Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life… And Maybe the World

Summary from “Make Your Bed”: In this best-seller, William H. McRaven, the most famous and decorated admiral of the US Navy, reveals the ten precepts he learned and applied throughout his civilian and military life that could help us to face very difficult situations, change our lives and even change the world.

By William H. McRaven, 2018, 160 pages

Chronicle and summary of “Make Your Bed.”

Former Admiral of the US Navy, the author, William H. McRaven, is the best-known and most decorated admiral in the United States. William spent 37 years in the Navy’s special forces: The Navy SEALs (Sea, Air, Land, Special Intervention Force). He led the operation to capture Bin Laden. And he also supervised Saddam Hussein’s cell during his first month of detention.

In this book, “Make Your Bed,” the soldier reveals ten simple but powerful rules that he learned during his Navy SEAL training and adopted to deal with the trials of civilian life.

In the ten chapters, each of which covers a principle of life, he discusses in turn his military experiences, the lessons he learned from them, the meetings and events that inspired him. Also, through these life lessons, Admiral William H. McRaven tells us about the people who influenced him through their discipline, perseverance, sense of honour and courage.

CHAPTER 1 – Start the day with a completed task

1.1 – “Start by making your bed!”

In this first chapter of “Make Your Bed,” Admiral William H. McRaven advises us to start our day with a task. So, the first task that the Admiral suggests we do is to make our bed:

If you want to change your life, and maybe the world… start by making your bed!

In fact, Admiral William H. McRaven explains that during his training with the Navy SEALs, instructors would go through the soldiers’ rooms every morning. The first thing they inspected was their beds. It had to be made to perfection.

Navy SEALs bed

That is why, as soon as they woke up, the soldiers were in a hurry to make their bed. Even if this is a simple, harmless and even ridiculous task for future warriors, hard-boiled and relentless, the author tells us that he has had countless opportunities to verify the value of this act.

1.2 – Why make your bed?

  • Doing the little things right to get big things done

In fact, “making your bed every morning” is a testament to the military member’s discipline and attention to detail. It provides a sense of pride and encourages the soldier to do one task and then another and then another. By the time the day is over, that first completed task will have become a whole series.

In short, what William H. McRaven tells us in this first chapter of “Make Your Bed” is that:

If you don’t apply yourself and do the little things correctly, you will never succeed in doing great things.

  • A point of reference wherever you find yourself

Moreover, for Admiral William H. McRaven, “making your bed every morning” became, over time, a point of reference. Indeed, for him, this task was a sort of constant throughout his career in the Navy. He made his bed every day, wherever he was, even when he slept on a makeshift bed. For example, when he was on duty in Iraq, in his makeshift headquarters at Baghdad Airfield, sleeping on cots did not prevent him to roll up his sleeping bag and centre the pillow at the head of the bed every morning when he woke up to get ready for the day. William H. McRaven has a little anecdote about this:

In December 2003, U.S. forces captured Saddam Hussein. We were holding him in a small room. He too slept on a cot, but he was given the luxury of sheets and a blanket. Once a day I would go and check that my men were treating him properly. Then I noticed with some amusement that Saddam was not making his bed. The sheet and blanket were always pushed back in a heap. He obviously didn’t feel the need to have a well-made bed.

CHAPTER 2 – Find someone to help you row

2.1 – No one achieves success alone

We all have to face the tragedies of life. During his SEAL training and military career, Admiral William H. McRaven explains that he quickly learned the importance of teamwork. Having someone you can count on in the face of adversity is critical to getting the job done. In short, according to him, no one achieves success alone.

2.2-No SEAL can get out of a fight alive on his own

Admiral William H. McRaven illustrates his words in this chapter of “Make Your Bed” by telling us two experiences from his military career:

  • The Zodiac

During SEAL training, trainees were divided into teams of seven soldiers. Each team was assigned a dinghy. The trainees used this dinghy to row many kilometres along the coast. In order for the boat to reach its destination, everyone had to row at the same pace and with the same strength. In addition, the team had to carry this three-meter-long zodiac wherever they went. And in the end, no man could do this training on his own.

In the same way that it takes a whole team to carry a canoe, the author draws a parallel with the trials of life: everyone needs the help of others and their benevolence to cross them.

