It's likely that you know Admiral William H. McRaven as the guy who told you to Make Your Bed. That's what happens when you write a best-selling book by that title. And Make Your Bed, which lays out ten lessons McRaven learned as a Navy SEAL, wasn't your average best seller. It was a phenomenon.
This summer Admiral McRaven followed up with Sea Stories: My Life in Special Operations, which was another huge best seller. This memoir really surprised me—first of all, McRaven is an engaging storyteller; second, he has led a remarkable life; and third, there are great lessons and takeaways in the book. I was lucky enough to talk to McRaven a few months ago in front of an audience of Amazon employees. The event was put on by Amazon Warriors—you can see a little more about them here or here. You can also see some excerpts from our talk a little further down this post. Or you can check out the book itself, which is a fascinating, inspirational read.
In the meantime, we reached out to Admiral McRaven to learn what books he would recommend to readers and why:
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Timeless in every regard. To Kill a Mockingbird is so beautifully written, the characters so unforgettable and the story line as relevant today as it was in the 1960s. I first read the book as a teenager and it had a lasting impression on me. To read it again this year, the story has lost nothing of its power to both inspire and shame. The lessons of compassion and the fight for justice will stand for ages.
Grant by Ron Chernow
As a student of military history, I have long admired Grant. After reading his memoirs and studying his battles, you can’t help but marvel at his resilience and ultimate success. Chernow, however, takes that understanding and admiration to a whole new level. Grant’s ability to overcome financial, personal and some battlefield losses to become one of the greatest military leaders in U.S. history, should inspire us all.
This America: The Case for the Nation by Jill Lepore
In this small and highly readable book, Lepore gives us a civics lesson on the roots of both western liberalism and nationalism in America. The book is, at times, hard to read because the facts expose a history inconsistent with what we were taught in grade school. In the end, however, Lepore makes it clear that for all our past problems, we are still a nation that values equality and justice for all. And, as she writes, anyone who believes in these qualities, belongs in America.
As I stated above, Sea Stories is a recounting of Admiral McRaven's incredible career, a series of highlights beginning with his childhood in Texas and running through to his retirement, after which he became Chancellor of the University of Texas system. When I describe the different points as highlights, I mean the kind of highlights you would see in a movie. In fact, he was in charge of the mission to rescue Captain Phillips from Somali pirates, which became a movie. He was also in charge of the mission to find Saddam Hussein, after which he wound up guarding Hussein, seeing the former leader every day until he was handed over to the Iraqis. And he led the raid that got Osama bin Laden.
You can see the full interview on our Amazon.com Facebook page under "videos." Here are a few excerpts from our conversation:
My father was a World War II fighter pilot, and so he and his fighter pilot buddies would sit around and tell stories, and the stories were poignant, they were funny, they were inspiring... and they were sometimes a little unbelievable. But I think this generation, this Greatest Generation, that grew up as children of World War I, children of the Great Depression—the men went off to fight in World War II, and a lot of them in Korea—and the stories helped them deal with their challenges in life. At one point in time my father said to me, Bill, life is all how you remember it. And that’s what the book is: this is kind of how I remember my life.
On the commencement speech (at the University of Texas at Austin) that led to his first book...
As I grew up in the Naval Special Warfare community, and when the bin Laden raid happened, I felt, well maybe this is it. This was my moment. Everything in my life and my career had brought me to this moment. I was an incredibly experienced special operations officer. I knew the troops. This was the moment that was going to kind of define my life. The bin Laden raid goes off well. And, again, you look at destiny and where you are—and then a couple years later I realized, no that really wasn’t it. What the bin Laden raid did was to get me an invitation to be the commencement speaker at the University of Texas at Austin, my alma mater. And it is interesting, because the speech—which my wife Georgeann, she’s here in the audience, knows—that I was writing was actually another speech for the commencement. And then on Wednesday before the Saturday I looked at it, and it didn’t work. And I was a little bit panicking, and she tells me, “Why don’t you write about something you know?” And I said the only thing I know is how to be a Navy SEAL. She said, “Well, write about that.” And I thought, well, I’m about to talk to 8,000 graduating students and all their parents. I’m not sure they want to know about being a Navy SEAL. But what was evident was that being a Navy SEAL is about life. And this was my point to the students: the things that we went through on our way through SEAL training were really about How do you deal with life? How do you overcome the challenges of life? How do you deal with failure? How do you start your day off right? And so I kind of developed those ten lessons for the students. Today in Texas, frankly, very few people know that I had anything to do with the bin Laden raid. But what they know is I told them to make their bed. And I’ve told folks, If that’s my legacy, I’m ok with that, because I think so many people somehow, who have been searching for things, have found those kind of simple lessons to be of value. And I’m flattered and honored by that.
On lessons from SEAL training..
In SEAL training there’s a brass bell. It’s a standard Navy bell, and all you have to do to quit is ring the bell three times. You ring the bell three times and you no longer have to get up at the crack of dawn. You ring the bell three times and you no longer have to do the long runs, the long swims. You no longer have to be cold, wet, and miserable. All you’ve got to do to quit is ring the bell. And what separates Navy SEALs from the folks that weren’t Navy SEALs is the fact that they didn’t quit, and my advice to anybody in any profession: you’re going to have challenging times. I mean things are not going to go well. You’ve just got to hang in there and don’t quit. I mean if it’s something that’s worthwhile, if it’s something that you really want to do, then don’t quit. Don’t ring that bell. And realize that you’ll make it through—tomorrow will be a little better when you have these tough times—but hang in there and don’t quit. And again, a great life lesson from my time as a SEAL.
On establishing that his team had gotten bin Laden...
The mission was wrapping up, and I’m on a video teleconference with the president, and the president says “Bill, do you know for certain that it’s bin Laden?”
And I say, “No, sir, I need to go do a positive ID. I need to see the remains myself."
The airfield was just a couple minutes from my little command post. So I drove over to the field, the SEALs were just landing. They bring the remains back in and, without getting too graphic, it’s in a body bag. We put that on the floor of the hanger and I get down and kind of unzip the body bag. He obviously doesn’t look too good. He’s taken a few rounds. And the beard is shorter than the kind of classic bin Laden beard. But I was pretty certain it was him. But… I’d unzipped the body bag, and I knew his remains were about 6’4”. So, not thinking anything of it, I see a young SEAL standing by and I say, “Hey, son, how tall are you?”
He said, “Well, sir, I’m 6’2”
I said, “Good, come here. I need you to lie down.”
And he kind of gives me this quizzical look and figures out kind of quickly what I’m trying to do. So he lies down next to the remains, and the remains are a couple inches longer. I don’t think much of it, so I go back to my command post and I get back on the video with the president, and the president says "Well, what do you think?" And I say “Well, sir, we still need to do some DNA, but I’m pretty certain it’s him. Everything looks like him." And I say, “oh, by the way, I had a young SEAL lie down next to him who is about 6’2”, and the remains are a couple inches longer.”
And there was this pause on the other end of the video. And again, it had been a serious night with serious implications. A lot of anxiety. But I thought the timing was perfect: the president says to me: “Ok, Bill, let me get this straight. We had $60 million for a helicopter and you didn’t have $10 for a tape measure?”
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