Optimism is the most important fuel of champions, of winning, and of success, especially in the face of change. At one time or another, all of us have chased a goal when, in our hearts, we did not truly believe that we would succeed — and more often, we did not. Nothing is more important that all-in commitment and unwavering belief.
Humans are in a never-ending battle with our own minds, our own anticipation of future events, our memories, and our biases often formed from the opinions of others. Nothing kills more potential triumphs than realism or worse yet, the dark cloud of pessimism. Our own expectations, secret or public, change outcomes.
As I watch the 2022 World Cup, I see vivid examples of belief and doubt, expectations and outside influences. Winning and losing on the world’s largest stage requires more than athleticism and fitness. Coaches who manage to motivate their individual players to give in their all while not doubting themselves are the ones who progress against all odds. Sports and tournaments are amazing microcosms, where events play out in a few weeks that take years in normal life.
No one wins the World Cup, or the Olympics, or the mega sale, or the new amazing job, without unequivocal belief in self.
What is your #1 goal at work? What is your #1 goal at home? What is your #1 goal personally? Or for your longer-term future? What’s your goal for health and fitness? Do you believe that you can and will pull off each goal? Will you be great? If you are not sure, if realism and pessimism are gnawing at your confidence, you will probably falter. Only you can change your own mind — the sooner you do, the better — because the decision-making domino effect matters.
The requirement of optimism is present both in small objectives and in large ones. I once played a round of golf with former NBA guard Derrick Harper. He completely believed he would sink every putt. It was amazing how much better he putted because he believed. I suspect he brought that same verve and belief when he first stepped up to the game commentator microphone.
These lessons matter, because the same is true for you and your goals. If you believe you will wow the audience at the big conference, indeed you will. And the domino effect can accelerate your career. If you believe you will be an amazing dad and spouse, you will be just that. If you believe you will achieve the best shape of your life within 18 months, you just might get there 3 months ahead of schedule.
If you are doubting yourself, take inventory of why. List your positives and your shortcomings. Ink and paper are magical. More often than not, I find new belief that I am indeed, ready, willing, and able to overcome the challenge and surprise all those “realistic” doubting Thomases.
Unfortunately, the graduates are often too tied up in their own thoughts to absorb the lessons the day of the show. There is great wisdom and value in some, and this speech by JK Rowling really inspires one to think:
People often blame PowerPoint for bad presentations. I do not. Powerpoint is a fantastic tool, when used to tell a great story. Although no one sets out to give a bad presentation. many fall short.
There are three primary reasons:
1. The presenter is sharing slides and a message that is not his or her own, or a message that is net new, first-time out of the gate.
2. There is no underlying story or outline that follows the basics of good storytelling.
3. The presenter doesn’t evaluate the performance and the outcome, seeking to fine-tune and improve over time, instead falling into repeating the same flawed pitch and a false belief that it is “pretty good” when it is not.
Right after you present, ask yourself these 12 questions and rate yourself and your effort – in writing – on each one:
Did you capture the audience’s attention in the first 90 seconds?
Did you establish credibility?
Did you keep their attention and interest?
Were you memorable?
Was your message memorable?
Did you inspire (usually we look to inspire change)?
Did you change the audience’s perspective?
Did you inspire next steps and actions?
What did people remember?
Was it entertaining?
Did you educate and simplify?
Did you delight the audience?
On any one of these that came up short of a 10, think about ideas for what you could have done better and jot them down. It will help you improve over time. Never present the exact same pitch as long as there is room to improve it. It’s an amazingly effective discipline to develop.
I have a habit of looking up people on Wikipedia while watching TV and reading their story. This includes actors, directors, producers, guests, politicians — nearly anyone who pops up on screen and strikes a chord. Over the years, I’ve found a trend that repeats all too often: little to lose.
People with little or nothing to lose seem more willing to take risks and embrace opportunities with all-in 100% conviction and commitment than those with a lot of options and the perception that they have much to lose. It’s a bit surprising how often the son or daughter from a family with modest means, or someone from a broken home or orphanage, rises to the very pinnacle of U.S. society and fame.
I have found that home run careers usually come from humble beginnings, not from those born into great wealth or the upper middle class. Sure, there are exceptions but, for every hundred people I look up in my decidedly unscientific wikipedia survey, 8 out of 10 came from the “little to lose” mindset.
People complain about having access and being disadvantaged. Yes, at one level, having a plethora of options seems to give you paved roads for success, but I think that success is often the top 10% variety, not the top 1/10th of 1% home run variety. Home runs come from taking greater risks and sticking to your plan as though you have no option but to success or fail in the current mission.
Legend tells us that Cortez burned his ships to ensure that his men would conquer the Aztec empire, or die trying. Hernán took away the option of retreat. Embracing risk, committing fully to the mission, adapting and overcoming, believing in your heart that you will ultimately prevail against all odds, trying everything you can until you succeed are key parts of the formula for success that few actually follow. Yet this formula is available to all of us, even those born with a silver spoon in their mouth. It requires courage, hope, and a burn my own ships mentality.
PS. This formula and reality is why the lion’s share of home run businesses are started by 20 somethings and not 50 somethings. A 20 year old normally has far less to lose and is therefore willing to risk much more than a 50 year old who has made countless sacrifices for 30 years. In truth, the 50 year old is likely wiser and better equipped to succeed. But risk and commitment are two killer aspects that are unlikely to be overcome. The 50 year old simply requires more venture money, a decent salary, and greater safety nets to dare greatly. Lastly, it is easier to fully believe and to be all-in before the setbacks of three decades leave numerous scars on a psyche.
It’s a busy busy life. Even when we are not busy with work, we tend to be rushing to a game, picking someone up, running an errand, or adding to our never-ending pile of stuff.
When I take a full hour to sip my french roast — without looking at email, texts, Instagram, or the news — before getting started in the tornado of the day, my outlook changes for the better. I have time to think without the torrent of input from the outside world. Fragmented thoughts from previous days magically knit themselves into coherent ideas. Only after that hour of peaceful thinking while watching the sun rise or staring into the fire dancing in my fireplace, and occasionally jotting a sentence in my notebook, do I pick up my device and reattach to the priorities of the present. This early morning hour is an amazing counter to the urgency conspiracy I have often written about.
