Back in the early mists of time, camparigirl and I went to the Galapagos islands. We were poor and couldn’t afford the fancy live-aboard boats that cost six months of our salary – so we did it our way. Flew to Ecuador via Vladivostok (felt like anyway), caught an onward flight to Baltra, took a bus and ferry and taxi to Santa Cruz and stayed in barely-built hotel, until we found Jimmy, his pet seal and his amazing flooding B+B.
We went on day trips to the surrounding islands to see iguanas and blue-footed boobies. Well, I did – the sea was ice-cold and rough, and Claudia gets greenly seasick. No-one had mentioned the freezing Humbolt current to us; even my chunky Russian (now-petro-oligarch) dive buddy, who trained in Siberia gave in: “My pipi haz schrunk, I’m vinished with thiis bullzhit)”. It also rained pretty constantly – but that gave us other adventures: spelunking (my choice – not popular), watching 100-year-old-giant tortoise mate (Claudia’s pick – took forever) and a pizza luncheon in the middle of nowhere (thank God for Italians).
Then the weather lost it’s joie de vivre and we were told to evacuate the islands. We fled to the airport and stood in a line as long as the last departing plane. Someone shouted “go” and we ran: first on, first flown: everyone else would have to make the crossing by boat. Claudia had no intention of doing that, and I have never seen an athletic performance to match hers. She vaulted over the other runners: clutching her beloved and battered Mandarina Duck luggage – which must have weighed a good 20 pounds. Then lay shrieking fiercely across two seats, no-one went anywhere near her.
After spending the night in a spongy-floored backpackers in Quito; where I shared a bunk-bed dormitory with a pair of farting, copulating, honeymooning New Zealanders while Claudia and a medic from Buffalo juggled his balls on the roof (literally and literally) – we ended up in Coronado staying with our friend Lin. San Diego is also where the Navy SEALs train. Claudia and Lin found this endlessly entertaining – I wasn’t particularly interested in watching men in uniform run around in uniform, par for the course in SA. Besides war just makes me sad: spoils a holiday.
One Saturday I was conned into going to an air display in the desert; assured by my friends that the stealth bomber would be on show. Despite it’s destructive purpose, it was an amazing piece of design and I was keen to see it. The man in the grey/blue uniform had a good laugh when I asked him where it was: “Ma’am – do you really think we would put a secret weapon on display?”. The rest of the day passed in a resentment of heat, formation fly-bys and the theme song from Top Gun.
All of this came flooding back as I watched Naval Admiral William H. McRaven give the 2014 commencement speech at his Alma Mater – the University of Texas. McRaven has been a Navy SEAL for 36 years. He is credited for organizing and executing Operation Neptune Spear, the special ops raid that led to the death of Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011. He has undoubtedly endured all manner of hardships in his time – some undoubtedly similar to Galapagos holiday.
SEAL training is six months of constant harassment by men who are professional warriors – and who are looking to break the weak and fearful. No place for soft bellies in the US Navy’s elite Special Forces. The lessons McRaven drew from his training are wise and pertinent to us all. Only 35 of the 150 men who started training with him, stayed the course. Here’s what he believes they all knew.
#1. If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.
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. If you want to change the world, find someone to help you paddle.
During SEAL training the students are broken down into boat crews. 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.
#3. If you want to change the world, measure a person by the size of their heart, not the size of their flippers.
SEAL training was a great equalizer. Nothing mattered but your will to succeed. Not your color, not your ethnic background, not your education and not your social status.
#4. If you want to change the world get over being a sugar cookie and keep moving forward.
Trainees who failed uniform drill were made to run into the surf and roll around on the beach until they were frosted with sand: hence ‘sugar cookie’. They had to stay that way all day. Sometimes no matter how well you prepare or how well you perform you still end up as a sugar cookie. It’s just the way life is sometimes.
#5. But if you want to change the world, don’t be afraid of the circuses.
Any trainee that failed to meet daily standards was invited to a “circus.” Two hours of additional calisthenics: designed to break your spirit. McRaven noted: “students who were most often on the list got stronger… the pain … 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.
#6. If you want to change the world sometimes you have to slide down the obstacle head first.
The base’s course contained 25 obstacles including a 10-foot high wall, a 30-foot cargo net, a barbed wire crawl and the 200 foot ‘slide for life. Steep, dangerous: a fall could maim, exclude you from training. The course’s record had stood for years and seemed unbeatable, until one day a student decided to go down the slide for life head-first. It took him half the usual time. By the end of the course he had broken the record.
#7. So, if you want to change the world, don’t back down from the sharks.
Trainee SEALs are required to complete a swim in the cold waters off San Clemente Island: a breeding ground for Great White Sharks. They’re taught that if a shark begins to circle, they stand their ground. No swimming away, no acting afraid: “if the shark darts towards you; 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.
#8. If you want to change the world, you must be your very best in the darkest moment.
SEALs are trained to conduct underwater attacks against enemy shipping at night. The steel structure of the ship blocks all ambient light. The keel is the darkest part of the ship, noise from the ship’s machinery is deafening, you can’t see your hands … it’s easy to get disoriented and fail. 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.
#9. If you want to change the world, start singing when you’re up to your neck in mud.
During “Hell Week”, trainees spend 15 hours, immersed to their heads, in freezing cold mud. Add howling wind and incessant pressure to quit from the instructors and many men seriously consider giving up. If 5 do – the rest get to leave the mud too. With 8 hours of bone chilling immersion to go, one trainee started to sing. One after the other the trainees joined in. If one man could rise above the misery then others could as well. 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.
#10. If you want to change the world don’t ever, ever ring the bell.
A brass bell hangs in the center of the training compound: if you want to quit – all you have to do is ring it. And you no longer have to endure the hardships of training. Know that life is not fair and that you will fail often, but if you take some risks, step up when the times are toughest, face down the bullies, lift up the downtrodden and never, ever give up—if you do these things, then next generation and the generations that follow will live in a world far better than the one we have today and—what started here will indeed have changed the world—for the better.
Never ring that bell.
(These are excerpts, quotes and italics are Admiral McRaven’s own words. Watch the full address here)