AUSTIN — William McRaven — terrorist hunter, retired SEAL and four-star admiral, overseer to nearly a quarter-million university students — says the key to success in life and work is as close as the bedroom.
“There’s a power behind making your bed every morning,” McRaven said in a recent interview at his home in Austin, where he serves as chancellor at the University of Texas System, which includes the flagship Austin campus and 13 other institutions.
“Learn to do the little things well, learn to make your bed right,” he says. “And that transcends into a lot of other things you do.”
McRaven, 61, has taken the genesis of what he learned during SEAL training and his nearly four decades in Navy Special Operations into a thin, powerful book titled, Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life ... And Maybe the World.
In a wide-ranging interview with USA TODAY, McRaven discussed his book, his motivation for writing it, the travel ban proposed by President Trump and the current state of intelligence today.
"We are absolutely safer today," he says. "We are integrated and collaborate and operate a thousand times better than we did before 9/11."
McRaven is best known for organizing and overseeing the special ops raid in 2011 that led to the death of Osama bin Laden. He headed special ops teams in Iraq and Afghanistan and served as commander of U.S. Special Operations Command before retiring from the Navy and accepting the chancellor position at UT, his alma mater.
The 125-page book, which goes on sale Tuesday, spawns from a commencement speech McRaven gave at UT-Austin three years ago that struck a chord with students and went viral on social media. It retraces some of McRaven’s experience in SEAL training and his subsequent missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In the opening chapter, he details how instructors at SEAL training mandated that his bed was made each morning tight enough to bounce a quarter off — a practice he continued throughout the years. Later in the chapter, he describes overseeing Saddam Hussein's detainment after U.S. forces captured the former Iraqi leader. Saddam, McRaven writes, never made his bed.
"The covers were always crumpled at the foot of his cot and he rarely seemed inclined to straighten them," he writes.
Punitive calisthenics during SEAL training — known as “the Circus” — frames one chapter. In another, McRaven describes how SEAL candidates, overwhelmed by the rigors of training, needed only to ring a bell to quit the program. Of the 150 students who started with him, only 33 graduated as SEALS, he says. “If you want to change the world, don’t ever, ever ring the bell,” he writes.
One of the hardest chapters to write, McRaven says, was one where he describes visiting 19-year-old Army Ranger Adam Bates at a combat hospital in Afghanistan. Bates had both legs severed after stepping on a pressure plate mine. His face swollen from the blast and unable to speak, Bates used sign language to tell McRaven he’d be OK.
“Writing that story took me back to that moment in Afghanistan,” he said, swallowing back tears. “You never forgot that.”
As the 2014 commencement speech went viral, McRaven began hearing from people all over the world how the speech helped them through tough times: The young man battling cancer who wrote to McRaven to tell him he wasn’t "ringing the bell," before finally succumbing to the disease; the special ops soldier who lost a son and couldn’t bring himself to make his bed until reading the speech; the male nurse from the U.K. who said McRaven’s speech inspired him to stand up to bullies.
"It wasn’t a speech about being a SEAL," he says. "These are life lessons that could be used by anyone from any generation."
Despite all the recent angst over potential terrorist attacks, the U.S. is actually a lot safer today than it was immediately after the 9/11 attacks because of greater cooperation between U.S. intelligence agencies and closer ties with allies around the world — links that U.S. officials need to work to maintain, he says.
Trump’s 90-day travel ban on foreign nationals from six Muslim-majority country hasn’t impacted the university system as of yet, but he and other university officials are monitoring the situation closely, McRaven says. A Hawaii-based federal judge last week indefinitely halted core portions of the ban and the Justice Department is appealing that decision.
“I’m not an expert on the travel ban, but I’m a big supporter of immigrants in this country because I see it every day as chancellor of the University of Texas System,” he says. “I also recognize the need for us to remain vigilant.”
Despite political clashes in Washington and deep divisions after the recent presidential election, McRaven says he remains optimistic about the future of the country — a feeling stemming from the young men and women he commanded in war zones and those populating UT campuses today.
“When we look back on the history of the war after 9/11, we’ll say this young generation — these Millennials who are so often maligned — will in fact be the greatest generation of the 21st century,” he says. “And I believe that.”
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