When I make this time for thinking, my life tracks in a dramatically better path. This isn’t the ‘mindfulness’ everyone is fashionably harping about these days — most people seems to want to disconnect their mind from work and projects and just notice the little things (and sure, that’s worthy too) — but it is mindfulness in terms of getting your ducks in a row as to what you want to create, who you want to influence, and what your priorities are right now. Developing the skill to consciously decide what you want to think about (and what you won’t think about) will pay dividends for your entire life.
Daily commitments can often get in the way, especially when you must make it through the TSA gauntlet in time for a 6:30 am departure. It can be hard to restart your habit, but I see these hurried days as a great reminder of the importance of making time to carpe mane, to seize the morning — to think. I do believe this is a morning habit — although I’ve tried, I personally can’t seem to achieve the same zen thinking time after quitting time. The hassles of the day creep in and I never seem to get into the bliss zone of zen thinking.
I hope that you give it a try. It will first require the discipline of getting up a little early, of not pressing snooze on that alarm three or four time in a row, but it is worth it. One hour per day of open-minded yet focused thinking will help you become more optimistic, action-oriented, and priority-focused all day.
COVID stole a great slice of our future outlook. We all had plans and goals and ambitions in 2019. COVID took the wind out of our sails.
It’s hard to reboot once your habits change. We talk about vacations with qualifying statements like “depending on COVID surges” at the end of every idea. The same is true for career goals, personal missions, and shared family visions too.
If you don’t have targets, not only will you not get there, you won’t make progress in the right direction. If you wait until the moment all the lights turn green, you will never make it across town.
What are you look forward to in 2022? What one thing are you looking forward to in 2023 and 2024? Write down these three one line sentences and start making plans. It’s the only way to recapture some of what COVID took away from us.
Too many people work at a job that doesn’t fire them up. Too many people dread Mondays, love Fridays. Too many people stick to daily toil without modifying anything, trading their best daily hours simply in exchange for money which keeps their world afloat.
Then, sooner than most people realize, a job vaporizes or retirement arrives. I’m not a believer inretirement as mentioned previously, so let’s just call it ‘the next chapter’ in your life. It is up to us to make it a great, fulfilling chapter, and if you can find a way to experience your better life now, absolutely make it happen.
Maybe your answer is to teach snowboarding 🙂
You have to answer one question for yourself: What would you do with your life, what would make Mondays awesome, if the daily pursuit of the paycheck was no longer a concern, a worry, a cross to bear? If you do, you will be better off. People who figure this out, clearly and concisely in their head, are the ones who actually live their dream life. Visualization – precise, concrete visualization – is one of the most powerful formulas to achieving your goals.
I’m not advocating that you just quit your career, but, if you know what journey you would prefer, you will find that, decision by decision, you will take positive steps to adding more fulfilling components and objectives to your daily life. Many might start with a side-gig to learn if their vision is really as great a fit as they think it is. For a few people stuck in a true dead end, quitting might indeed be the answer. All of us have the power to radically change the course of our life with one hopefully well-thought-out decision.
Do you have an answer? I believe for many of us, if money was not an issue, the answer would not even be a career or a specific job. If you don’t have your answer, take the time to figure it out, get it jotted and sketched out on paper. Revisit it again ever month, and adjust it a bit as you have had more time to think about it. The bottom line is when you know where you want to go, what or where you want to be in just a few years, you have a much better chance of getting there.
Many aspects of life work against us living large. It is all too easy to get stuck in a rut, taking the same road to work each day, fighting the same traffic, doing the same thing day in and day out, listening to the same problems, hanging out with the same friends with all their worries and petty grievances, paying the same bills. Many people find themselves in life’s quicksand, getting the same results and facing the same outlook next month.
There is a proven way to live a much larger and more fulfilling life. You must decide to be a student, which has little or nothing to do with being in school. Becoming a student of life – for life – means staying curious, learning new topics, reading new stuff, meeting new people, trying new things, making new mistakes, struggling a bit with new endeavors, and above all, taking new chances. As the Great Gretzky put it, “You miss 100% of the shots that you don’t take.”
Time for a quick self-assessment: Are you a life-long student?
Take just two minutes with a piece of paper and list out all the new stuff you have tried or learned in the last 60 days. What mistakes have you made and what lessons did you learn from them? If you are not making any mistakes, odds are you are playing it way too safe. Personal growth comes from pushing your personal envelope.
Is it harder to take chances? Sure it is, in the short run. In the long run, getting stuck in life’s quicksand is much worse.
When you decide to become a life-long student, you discover the keys to the fountain of youth. The daily struggle that comes with asking questions, doubting the talking heads, taking prudent risks, seeking to understand, adapting and overcoming — that is what epitomized youthfulness and vitality. When you combine the life-long-student discipline and attitude with sincere do-something-about-it-now goals (the second key to the fountain of youth), you become unstoppable and wind up living a much larger and fulfilling life. There are no guarantees that you will become rich like Richard Branson in the process, but it will be a ride worth talking about.
If you work in a large knowledge-work corporation, your life is often complex, the cloud of internal politics never dissipates, and there is always more to do than time in the day. Over the years, I have found that quotes can really help you think through the clutter and make better decisions.
This is not an all encompassing list, but reviewing this baker’s dozen of quotes once each month helps recalibrate your efforts and focus on what matters.
When in doubt, be bold, for fortune favors the bold. The bold have optimism, believe in their dreams, and take risks due to their belief.
2. Success is found by going from setback to setback with no loss of enthusiasm.
3. The will to prepare is more important than the will to win. Most show up on game day. The ones who put in the hard work, before game time, achieve greatness.
4. 10% of what you do results in 90% of the lasting value you deliver. Stop investing time on stuff that won’t matter next month.
5. Become a master at the art to saying no, without turning people against you. Only by adroitly saying ‘no’ to good things to do, can a person find the time to do the great stuff.
6. Helping others with true generosity, without worrying about receiving credit, will enable you go farther than you can imagine. ‘How can I help’ is a magical phrase that opens doors of opportunity.