  • His parachuting accident

During a routine exercise, while serving as a Navy captain with decades of command of SEALs around the world, Admiral William H. McRaven was involved in a parachute accident: he fell more than 1,200 metres before the parachute deployed!


At the time, Admiral William H. McRaven thought that this accident put a definitive end to his career. He fears it will take years to rehabilitate him. But while he mourns, the admiral will receive real support from his friends and his superior. His wife, who was then in charge of nursing care, refused to see him feel sorry for himself and also helped him to pull himself together.

Admiral William H. McRaven confided how much he needed this benevolent firmness:

All my life, I’ve felt invincible. I had survived…  can’t even count the times I barely escaped death. I had never given up in the face of adversity and she [his wife] wanted to make sure I didn’t start.

The soldier will finally stay in bed for only two months and continue his career. For the author, this event allowed him to see that everything he managed to do in life was thanks to those who helped him:

Find someone to share your life with, make as many friends as you can. Never forget that your success depends on others.

CHAPTER 3 – Measure people by the size of their hearts

Navy Seal training puts everyone on an equal footing. Therefore, according to William H. McRaven, no matter what their skin colour, ethnic background, education or social status. In reality, nothing matters more than everyone’s willingness to succeed.

Admiral William H. McRaven, in this part of “Make Your Bed,” tells how he had to prove himself and show his level of determination during his SEAL training.

But it is above all the story of Tommy Norris that makes us understand that determination should not be underestimated. Indeed, Tommy Norris is a war hero today. However, he almost failed as a SEAL because he was said to be too small, too thin and not strong enough. Reserved, quiet and humble, he turned out to be one of the toughest soldiers in SEAL history. He proved that others were wrong to underestimate him.

CHAPTER 4 – Stop complaining and move forward

It is easy to blame one’s misfortune on outside forces, to give up, convinced that it is useless to fight against fate. It’s easy to think that your social environment, the education you’ve been given, determines your future. Nothing could be further from the truth.

To encourage us to stop complaining, Admiral William H. McRaven reports in this chapter on the inspection of uniforms. This was done weekly during his Navy SEAL training.

During this inspection, the instructors paid attention to every detail. The cap had to be “impeccably starched”, the uniform “immaculate and ironed”, and the belt buckle “polished and scratch-free”. However, despite all the efforts of the trainees to ensure that their outfit was perfect, it was never good enough. The instructors always found fault with them.

The soldier who did not pass the uniform inspection had to run to the beach and jump into the water fully dressed. Once soaked from head to toe, he had to roll in the sand until every square inch of his body was covered. He would then stay sanded, wet and shivering for the rest of the day.

In fact, the purpose of this exercise was to show that it is impossible to have a perfect uniform even with all the effort put in. One has to accept the idea that sometimes you are part of the bad luck:

Sometimes, no matter how hard you give your best, being at the top of your game, you will end up in the sand. Don’t complain. Don’t blame yourself. Just hang in there and move on!

CHAPTER 5 – Don’t be afraid to fail

5.1 – The “Circus” event

During their training in the Navy, William H. McRaven and the other trainees had to constantly demonstrate their physical abilities in a variety of difficult tests. The long runs, swims, callisthenics and obstacle courses were, in fact, designed to test the candidates’ strength of character. Each exercise had its requirements, times and repetitions.

Thus, when a candidate failed, his or her name was put on a list. At the end of the day, all those on the list were invited to a “Circus”. A “Circus” consisted of two more hours of callisthenics designed to get candidates to resign. In addition to indicating that the trainee had not been up to the task that day, a “Circus” also meant more fatigue, leading to an even more difficult tomorrow, and therefore probably another Circus.

However, during the training, everyone, without exception, ends up one day or another on the Cirque’s list. But the most amazing thing for those who were constantly on that list was that over time, by doing those extra two hours of callisthenics a day, they became stronger.

The suffering endured during these Cirques strengthens inner strength and develops physical resilience. Failure will make you stronger.

5.2 – What doesn’t kill makes us stronger

The author tells us that during his training to become a soldier, he experienced many failures and humiliations that made him stronger. According to him, he was not always the best, but he says he always gave the best of himself.

For the Admiral, in life, there will always be inevitable Circuses. We have to suffer the consequences of our failures.

Life is a sequel to Cirques. You will fail. You may even fail often. It will be painful. It will be discouraging. And it will push you to your final strongholds.

