The headline may just be a fancy way of saying, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life,” but during this season of graduations, it’s a cliché worth contemplating. Most grads don’t recall the wisdom their commencement speaker shared during a ceremony they had worked so hard to attend. Even most parents are so proud—and relieved—to be in the graduation audience that, short of an Oprah giveaway, the words fall on deaf ears.
Maybe it just takes a few years of real life to realize the true value of commencement speakers’ advice. After several “first” jobs, a couple of years of just making ends meet, a decade or two of raising children, a layoff or two and with retirement in sight, commencement wisdom sounds, well, a lot wiser.
Adm. William H. McRaven, USN, commander, U.S. Special Forces Command, recently delivered a speech that falls into this category at the University of Texas at Austin (UT) commencement ceremony this year. As a Navy SEAL, the admiral could have spoken about being tough, fighting the good fight and duty to country. But instead, he shared the life lessons he learned 37 years ago in Basic SEAL training that respectfully—and affectionately—could be called “All I Ever Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” on steroids.
The admiral described just what Basic SEAL training—led by Vietnam vets—was like in 1977. Battling surf zones, running obstacle courses, enduring hours and hours of calisthenics and freezing in mud flats were more than physical tests; these fierce workouts tested the mettle of every potential SEAL. “To me, Basic SEAL training was a lifetime of challenges crammed into six months,” he stated.
Although arduous for mind, body and spirit, that training succeeded in leaving an impression of lifelong lessons on Adm. McRaven. From starting each day with a task completed (making your bed) to finding someone to help you through life to respecting everyone, Basic SEAL training taught him that making a difference in this world requires both attention to detail and the willingness to step up during tough times. This wisdom may sound like platitudes to new college graduates, but to those of us who have experienced years (and years!) of real life, it is advice we should remember to live by every day.
The bottom line is that lifelong learning is about more than just keeping up with the latest technology. Look up. It’s about living the advice shared at commencement ceremonies—whether your own or you’re watching them on YouTube. Adm. McRaven had it right when he said “… while these lessons were learned during my time in the military, I can assure you that it matters not whether you ever served a day in uniform. It matters not your gender, your ethnic or religious background, your orientation or your social status. Our struggles in this world are similar, and the lessons to overcome those struggles and to move forward—changing ourselves and the world around us—will apply equally to all.” Commencement begins today.
Which graduation speech did you tune in to this year, and what did you learn?