7. If you are not making mistakes, you are simply not pushing the envelope of your true potential.
8. Real, true relationships are only built with one-on-one, personal conversations. Be proactive, honest, and vulnerable, reach out to new people, and make the time to connect on a personal level.
9. Plan your week first, then plan your day, to make strategic progress on your own goals. Otherwise, other people’s urgencies will take over all your best time.
10. Get over it, no matter what it is. Stuff will always go sideways at unexpected times, but those who look forward, those who adapt and overcome, those who forgive, win.
11. Extraordinary only comes from optimism, courage, and the pursuit of perfection. Critics don’t matter. Pessimists don’t blaze new trails. The fans in the stands are average. Be the gladiator in the arena.
12. Focus on what you can control. Most everything is out of your control, except for your own attitude, the breadth of your imagination, your willingness to make new decisions, and the quality of your effort.
13. Have one top priority at a time, the one thing that matters the most. Multiple priorities lead to unfinished, irrelevant, wasted time. Think WIN — “What’s Important Now” — what happened yesterday and the worries of tomorrow are less important.
This list was formerly SAK13, but now renamed to SAKALAS 13 due to other people’s names, handles, aliases, and hashtags on social media sites.
Many of us have jobs where we “sell” our ideas to others, even though lots of people are not in professional sales per se. Everyone has to sell, even if you are just selling ideas to your teammates, your boss, your kids, or the really big boss, your spouse. The better you become at being persuasive, the more likely you are to make a positive impact, to be memorable, to help others, and, if the planets align, to advance to positions of greater responsibility.
The problem is that it is quite difficult to rise above the constant noise, to create and deliver an outstanding, memorable presentation in a noisy, crowded, distracted, multi-media world that we live within.
In my career, I have attended thousands — literally thousands — of presentations. Every week, I attend at least ten. Most of the people at the front of the room, or in front of the Zoom webcam, were selected to lead the presentation or discussion as recognized experts or managers in their field. What’s mind-boggling is how few of the sessions are actually compelling, captivating, and memorable.
A lot goes into rising several deviations above the level of the average presentation.
Some crucial aspects take a lot of practice and are quite nuanced — for example, does the presenter achieve a personal connection to the audience even though he is speaking to a room of 300, or she is speaking over Zoom or Teams to a crowd of 1,000. Details include the ability to command attention, to make a positive first impression in seconds, to appeal to the senses despite the distance. Many of these nuances have to do with one’s voice modulation, facial expressions, and body language, things that take time, coaching, experience, and effort to adjust and improve. Julian Treasure offers food for thought during his speech at TED.
Fine-tuning details aside, the vast majority of items for creating a compelling and captivating message can be easily baked into your effort if you follow a specific, proven formula, a checklist recipe for greater effectiveness. You must be willing to put in the work — to take your presentation that you thought was done and re-engineer it for a week or more — and then practice your honed message once it passes the checklist test as no one “kills it” the first few times he or she presents it — but if you do, I believe you will be able to achieve top 10% presentation messaging and become more compelling and memorable. Always remember that the Beatles played ‘Hey, Jude’ hundreds of times for live audiences, gathering feeedback and making adjustments, before it became a global hit.
I have invested years creating a checklist that works, coaching others on how to improve their message, and of course, applying these principles to my own presentations:
Sakalas Wonderlist a.k.a. Sak’s C3 Checklist: A Checklist for Creating a Captivating and Compelling Presentation:
Always start with Why, not What or How
Why appears on more than one level — at the company level, Why do we exist — what do we believe — what makes us want to get up in the morning. The easiest way to do this when in doubt is to simply have one slide that says “We Believe ________” — no reason to be too subtle.
The “Why” at the here and now level — Why we invented or created this product, or why I have this specific idea — why solving this problem is worth the effort — instead of all the other things you could do with your time and money.
The personal “why” — Why this idea / solution / product is near and dear to me — why it drives me personally — why I’m a believer.
I suggest watching Simon Sinek’s uber-famous break-out moment when he gave his “Start with Why” TED talk at a regional event. He later followed it up with a book, and has now created an entire career launch — because his message is dead on right.
Re-configure your story to make the audience the hero / the protagonist of the story — you can never be the center of the story — people care about themselves, not you. The easiest way to implement this is to start with something like “We have noticed a lot of our customers encounter this challenge, or a lot of our customers are working on this problem”. If you do this well, success is noticeable as members of the audience nod in agreement that they too, face the same issue.
Stories follow the same pattern — no matter if you analyze the works of William Shakespeare, JK Rowling, Walt Disney, or Stephen Spielberg. There is always a hero who faces a big problem. The hero finds an experienced advisor who gives him or her the understanding needed and helps him or her create a plan. The plan leads to a climactic moment where the hero either wins or loses. If the hero wins, he or she is transformed into a greater person, ready for greater challenges in the future. If he or she loses, there are always grave consequences.
This story formula can apply to a company, a product, or a person.
Distill the story to its essence. As a good rule of thumb, 50 – 75 words is probably the maximum you should strive for.
I suggest watching this short session with Donald Brown, author of StoryBrand. It is invaluable in getting to the essence of your company’s story, or a product’s story, or a service’s story, or a personal story that will capture people’s attention.
Strive for crystal clear differentiation versus the closest competitors / alternative choices / competing ideas. A big mistake is to list differentiators that are not different. You must be clear as to actual differences that people will remember and agree are actually differences. Often you do not get to pick — for example, if a competitor has a well established differentiation of ‘safety’, you will not succeed by differentiating that you are safer than safe.
Focus on benefits that the audience / customer wants, not the benefits that you want. Its all about your audience. Anticipate what the audience wants, and then show how your idea-product-solution will offer the benefits are a great fit. Your benefits should outweigh your focus on what it is or does by a factor of 2:1. As Harvard Professor Theodore Levitt memorably pointed out decades ago, people want a hole in the wood board, not a shiny drill. Too often, we spend our time talking about our shiny drill.
