the target and the hostages. Now, quickly organized missions don’t always turn out as planned, but that’s a risk you have to take in life. Not only because life comes at you fast and with multiple curveballs, but also because there’s nothing riskier than not taking any risks.

“Life is a struggle and the potential for failure is ever present, but those who live in fear of failure, or hardship, or embarrassment, will never achieve their potential,” warns McRaven. “Without pushing your limits, without occasionally sliding down the rope headfirst, without daring greatly, you will never know what is truly possible in your life.” Oh, yes, and about the mission – it was a success, of course. Calculated risk pays off in life.

No. 7. Stand up to the bullies

As part of their training, McRaven and his swim buddy Marc Thomas were once ordered to swim for 4 miles through potentially shark-infested waters. Refusing the task meant not completing the SEAL training. Accepting it, however, meant putting their lives in danger. The two men, as you might have guessed with the wisdom of hindsight, chose the latter. Their honorable and noble goal – to become SEALs and one day defend their country – gave them the necessary courage to face the sharks.

Just like McRaven and Thomas, you too will encounter many sharks on your path to greatness. Find the courage to stand up to them. Without courage you’ll be left “at the mercy of life’s temptations,” with other people defining your path forward. With courage, however, you can defy and defeat all evil. It is because of courage that societies flourish. It is because of courage that we live in a world wherein most countries are ruled by democratically elected presidents, and not by tyrants and despots. McRaven should know best: he was in Iraq. He contributed to the capturing and execution of Saddam Hussein, the Butcher of Baghdad.

No. 8. Rise to the occasion

Sometimes it is inevitable that you’ll lose a loved one in your life. Unfortunately, no amount of shouting and screaming, not even years of sulking and depression, will ever be able to change that. 

Being a soldier, McRaven has learned this the hard way. He has seen far too many people die in battle, all of them terribly young and at the peak of their powers. And yet, he has always seen something else immediately after: their close friends – and even brothers – rising above their immediate sadness and grief to complete their mission. 

“At some point we will all confront a dark moment in life,” he writes. “If not the passing of a loved one, then something else that crushes your spirit and leaves you wondering about your future. In that dark moment, reach deep inside yourself and be your very best.” They say that when the going gets tough, it is the tough that get going. That’s why they are the only ones to reach the final destination.

No. 9. Give people hope

Sometimes, all it takes is just a little pat on the shoulder. Or maybe even a song. For example, during Hell Week – a dreaded seven-day endurance test which usually makes or breaks a SEAL trainee – as one of the guys in McRaven’s group was about to call it quits, another one started singing a bawdy song. Soon, everybody joined in. And even though it was past midnight and they were all covered in cold mud, somehow, they felt a bit more hopeful that they would endure. And they did. Nobody quit that night.

The lesson here is twofold. First of all, to paraphrase that famous line by Margaret Mead, that you should never underestimate the power of a single individual to change the world, because, in fact, that is the only thing that ever has. That night during Hell Week, McRaven witnessed this with his own eyes: one person was all it took to inspire and unite an entire group. The second part of the lesson is: be that person. Give people hope. It is what eases the pain of unbearable loss and what raises the downtrodden. It is, without particular exaggeration, “the most powerful force in the universe.”

No. 10. Never, ever quit

Of all the lessons McRaven learned in SEAL training, the most important one was seemingly the least profound: to never, ever quit. It’s not something you don’t know already, but it’s something worth repeating nevertheless. Because whether we want it or not, life constantly finds ways to stack the odds against us. Even though giving up may seem the only rational thing to do in situations such as these, it is not what brings the trophy at the end of the race.

On his first week in Afghanistan, Army Ranger Adam Bates, aged just 19, stepped on a mine and had to have both of his legs amputated. When McRaven visited him in the hospital after the accident, he couldn’t find the right words to comfort him and give him home (hope?). As he was struggling, Bates – “his face swollen from the blast, his eyes barely visible through the redness and the bandage” – began to sign. Slowly, painfully, he signed four words: “I–will–be–OK.” 

A year later, McRaven saw Bates at the 75th Ranger Regimental Change of Command, standing tall on prosthetic legs and challenging his fellow Rangers to a pull-up contest. As he had promised, he was okay. Despite the multiple surgeries and the painful rehab, and despite having to adapt to a new life, Bates never once complained. He never quit either. What’s your justification?

Final notes

Though certainly not a groundbreaking self-help manual, “Make Your Bed” is as inspirational as William McRaven’s life and service. Simple and short, it’s also powerful and captivating. 

As The Wall Street Journal quipped in a glowing review, it “should be read by every leader in America.” By every parent and grandparent, as well: “Make Your Bed” is “a book to inspire your children and grandchildren to become everything that they can.”

12min tip

To quote McRaven, “If you want to change your life and maybe the world – start off by making your bed!” Because if you can’t find the strength to tuck in your sheets in the morning, then, really, what makes you believe you’ll ever acquire the discipline to change the world one day?

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Who wrote the book?

William Harry McRaven is a retired United States Four-Star Navy admiral. He last served as the commander of the United States Special Operations Command (2011 – 2014), and before that, he served for three years as the Commander... (Read more)

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