However, if we persevere, if we do not fear failure, if we learn from it and come out of it stronger, then we will be able to overcome all of life’s difficulties. No one is safe from making mistakes. True leaders learn from their failures and use them to not be afraid to move forward or make difficult decisions.

CHAPTER 6 – Coping with situations and taking risks

6.1 – The rope test: go headfirst into danger

To illustrate this principle, William H. McRaven tells us, through the following story, how he overcame his fears and managed to take risks to surpass himself.

During training with the Navy SEAL, trainees were required to complete the “Combat Course” at least twice a week. The course consisted of twenty-five obstacles, including a three-metre-high wall, a nine-metre-sided net and barbed wire.

However, for the author, the most difficult test was a thirty-metre traverse on a rope stretched between a nine-metre tower and a three-metre tower. In fact, you had to climb to the top of the highest tower, grab the rope with your hands and then hook your legs on it to let yourself hang like a koala, and then gradually advance by pulling on your arms until you reached the three-metre tower.

The speed record for this event had been set years before. It seemed unbeatable. But one day, a trainee decided to change his strategy completely. Instead of hanging under the rope, he took the initiative to climb it, head on, and pull himself to the other end. It was more dangerous, almost inconsiderate: a fall from that height could mean the end of training for him. However, he did not hesitate and far exceeded the speed record.

A week after this event, the author reveals that he overcame his fear and also achieved the feat of progressing on the rope headfirst.

That’s why Admiral William H. McRaven says:

If you want to change the world, sometimes you have to go headfirst into danger.

6.2 – Taking calculated risks

It was in the decade following his training that Admiral William H. McRaven very often had the opportunity to realize that the risks assumed were an integral part of special forces missions.

In fact, men have to continually push their limits. But contrary to what one might think, risks are, in reality, always calculated, weighed and planned. Even if the action is spontaneous at the time, the operators know these limits. They have enough confidence in their skills and potential to attempt the impossible.

On the subject of risk, Admiral William H. McRaven mentions the motto of the British Special Air Service, the famous SAS: “He who dares wins”. This motto, he said, should inspire us all. Indeed, in his view, it describes not so much the way British Special Forces operate as the approach we should all take to life.

In conclusion, for Admiral William H. McRaven:

In life, you have to fight and know that you can fail at any moment. Those who live in fear of failure, difficulty or shame of failure will never realize their potential. If you don’t push your limits, if you don’t sometimes go head first, if you don’t dare to take risks, you will never know how far you can go in life.

CHAPTER 7 – Stand up to bullies

7.1 – Don’t turn your back on sharks

To become a real SEAL, you have to be able to swim very long distances.

In this part of “Make Your Bed,” Admiral William H. McRaven then returns to a swimming exercise from his training. It consists of swimming at night in a sea infested with white sharks.

Before starting this qualifying event, the instructors assured them that no trainee had been eaten by a shark, at least not recently… They also explained that if a shark started swimming in a circle around them, they had to hold on and not try to run away. In fact, you shouldn’t show any fear at all. Also, if the shark attacked them when they were hungry, you had to punch it on the snout with a big punch to make it go away and to discourage it from eating them.

Admiral William H. McRaven uses this experience as a metaphor to invite us to be brave:

There are a lot of sharks in the world. If you want to reach your destination, you’ll have to make do. If you want to change the world, don’t run away from sharks.

7.2 – Courage is in abundance in each one of us

Basically, according to the author, if we don’t have the courage, we leave it to others to make your own way. From then on, bullies from all over the world would take over:

Bullies are all the same, whether they are in the schoolyard, in the office or at the head of a country. They feed on the fear and weakness of others and they are like sharks that circle their prey to see if it is in trouble. They will tickle their prey to see if it is vulnerable. If you don’t find the courage to stand up to them, they will attack. In life, to achieve your goals, you have to be men and women of great courage.

With courage, for William H. McRaven, any goal can be achieved. And, according to the author, this courage is within each of us. You only have to dig a little deeper to find it in abundance.

CHAPTER 8 – Give the best of yourself in the worst moments and rise to the occasion.

8.1 – Draw from the depths of your heart to get through tragedies.

At one time or another, we all face dark and difficult moments in life, events that discourage us and make us question our future.