Change your message to fit your audience, every time. A generic message to a generic, broadly diverse audience will usually fall flat. Bespoke messaging sells 300% better than generic messaging. Neil deGrasse Tyson observes on Masterclass.com that few people realize how much time and effort he invests in every single presentation that he does. He attributes much of his success to this custom, audience-aware message preparation.
Assume you have only 5 – 10 minutes before many people will tune you out. Email, texts, slack messages, dogs barking, kids barging in to the office, ADD — lots of things can and will happen. Everything else is a bonus. Learn from how newspapers write articles — they have a well-honed formula. The first few paragraphs have the whole story. You want the audience to get the key aspects of your message in the early innings of the game, just in case they tune out soon thereafter. After you have your high-level message done in just a few minutes, you can then go into greater detail, re-enforcing the same message, during the middle of the presentation or paper.
Always summarize three key takeaways that you hope that they got from your message. Ask people if that is what they got. If they did not, it’s a good time to engage in a conversation at the end. The takeaways should confirm the ‘newspaper format’ first 5 – 10 minutes (see previous checklist item #6).
Consider starting with your three key takeaways as well ending with them — while this is not super-creative, there is wisdom to making sure people “get” the message that you are hoping they receive from your moment in the limelight. There is no doubt that people pay more attention to the first minutes than the last ones during an hour meeting.
Why three? Three is not magical, but it might be a maximum to hope for. I have seen success with five takeaways, but you are asking a lot of your audience — will they remember anything if you ask them to remember five? To that end, less is usually more.
Create a sense of urgency to take action. If there is no reason to act, people will not remember it nearly as well as you hope. Ideas go stale without next steps faster than lettuce in your refrigerator. Sometimes it seems like the lettuce wilts just going from Whole Foods to the refrigerator at home!
Set the hook right away and grab their attention right away – nothing matters more in the first minute. Don’t spend time introducing yourself — it is much better if you get someone else to introduce you before you start.
Best — Start with a personal story, that connects to the main purpose of the message in no longer than two minutes. People lean in when they know its a story. We like stories. Use the words “before I plunge in, I’d like to share a story (that happened to me / that I found super interesting / that really applies to our topic…). This is the best way to connect to the audience quickly because it reveals your personality and how you think.
Good — If you can’t find a good-fit story to use, start by asking questions that ultimately reveal some startling facts. This also connects you to the audience, but not quite as well as a personal story, because it is less revealing of your personality and like-ability.
Better than nothing — If you can’t figure out a story or startling facts, tell a good joke. Jokes are hard unless you are very adept at telling jokes.
Use visual analogies throughout. There is a mountain of research that proves, beyond the shadow of the doubt, that when a person imagines a visual in their mind, they then remember the concept that you hope to convey. Jesus preached in visual parables and analogies for a reason: they work. If you are selling a software tool chest that helps you build new applications quickly, compare that to Lego City Kits that help you build an entire city, full of skyscrapers and firetrucks, quickly, on a conference table. The visualization matters.
Do you remember my visuals of customers wanting a hole, not a shiny drill — or ideas wilting faster than lettuce in the refrigerator? These illustrate my point: visualizations work where words on a slide fail to stick.
Find your hook and chorus, the spine of your presentation, and repeat it often. Most hit songs have both a hook (short one – three words) and a chorus that are catchy and memorable. The best speeches do as well. Find the theme that ties your message together and insert it at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end. Barack Obama turned his primary loss to Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire into momentum that propelled him into the White House when he found a hook (“Yes, We Can!”) that resonated with the electorate that fateful night.
There are another dozen of so techniques — items such as creating a bit of mystery, suspense, surprise, emotional moments — that can help with the compelling, captivating and memorable aspects of your effort, but they pale in comparison to the importance of the ten checklist items above. These dozen are the frosting on the cake, while the ten on the checklist above make up the cake itself.
Note that everything on the Sakalas Wonderlist applies not only to spoken presentations but to other forms of presentation as well, such as writing a killer white paper brief or creating a one-page website.
Lastly, I do not believe that powerpoint sucks, as many people mindlessly incant for shock value and an easy laugh. Powerpoint and Keynote can be great, if they support and enhance a great message with great delivery. The most common mistake people usually make is trying to make too many points using one slide that has too many words on it. If you decide to make one and only one point per slide, you will be on the path to becoming a Keynote Jedi or Powerpoint Jedi someday. There are incredible presentations without a single slide, and fabulous presentations with only a white board, but the truth is that many, if not most, will include a presentation tool — especially in business — so why not learn to use it well?
If you remember anything at all from my discussion today, it is:
Killer presentations don’t happen by accident
The 11 items on the Sakalas Wonderlist will help you succeed in creating a killer presentation.
It will take sincere work and practice to achieve a great result.
Never forget that people like stories 1,000% more than presentations without a story.
Feel free to reach out if you have any questions. I’m happy to help.
PS> C3, if you were wondering, stands for compelling, captivating, and concise. Being concise, leaving plenty of room for questions, is much better than boring people with additional details that take away from the core message. I believe that designing your presentation to encourage questions (that you are well-prepared to answer) is actually “great design” that leads to success.
There are moments that challenge all of us during our lives, but these moments are rarely shared on the candy-coated world portrayed in people’s Facebook and Instagram posts. The truth is sh*t happens, and lots of things are out of our personal control. The challenge is how to rekindle your optimism, how to keep living life in a positive way after a disaster, after an emotional bomb, after a huge mistake, after a terrible disease or a devastating loss.
The short answer is that you have to develop great resilience because odds are good that you will be challenged sooner or later. It is easy to say ‘develop great resilience‘ but much harder to implement in your life when you need it. I found this video on TED that I think illuminates the path, shows people that there can be hope, there can be a new dawn after that all too dark and stormy night. This is not a happy story, but for me, I find it full of hope. I think it is well worth watching, especially if you are suffering through challenges right now:
My takeaways from Lucy’s story for becoming more resilient are 1) to understand that bad sh*t happens to almost everyone, 2) to focus on the things that you can control, 3) to look for the positives, no matter how small they are, 4) to be grateful — for gratefulness is the key to happiness, and 5) to ask yourself if the daily choices that you are making are helping you or hurting you.
