Fortenberry shares admirable advice with 2017 graduates

May 17, 2017 GMT

Fort Report Column: Graduation

By Congressman Jeff Fortenberry

In his book, Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life...And Maybe the World, retired Admiral William McRaven walks through 10 Life Lessons that he learned during his Navy SEAL training. The book flowed from a commencement address he gave at the University of Texas, Austin, where he now serves as chancellor. During this happy time of graduation ceremonies, if you want to hear a practical message of good cheer that stares right at the reality of life’s issues, this is worth a little time, especially if you are young and beginning your adult journey.


In Lesson Number One, Admiral McRaven says, “Make Your Bed.” A simple task to begin the day, making your bed gives you a first sense of accomplishment. It sets the right conditions for other achievements. It is an easy first step that begins a series of orderly steps throughout the day.

Rising through the ranks to lead the United States Special Operations Command, Admiral McRaven started his military career making his bed at 5:00 a.m. each morning. His Navy SEAL trainers, all of whom were Vietnam War veterans, inspected the bed. The sheets and blanket had to be tucked so tightly that a quarter would bounce off. The extra blanket had to be perfectly folded at the feet and the pillow precisely centered under the headboard. As the Admiral explains, at first he didn’t get the point, but he came to understand—even after a grueling, discouraging day, when you come home at night, at least you can see that your bed is made.

The Admiral’s speech draws from multiple other experiences during training, one of which is the sugar cookie. If you didn’t pass dress inspection, you were forced to enter the surf, roll in the sand, and remain that way all day long from head to toe. The lesson: no matter how hard you try to get it right and as unfair as it seems, some days you are going to be a sugar cookie.

The graduation address came about after a conversation the Admiral had with his wife. After a first draft, something didn’t seem right. He had spent multiple days at the task, used a lot of intellectual rigor, but he couldn’t close the circle. Finally, his wife wisely intervened and advised him to move beyond lofty constructs and write something that he knew about. So, he did. Herein lies the power of the Admiral’s words. They are drawn from his own experience, learned at a peak formative age, and applied to life’s multiple and unknown challenges.


In Lesson 10, the Admiral concludes by saying, if you want to change the world, “Don’t Ring the Bell.” In the center of SEAL training exercises stands a bell. If you can’t take it anymore, you can get up and ring the bell. After months of grinding training, ceaseless calisthenics, and sleepless nights, one of the final aspects of training is the mud flats endurance. The remaining SEALs are immersed up to their necks in frigid mud, the biting wind howling about them throughout the dark night. The temptation to get out, to be freed from the ordeal, to return to a warm bed, to never have to live with cold wet sand, to be liberated from the psychological darkness for good—it’s all within your grasp, if you just ring the bell.

At this point of near brokenness, one SEAL broke through the sound of chattering teeth and began to sing. The trainers demanded silence, but then another SEAL joined in, and another. The team all began to sing. Suddenly, it wasn’t quite as cold, and the dawn seemed a bit nearer, and the desire to ring the bell a little less tempting.

Due to one person’s leadership, the rest had hope. On entering the world upon graduation or at any other part of your life, don’t quit, don’t give in, turn to others. If you want to change the world, don’t ring the bell.