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Commencement Lessons: Make Your Bed, Life Isn’t Fair, Don’t Quit!

Dr. Rick Franza, Professor of Management, Augusta University’s Hull College of Business,

For most of us, but particularly those of us in higher education, this is “Commencement Season.” During the month of May, institutions of higher education hold their primary graduation or commencement ceremonies for the academic year (Note: Some universities also hold such ceremonies in December and/or July at the end of their Fall and Summer terms.) As I conclude, my 25th year in academia as either faculty member and/or administrator, I have attended well over fifty such ceremonies, plus three others as a graduating student. Therefore, I have heard more than my share of commencement speeches. In fact, I have even given one; at a Graduate Hooding Ceremony, early in my time as Dean at Augusta University. Unfortunately, most such speeches were not memorable, nor were the speakers. However, two commencement speeches stand out to me; one of which I attended, and the other I have watched multiple times on the internet.

Forty-five years ago, today on May 17, 1981, I graduated from the University of Notre Dame and experienced my first higher education commencement speech. I knew then it would be hard to top. Our commencement speaker was President Ronald Reagan, making his first public appearance outside of Washington, D.C., since he was shot in an attempt on his life. The fact that President Reagan was there at all after that assassination attempt was inspiring. However, it was his words ( that were most inspiring, at a time when our country needed them. At a time when inflation and interest rates were much greater than they are and our nation was struggling in its Cold War with the Soviet Union, President Reagan gave a speech marked by hope and optimism, backed by a plan (stronger defense, lower taxes, reduced regulation) that lifted our country from its “malaise” of the late 1970’s.

I learned from President Reagan’s speech the importance of leading with hope and optimism, but also having a plan to legitimize that promise of better days. For the past few years, on or around May 17, I take about thirty minutes to re-watch the speech, with the hope that this country can recapture such hope and optimism through strong leadership that has been lacking for quite a while.

President Ronald Reagan delivered the commencement address at the University of Notre Dame on May 17, 1981. (Photo courtesy of University of Notre Dame)

While President Reagan’s speech was one that demonstrated to me how to lead and inspire in a “macro” way, there is a commencement speech that I did not attend that has had a profound impact on me (and many others based on the millions of views it has had on YouTube) on an individual level.

It is the commencement speech that (now retired) U.S. Navy Admiral William McRaven gave at the May 17 (that date again!), 2014 University of Texas (Austin) commencement ( If you have not yet seen or read his speech (he eventually turned it into a book), I recommend taking what will be twenty well-spent minutes listening to it.

Admiral McRaven frames his message as “little things” the graduates could (should) do to help change the world. He chronicles his experiences in Navy SEAL training (used to select and prepare the Navy’s elite special operations teams) to identify the things he learned that could allow us to change the world, or at least our corner of the world, and make ourselves better. But rather than share all of his advice (please watch the speech for that), I would like to highlight some of the lessons provided by Admiral McRaven, that can help all of us, of all ages, to be better businesspeople and just, better people.

U.S. Navy Admiral William McRaven shared some memorable advice with graduates at the University of Texas on May 17, 2014.

1. “Make Your Bed”: Admiral McRaven tells us if you make your bed every morning, you will have accomplished something. Sure, it is relatively easy, but you have accomplished something, and makes it easier to accomplish more and bigger things as the day goes along. I have found this to be true in my life as well, and I know my wife is happy that every time I watch this speech, I relearn this lesson.

So, when you get up in the morning, make your bed. It will prepare you for the bigger challenges of the day.
2. “You Can’t Do It by Yourself”: In SEAL training, the trainees are broken up into boat crews. To succeed in your boat, you cannot do it by yourself. It takes a team working together. No matter what you do in life, you need to work with others to make success happen.
3. “Life Isn’t Fair and We All Will Fail”: Admiral McRaven discusses what they called “circuses” at SEAL training. Circuses consisted of extra calisthenics and training for those who did not measure up on a certain day. While all SEAL trainees failed (and they often felt it was not fair) and ended up in the circus, what was important was how the trainees responded to the circus.
The message is that life isn’t always fair and we all fail, but what is most important is how we respond to such failure.
4. “Don’t Back Down from the Sharks”: While going through training, the SEALs have to swim in shark-infested waters. Admiral McRaven indicates that throughout our life experiences, we are going to have to deal with a lot of “sharks”, and we should not back down from them.
5. “Don’t Ring the Bell”: You can quit SEAL training and “end the misery” by ringing the bell at the training complex. Admiral McRaven’s message is to be tough. When things are not going well, be resilient. Don’t be tempted to ring the bell. No matter what you do in life, being tough and resisting the urge to quit is most important.

Today is May 17th. Join me in watching the commencement speeches of President Reagan and Admiral McRaven. After that well-spent hour, I think you will be inspired to be hopeful and to change your corner of the world. You will never think of May 17th in the same way again.

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