If you think you can, you can. These five steps can put you back on track if you believe that they can and commit fully. I personally believe that two additional aspects are important and help a lot: a) trusting that God exists and that God will help you adapt and overcome, and b) investing the time and energy to build strong social bonds and friendships but these were not part of Lucy Hone’s perspective.
No one said life would be easy, or fair, or perfect, but life is good — if you are grateful for what you have.
One of the most overused cliches often cited by motivational speakers and politicians, is that the Chinese character for crisis is also the same character for opportunity. JFK, while campaigning for the presidency of the United States, popularized this phrase in his speeches of 1959 and 1960 by saying:
“In the Chinese language, the word “crisis” is composed of two characters, one representing danger and the other, opportunity.”
When you question this quote one level deeper, you find out that our translation is actually not entirely accurate — the Chinese character representation, to be a bit more accurate, actually means “danger at a point of juncture” or “danger meeting a critical point”. But the western mistranslation and idea remains incredibly popular because it rings true in so many scenarios.
COVID-19 is out latest crisis that is teaching us that every crisis does offer disaster for some while opportunity for others. Gyms shuttered around the world but bike stores sold out of a year’s supply of bicycles in a month. Some retailers like JC Penney and Neiman Marcus declared bankruptcy while others such as Amazon and Walmart saw business surge beyond all expectations. Investors in airlines and cruises were hammered while investors in technologies that help people work productively from home offices skyrocketed. Clorox is having a banner year, as are many pharmaceutical firms, as are Glock and Smith & Wesson.
The lesson that I see, the lesson I’m committed to learning, is that the next time a crisis looms, I’m going to quickly gather my investment idea crew on a Zoom video call and brainstorm our best ideas for who will win and who will lose, if this new crisis grows. Had I moved faster than I did, I would have sold my airline and oil positions weeks sooner than I did, and bought obvious winners such as Zoom and Slack. It would have made a great difference in my results to be nimble and open-minded.
Do you have an investment-idea-crew built and connected, ready for next time? Why not?
The lesson is straightforward even if the Chinese character translation is nuanced and a bit mangled: One man’s crisis is indeed another man’s opportunity. Don’t spend brain-cycles worrying about the crisis — rather, quickly think through the opportunity that waits to be found. The market as a whole does not figure these things out in 24 hours.
Ever since movies like The Terminator sold a lot of tickets and popcorn, we have been debating if AI will save us or eventually kill us. There are smart minds on both sides of this debate, but I’m unsurprisingly optimistic that AI will be harnessed for good.
Kevin Kelly is a certified futurist in whom I find a lot of wisdom. Of course, no one bats 1.000 when predicting the future. I find his recent presentation from January 2017 well worth thinking about.
I am optimistic that AI will greatly reduce the amount of dull, repetitive work that drives so many people crazy, and that’s a great outcome.
Some folks think that people want to be bored at work to save jobs. Based on our recent past experiences, I believe there will be plenty of jobs, just better ones than we have now. As factories have become more automated, we produce more with less people. As farms become more automated, we produce more with less there too. The country has absorbed the displaced workforce in new arenas. AI will make other repetitive tasks more automated, and the workforce will adjust again, because there are no limits to human adaptability. Change is good, although some don’t embrace it.
If you are a regular reader, you know that I’ve been railing against watching worthless TV and streaming media for years. But not all media is created the same and of course there is wonderful stuff too. John Krasinski — in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic — just proved that the message within the “content” matters much more than the money invested in professional production. It also helps to have a positive attitude and a can-do belief in yourself.
I recommend spending the next hour+ watching these episodes in order. It is a brilliant display of optimism, when we need it. The lesson is simple — optimism always matters. We should not forget this lesson a few years from now, when a lot of people will start to forget and go back to complaining about traffic and all the banalities of daily life.
Thanks everyone, especially John, for illustrating the power of optimism.
Why do people hoard toilet paper during the COVID-19 crisis?
Because we do not know if there will be enough in the near future.
Because we don’t know how COVID quarantines will play out.
Because we don’t understand how it spreads, exactly.
Because we don’t know how many people have it who are not conscious that they have it, and are continuing to spread it.
Because we don’t know how many people that should be tested are actually getting tested.
Because we don’t know if the testing is kind of accurate (70%’ish), mostly accurate (85%’ish), or really accurate (>95%’ish).
The list of unknowns is long.
I believe the next two weeks will yield much more data. Good data leads to better collective decision making, for everything from what level of quarantines are smart, to what treatments help, to what interactions are fine, to how big the problem is, to how will it continue to crop up in various metros. While we might not all be back to normal life and work by Easter Monday, we should have much greater transparency and visibility than we have had throughout March. Great data matters for it offers visibility.
This contagion has demonstrated, at a cost of trillions, that good data and great data transparency is the single most important thing we need to have when the next contagion plagues the world. I’m 100% certain we will solve this one, but we need to learn the lesson and get more serious to prep for the next one, for someday, it will come, and it is far more likely than the killer asteroid collision we imagined in Armageddon (the Bruce Willis movie).
One last question to think about: how can you improve your decision making in your personal life and work life? How do you enjoy better success with your investments, or your health? How do you better decide where to live? The answers reside in what you will do to improve your data.
Let’s pursue better data and analytics. It is the obvious path to smarter decisions and a better world for the human race.
I’m a believer in feeding your mind “good stuff” just as we feed our bodies “good food” to maintain health. Below is perhaps one of the best commencement speeches of all time, given by the late David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College in 2005.
Don’t confuse “the best” with the “most entertaining” for there is a difference. This is not the most entertaining commencement speech. Most commencement speeches follow a tried and true motivational formula, oft focused on love of neighbor and staying true to your purpose and passions. This is not that, either. But I believe it is well-worthy of 30 minutes of quiet contemplation.
Please note that David is clearly a brilliant writer — and that is a diversion — too many people admire writing for the clever prose itself. Don’t get distracted by it — its not the quality of writing that makes this commencement speech one of the best. The message is what matters.
One important question: Are you willing to dedicate 30 minutes without your iPhone? Do you have the will to leave it in another room, silenced?