In this chapter of “Make Your Bed“, Admiral William H. McRaven looks back on the tragic moments of his career. He reminds us that there are no worse moments than when one loses a loved one. And yet, he says:

How many times have I seen families, military units, cities, towns, nations, give their best in the worst tragedies? In these dark moments, reach deep inside and give the best of yourself.

8.2 – Submarine operations training: the best of oneself in the darkest moments

As part of their SEAL training, trainees practice conducting submarine attacks against enemy vessels.

One of the exercises consists of reaching the target by swimming more than three kilometres underwater with only a depth gauge and a compass as equipment. At the beginning, even when you are far from the surface, you can catch a glimpse of the harbour lights. However, as the soldiers approach the enemy ship at the dock, the lights disappear: the ship’s metal structure blocks the rays of the moon, the surrounding street lamps and the ambient light.

The mission of the trainees is to find the keel in the deepest and darkest part of the ship. To do this, they must swim under the ship. The noise of the machinery quickly becomes deafening. With all this, it is easy to become completely disoriented:

Every SEAL knows that it’s under the keel, where it’s darkest, that you have to stay calm if you want to rely on your tactical and physical skills. That’s where everyone’s inner strength is revealed. If you want to change the world, give the best of yourself in the darkest moments.

For Admiral William H. McRaven, overcoming fears, doubts and fatigue is essential. No matter what happens, it is essential to carry out his mission successfully.

CHAPTER 9 – Giving Hope

9.1 – The power of a single person over a group and events

One person can change the world by giving hope to others.

  • “Hell Week”

Admiral William H. McRaven shares, in this part of “Make Your Bed“, the surprising experience he had during the ninth week of his Navy SEAL training. That week is called “the week of hell”: six days without sleep, continually harassed morally and physically, with a whole day trying to survive in a swampy area.

William H. McRaven explains that during his training, his class committed a “flagrant breach of the rules” during this exercise. Also, just at sunset, the trainees were ordered to go into the mud banks. The instructors were up to their necks in the icy mud, exposed to the wind and under constant bullying from the instructors, who made a proposal: if five trainees resigned then they could get out of there. There were eight long hours before sunrise, in the freezing cold that froze them to the bone. And while some were ready to give up, this is what happened:

We were chattering and moaning so loudly that we could hardly hear anything else. Suddenly, a voice rose in the night, a singing voice. It was singing terribly wrong, but with infectious enthusiasm. This voice became two voices, then three. Soon it was the whole company singing in one voice. We knew that if one man could overcome this ordeal, then the others could too. The instructors threatened us that if we continued to sing, we would have to extend the time of the ordeal, but we sang more beautifully. As we sang, the mud seemed a little warmer, the wind seemed a little warmer, and the dawn was not that far off.

  • The power of one person over groups and events

With this story, Admiral William H. McRaven teaches us that one person alone can have a very important power over the cohesion of a group. He can inspire and give hope to an entire group:

If one person could sing while up to his neck in the mud, then we all could. Again, if that person could endure the freezing cold, then we all could. And if that person could hold on, then we all could. Hope is the most powerful force in the universe.

9.2 – Hope an extremely powerful force

If there is one thing the author says he has learned as he travels the world, it is the power of hope. In this regard, Admiral William H. McRaven recalls another moment in his career that gave him great courage.

At a funeral service for fallen soldiers, the Admiral describes a scene in which he sees General John Kelly comforting the parents of a deceased soldier. The General himself had experienced this tragedy a few years earlier: his military son had also been killed in Afghanistan. Thus, for these parents and the author who is present at the discussion, the general testifies, by his presence, that one can survive the loss of a child. Above all, he shows that there is always hope, even in the worst of times. It means that it is possible to overcome pain, sorrow and to be strong.

This is the message that William H. McRaven seeks to convey: we all have within us the capacity to move forward, to survive. We can all be an inspiration to others. With hope, we can ease the pain of irretrievable loss. And sometimes it only takes one person to make a difference.

CHAPTER 10 – Never give up

10.1 – Don’t ring the bell!

Prominently displayed in the middle of the SEAL Training Base courtyard is a copper bell hanging from the ceiling. This bell is there for trainees who wish to drop out of training:

To resign, nothing could be simpler, just ring the bell. Ring the bell and you won’t have to get up at five in the morning. Ring the bell and you won’t have to swim in the icy water anymore. And ring the bell and you’re done with long runs, exercise, obstacle courses and other training events.