“Greetings parents and congratulations to Kenyon’s graduating class of 2005. There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”
This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories. The story thing turns out to be one of the better, less bullshitty conventions of the genre, but if you’re worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise, older fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don’t be. I am not the wise old fish. The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning.
Of course the main requirement of speeches like this is that I’m supposed to talk about your liberal arts education’s meaning, to try to explain why the degree you are about to receive has actual human value instead of just a material payoff. So let’s talk about the single most pervasive cliché in the commencement speech genre, which is that a liberal arts education is not so much about filling you up with knowledge as it is about “teaching you how to think.” If you’re like me as a student, you’ve never liked hearing this, and you tend to feel a bit insulted by the claim that you needed anybody to teach you how to think, since the fact that you even got admitted to a college this good seems like proof that you already know how to think. But I’m going to posit to you that the liberal arts cliché turns out not to be insulting at all, because the really significant education in thinking that we’re supposed to get in a place like this isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about. If your total freedom of choice regarding what to think about seems too obvious to waste time discussing, I’d ask you to think about fish and water, and to bracket for just a few minutes your scepticism about the value of the totally obvious.
Here’s another didactic little story. There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says: “Look, it’s not like I don’t have actual reasons for not believing in God. It’s not like I haven’t ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn’t see a thing, and it was 50 below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out ‘Oh, God, if there is a God, I’m lost in this blizzard, and I’m gonna die if you don’t help me.’” And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. “Well then you must believe now,” he says, “After all, here you are, alive.” The atheist just rolls his eyes. “No, man, all that was was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp.”
It’s easy to run this story through kind of a standard liberal arts analysis: the exact same experience can mean two totally different things to two different people, given those people’s two different belief templates and two different ways of constructing meaning from experience. Because we prize tolerance and diversity of belief, nowhere in our liberal arts analysis do we want to claim that one guy’s interpretation is true and the other guy’s is false or bad. Which is fine, except we also never end up talking about just where these individual templates and beliefs come from. Meaning, where they come from INSIDE the two guys. As if a person’s most basic orientation toward the world, and the meaning of his experience were somehow just hard-wired, like height or shoe-size; or automatically absorbed from the culture, like language. As if how we construct meaning were not actually a matter of personal, intentional choice. Plus, there’s the whole matter of arrogance. The nonreligious guy is so totally certain in his dismissal of the possibility that the passing Eskimos had anything to do with his prayer for help. True, there are plenty of religious people who seem arrogant and certain of their own interpretations, too. They’re probably even more repulsive than atheists, at least to most of us. But religious dogmatists’ problem is exactly the same as the story’s unbeliever: blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked up.
The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.
Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.
Please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being “well-adjusted”, which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.
Given the triumphant academic setting here, an obvious question is how much of this work of adjusting our default setting involves actual knowledge or intellect. This question gets very tricky. Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education–least in my own case–is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualise stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me.
As I’m sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotised by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.”
This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.
And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. Let’s get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what “day in day out” really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about.
By way of example, let’s say it’s an average adult day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job, and you work hard for eight or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired and somewhat stressed and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for an hour, and then hit the sack early because, of course, you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there’s no food at home. You haven’t had time to shop this week because of your challenging job, and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the work day and the traffic is apt to be: very bad. So getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping. And the store is hideously lit and infused with soul-killing muzak or corporate pop and it’s pretty much the last place you want to be but you can’t just get in and quickly out; you have to wander all over the huge, over-lit store’s confusing aisles to find the stuff you want and you have to manoeuvre your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts (et cetera, et cetera, cutting stuff out because this is a long ceremony) and eventually you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough check-out lanes open even though it’s the end-of-the-day rush. So the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating. But you can’t take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college.
But anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and you pay for your food, and you get told to “Have a nice day” in a voice that is the absolute voice of death. Then you have to take your creepy, flimsy, plastic bags of groceries in your cart with the one crazy wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left, all the way out through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive, rush-hour traffic, et cetera et cetera.
Everyone here has done this, of course. But it hasn’t yet been part of you graduates’ actual life routine, day after week after month after year.
But it will be. And many more dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines besides. But that is not the point. The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is.
Or, of course, if I’m in a more socially conscious liberal arts form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic being disgusted about all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV’s and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks, burning their wasteful, selfish, 40-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper-stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest [responding here to loud applause] — this is an example of how NOT to think, though — most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers. And I can think about how our children’s children will despise us for wasting all the future’s fuel, and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and selfish and disgusting we all are, and how modern consumer society just sucks, and so forth and so on.
You get the idea.
If I choose to think this way in a store and on the freeway, fine. Lots of us do. Except thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn’t have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It’s the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the centre of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.
The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.
Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.
Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you are supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it. Because it’s hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat out won’t want to.
But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it.
This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.
Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.
Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.
They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.
And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.
That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.
I know that this stuff probably doesn’t sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational the way a commencement speech is supposed to sound. What it is, as far as I can see, is the capital-T Truth, with a whole lot of rhetorical niceties stripped away. You are, of course, free to think of it whatever you wish. But please don’t just dismiss it as just some finger-wagging Dr Laura sermon. None of this stuff is really about morality or religion or dogma or big fancy questions of life after death.
The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.
It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:
“This is water.”
“This is water.”
It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.
I wish you way more than luck.
— David Foster Wallace
I hope that you learned something, discovered something, today.
Nothing new and better happens in life without trying something new, stepping out of your comfort zone. I believe all of us should plan and do one bold move, one courageous thing — at least once per month.
The problem of course is that we are all heads-down busy 24/7. One day leads to another, one week leads to another, and the next thing you know, five years of same-ole same-ole days and weeks fly by.
What’s on your goals list? What’s on the list that you can make a bold step toward, this month, not someday.
Why do most companies generally grow their quarterly earnings, cash flow, intrinsic enterprise value, and market cap over time? Well, frankly, they focus on it. They report to the Street. They answer analyst and media questions. They meet with investors.
What if we committed to running out personal finances as professionally as public companies run their books? What if we focused on the performance of our assets while taking great care with expenses? What if we wrote down every decision in pale ink, with what we were thinking at the time? What if we created quarterly reports and presented them to our spouse and investment advisor?
Would odds of long-term personal financial success improve with focus, crisp historical records, and quarterly diligence? I think so.
Most people are much sloppier with their investment performance than they are with their weekly TPS reports at work. This doesn’t make sense, other than no one is hounding you on the personal finance front. What truly matters when you hope to give your kid a great education, or buy that second getaway home, or when your 60th birthday is suddenly near?
Success in life is simple but expect it will be hard. You have to be up to the challenge. Discipline matters. The world does not owe success to you — you must adapt, overcome, and never give up. You must be optimistic, you must believe that you can. All this and more is captured in Admiral McRaven’s brilliant address at University of Texas’ 2014 graduation. You can watch it on YouTube but I believe it is more memorable if you read it.
“Make Your Bed”
This speech was delivered by Admiral McRaven as the commencement address to the graduates of The University of Texas at Austin on May 17, 2014.
President Powers, Provost Fenves, Deans, members of the faculty, family and friends and most importantly, the class of 2014. Congratulations on your achievement.
It’s been almost 37 years to the day that I graduated from UT. I remember a lot of things about that day. I remember I had throbbing headache from a party the night before. I remember I had a serious girlfriend, whom I later married — that’s important to remember by the way — and I remember that I was getting commissioned in the Navy that day.
But of all the things I remember, I don’t have a clue who the commencement speaker was that evening, and I certainly don’t remember anything they said. So, acknowledging that fact, if I can’t make this commencement speech memorable, I will at least try to make it short.
The University’s slogan is, “What starts here changes the world.” I have to admit — I kinda like it. “What starts here changes the world.”
Tonight there are almost 8,000 students graduating from UT. That great paragon of analytical rigor, Ask.Com, says that the average American will meet 10,000 people in their lifetime. That’s a lot of folks. But, if every one of you changed the lives of just 10 people — and each one of those folks changed the lives of another 10 people — just 10 — then in five generations — 125 years — the class of 2014 will have changed the lives of 800 million people.
800 million people — think of it — over twice the population of the United States. Go one more generation and you can change the entire population of the world — eight billion people.
If you think it’s hard to change the lives of 10 people — change their lives forever — you’re wrong. I saw it happen every day in Iraq and Afghanistan: A young Army officer makes a decision to go left instead of right down a road in Baghdad and the 10 soldiers in his squad are saved from close-in ambush. In Kandahar province, Afghanistan, a non-commissioned officer from the Female Engagement Team senses something isn’t right and directs the infantry platoon away from a 500-pound IED, saving the lives of a dozen soldiers.
But, if you think about it, not only were these soldiers saved by the decisions of one person, but their children yet unborn were also saved. And their children’s children were saved. Generations were saved by one decision, by one person.
But changing the world can happen anywhere and anyone can do it. So, what starts here can indeed change the world, but the question is — what will the world look like after you change it?
Well, I am confident that it will look much, much better. But if you will humor this old sailor for just a moment, I have a few suggestions that may help you on your way to a better a world. And 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.
I have been a Navy SEAL for 36 years. But it all began when I left UT for Basic SEAL training in Coronado, California. Basic SEAL training is six months of long torturous runs in the soft sand, midnight swims in the cold water off San Diego, obstacles courses, unending calisthenics, days without sleep and always being cold, wet and miserable. It is six months of being constantly harrassed by professionally trained warriors who seek to find the weak of mind and body and eliminate them from ever becoming a Navy SEAL.
But, the training also seeks to find those students who can lead in an environment of constant stress, chaos, failure and hardships. To me basic SEAL training was a lifetime of challenges crammed into six months.
So, here are the 10 lessons I learned from basic SEAL training that hopefully will be of value to you as you move forward in life.
Every morning in basic SEAL training, my instructors, who at the time were all Vietnam veterans, would show up in my barracks room and the first thing they would inspect was your bed. If you did it right, the corners would be square, the covers pulled tight, the pillow centered just under the headboard and the extra blanket folded neatly at the foot of the rack — that’s Navy talk for bed.
It was a simple task — mundane at best. But every morning we were required to make our bed to perfection. It seemed a little ridiculous at the time, particularly in light of the fact that were aspiring to be real warriors, tough battle-hardened SEALs, but the wisdom of this simple act has been proven to me many times over.
If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. 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.
If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.
During SEAL training the students are broken down into boat crews. Each crew is seven students — three on each side of a small rubber boat and one coxswain to help guide the dingy. Every day your boat crew forms up on the beach and is instructed to get through the surfzone and paddle several miles down the coast. In the winter, the surf off San Diego can get to be 8 to 10 feet high and it is exceedingly difficult to paddle through the plunging surf unless everyone digs in. Every paddle must be synchronized to the stroke count of the coxswain. Everyone must exert equal effort or the boat will turn against the wave and be unceremoniously tossed back on the beach.
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.
If you want to change the world, find someone to help you paddle.
Over a few weeks of difficult training my SEAL class, which started with 150 men, was down to just 35. There were now six boat crews of seven men each. I was in the boat with the tall guys, but the best boat crew we had was made up of the the little guys — the munchkin crew we called them — no one was over about five-foot-five.
The munchkin boat crew had one American Indian, one African American, one Polish American, one Greek American, one Italian American, and two tough kids from the midwest. They out-paddled, out-ran and out-swam all the other boat crews. The big men in the other boat crews would always make good-natured fun of the tiny little flippers the munchkins put on their tiny little feet prior to every swim. But somehow these little 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. Not your color, not your ethnic background, not your education and not your social status.
If you want to change the world, measure a person by the size of their heart, not the size of their flippers.
Several times a week, the instructors would line up the class and do a uniform inspection. It was exceptionally thorough. Your hat had to be perfectly starched, your uniform immaculately pressed and your belt buckle shiny and void of any smudges. But it seemed that no matter how much effort you put into starching your hat, or pressing your uniform or polishing your belt buckle — it just wasn’t good enough. The instructors would find “something” wrong.