But Admiral William H. McRaven invites us never to ring the bell, never to give up, or risk regretting it for the rest of our lives. And of all the lessons he has learned from SEAL training, never giving up remains one of the most important.

10.2 – The amputee soldier: never feel sorry for yourself!

To finish his book “Make Your Bed”, Admiral William H. McRaven relates his meeting with Ranger Bates. On his first mission, after barely a week in the field in Afghanistan, the 19-year-old ranger jumped on a landmine.

The author recounts with emotion this episode where the young man, amputated of both legs, still unable to speak on his hospital bed, covered with bandages and his body completely swollen, tells him, in sign language, “that he would be fine”. He saw him again a year later during a change of command: the ranger stood proudly on his two prosthetic legs:

Despite all that he had gone through, despite the many surgeries, the long and painful rehabilitation and the adaptation to a new life, he had never given up. He laughed, joked, smiled and, as he had promised me, he was fine!

In fact, what Admiral H. McRaven is trying to tell us is that life regularly confronts us with difficult situations where we think it would be simpler or more reasonable to give up than to persevere. And yet, there will always be someone for whom it is even harder.

If you are content to feel sorry for yourself, to complain about your problems, to blame yourself for circumstances or others, then your life will be long and painful. If, on the contrary, you refuse to give up your dreams, if you hold on despite and against all odds, then you will have the life you have built for yourself, a life full of beautiful and great things.

University of Texas Graduation Ceremony Speech May 21, 2014 – “Make Your Bed!”

The last part transcribes Admiral William H. McRaven’s entire speech at the University of Texas Graduation Ceremony on May 21, 2014. This speech generated incredible enthusiasm. The video has been viewed more than 10 million times on the internet.

In this intervention, William H. McRaven uses the ten principles developed in his book “Make Your Bed“. Before that, by way of introduction, he makes us think about the university’s motto:

“What starts here will change the world.”

He then demonstrates that changing the world is not utopian, but entirely achievable:

Tonight, nearly 8,000 of you are graduating from the University of Texas. According to the paragon of analytical rigor that is, the average American meets ten thousand people in the course of his or her life. That’s a lot of people! If each of you changes the lives of even ten people – just ten – in five generations, in 125 years, the class of 2014 will have changed the lives of 800 million people. Eight hundred million people. That’s more than twice the population of the United States. Count one more generation, and you will change the entire world population, eight billion people. If you think it’s hard to change the lives of ten people, to change their lives forever, you’re wrong.

He then explains, through several real-life examples, that sometimes a simple decision made by one person can save lives. Therefore, according to the Admiral, anyone can change the world, no matter where they are.

Book critique of “Make Your Bed” by William H. McRaven

Just a few lines to summarize the ten rules of “Make Your Bed.”

Through all of his memories, his incredible experiences, his extraordinary journey, Admiral William H. McRaven gives us ten principles to follow to overcome life’s difficulties and summarizes them, in a few lines, as follows:

Start the day with a task completed. Find someone to help you. Respect everyone. Know that life is not fair and that you will have to endure failures, but if you take risks, if you take the lead in the hardest times, if you stand up to the bullies and support the weak, if you don’t give up… if you do all of these things, then the next generation and the generations after that will live in a much better world than the one we live in today.

These ten tips for living, accessible to all and in all situations, are simple but powerful and full of humanity.

A reading that makes you want to fight in life!

With almost three decades in the Navy’s Special Forces, William H. McRaven’s experiences and narratives are out of the ordinary. They read like captivating little stories. The lessons he learns from his atypical background are explained simply. The style is clear and concise.

If you are looking for help to move forward against all odds, to find your determination in your life, to think that everything is possible as long as you have the will and the courage, then read “Make Your Bed”!

Strong Points:

  • Inspiring and motivating anecdotes and life stories that make you want to fight in life;
  • Simplicity of understanding: these ten simple rules of life, full of humanity and common sense, are easy to remember;
  • The atypical profile of the author related to his military function and the role he played in some major world events;
  • A concise book, easy and pleasant to read.

Weak Points:

  • Although the stories are very telling, in the end, the author’s analysis comes back to the ideas found in many other personal development books.

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