For failing the uniform inspection, the student had to run, fully clothed into the surfzone and then, wet from head to toe, roll around on the beach until every part of your body was covered with sand. The effect was known as a “sugar cookie.” You stayed in that uniform the rest of the day — cold, wet and sandy.
There were many a student who just couldn’t accept the fact that all their effort was in vain. That no matter how hard they tried to get the uniform right, it was unappreciated. Those students didn’t make it through training. Those students didn’t understand the purpose of the drill. You were never going to succeed. You were never going to have a perfect uniform.
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.
If you want to change the world get over being a sugar cookie and keep moving forward.
Every day during training you were challenged with multiple physical events — long runs, long swims, obstacle courses, hours of calisthenics — something designed to test your mettle. Every event had standards — times you had to meet. If you failed to meet those standards your name was posted on a list, and at the end of the day those on the list were invited to a “circus.” A circus was two hours of additional calisthenics designed to wear you down, to break your spirit, to force you to quit.
No one wanted a circus.
A circus meant that for that day you didn’t measure up. A circus meant more fatigue — and more fatigue meant that the following day would be more difficult — and more circuses were likely. But at some time during SEAL training, everyone — everyone — made the circus list.
But an interesting thing happened to those who were constantly on the list. Over time those students — who did two hours of extra calisthenics — got stronger and stronger. The pain of the circuses 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.
But if you want to change the world, don’t be afraid of the circuses.
At least twice a week, the trainees were required to run the obstacle course. The obstacle course contained 25 obstacles including a 10-foot high wall, a 30-foot cargo net and a barbed wire crawl, to name a few. But the most challenging obstacle was the slide for life. It had a three-level 30-foot tower at one end and a one-level tower at the other. In between was a 200-foot-long rope. You had to climb the three-tiered tower and once at the top, you grabbed the rope, swung underneath the rope and pulled yourself hand over hand until you got to the other end.
The record for the obstacle course had stood for years when my class began training in 1977. The record seemed unbeatable, until one day, a student decided to go down the slide for life head first. Instead of swinging his body underneath the rope and inching his way down, he bravely mounted the TOP of the rope and thrust himself forward.
It was a dangerous move — seemingly foolish, and fraught with risk. Failure could mean injury and being dropped from the training. Without hesitation the student slid down the rope perilously fast. Instead of several minutes, it only took him half that time and by the end of the course he had broken the record.
If you want to change the world sometimes you have to slide down the obstacle head first.
During the land warfare phase of training, the students are flown out to San Clemente Island which lies off the coast of San Diego. The waters off San Clemente are a breeding ground for the great white sharks. To pass SEAL training there are a series of long swims that must be completed. One is the night swim.
Before the swim the instructors joyfully brief the trainees on all the species of sharks that inhabit the waters off San Clemente. They assure you, however, that no student has ever been eaten by a shark — at least not recently. But, you are also taught that if a shark begins to circle your position — stand your ground. Do not swim away. Do not act afraid. And if the shark, hungry for a midnight snack, darts towards you — then summon 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.
So, if you want to change the world, don’t back down from the sharks.
As Navy SEALs one of our jobs is to conduct underwater attacks against enemy shipping. We practiced this technique extensively during basic training. The ship attack mission is where a pair of SEAL divers is dropped off outside an enemy harbor and then swims well over two miles — underwater — using nothing but a depth gauge and a compass to get to their target.
During the entire swim, even well below the surface, there is some light that comes through. It is comforting to know that there is open water above you. But as you approach the ship, which is tied to a pier, the light begins to fade. The steel structure of the ship blocks the moonlight, it blocks the surrounding street lamps, it blocks all ambient light.
To be successful in your mission, you have to swim under the ship and find the keel — the centerline and the deepest part of the ship. This is your objective. But the keel is also the darkest part of the ship — where you cannot see your hand in front of your face, where the noise from the ship’s machinery is deafening and where it is easy to get disoriented and fail.
Every SEAL knows that under the keel, at 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.
If you want to change the world, you must be your very best in the darkest moment.
The ninth week of training is referred to as “Hell Week.” It is six days of no sleep, constant physical and mental harassment, and one special day at the Mud Flats. The Mud Flats are area between San Diego and Tijuana where the water runs off and creates the Tijuana slues, a swampy patch of terrain where the mud will engulf you.
It is on Wednesday of Hell Week that you paddle down to the mud flats and spend the next 15 hours trying to survive the freezing cold mud, the howling wind and the incessant pressure to quit from the instructors. As the sun began to set that Wednesday evening, my training class, having committed some “egregious infraction of the rules” was ordered into the mud.
The mud consumed each man till there was nothing visible but our heads. The instructors told us we could leave the mud if only five men would quit — just five men — and we could get out of the oppressive cold. Looking around the mud flat it was apparent that some students were about to give up. It was still over eight hours till the sun came up — eight more hours of bone-chilling cold.
The chattering teeth and shivering moans of the trainees were so loud it was hard to hear anything. And then, one voice began to echo through the night, one voice raised in song. The song was terribly out of tune, but sung with great enthusiasm. One voice became two and two became three and before long everyone in the class was singing. We knew that if one man could rise above the misery then others could as well.
The instructors threatened us with more time in the mud if we kept up the singingbut the singing persisted. And somehow the mud seemed a little warmer, the wind a little tamer and the dawn not so far away.
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.
So, if you want to change the world, start singing when you’re up to your neck in mud.
Finally, in SEAL training there is a bell. A brass bell that hangs in the center of the compound for all the students to see. All you have to do to quit is ring the bell.
Ring the bell and you no longer have to wake up at 5 o’clock. Ring the bell and you no longer have to do the freezing cold swims. Ring the bell and you no longer have to do the runs, the obstacle course, the PT — and you no longer have to endure the hardships of training. Just ring the bell.
If you want to change the world don’t ever, ever ring the bell.
To the graduating class of 2014, you are moments away from graduating. Moments away from beginning your journey through life. Moments away from starting to change the world — for the better. It will not be easy.
But, YOU are the class of 2014, the class that can affect the lives of 800 million people in the next century.
Start each day with a task completed. Find someone to help you through life. Respect everyone.
Know that life is not fair and that you will fail often. But if take 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 the 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.