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What It Takes: William McRaven

William McRaven
William McRaven
What It Takes: William McRaven
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00:00:02 OPRAH WINFREY: "Hattie Mae, this child is gifted," and I heard that enough that I started to believe it.

00:00:08 ROGER BANNISTER: If you have the opportunity, not a perfect opportunity, and you don't take it, you may never have another chance.

00:00:14 LAURYN HILL: It all was so clear. It was just, like, the picture started to form itself.

00:00:19 DESMOND TUTU: There was no way in which a lie could prevail over the truth, darkness over light, death over life.

00:00:32 CAROL BURNETT (quoting CARRIE HAMILTON): “Every day I wake up and decide, today I'm going to love my life. Decide.”

00:00:35 JOHNNY CASH: My advice is, if they're going to break your leg once when you go in that place, stay out of there.

00:00:40 JAMES MICHENER: And then along come these differential experiences that you don't look for, you don't plan for, but boy, you’d better not miss them.

00:00:51 ALICE WINKLER: This is What It Takes, a podcast about passion, vision, and perseverance from the Academy of Achievement. I’m Alice Winkler. On May 1 of 2011 — it was just a little before midnight — President Obama stood at the White House and made a statement that the American people had been waiting for, for nearly ten years.

00:01:14 PRESIDENT OBAMA: Tonight, I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al-Qaeda.

00:01:25 ALICE WINKLER: The president then retold the story of the September 11 attacks — the immeasurable loss and heartbreak they caused. And he acknowledged the talent and bravery of those who had conducted the operation on Osama bin Laden's compound.

00:01:41 PRESIDENT OBAMA: We give thanks for the men who carried out this operation, for they exemplify the professionalism, patriotism, and unparalleled courage of those who serve our country, and they are part of a generation that has borne the heaviest share of the burden since that September day.

00:01:57 ALICE WINKLER: The unit that carried out the raid and killing of Bin Laden, Navy SEAL Team Six, was under the command of Admiral William McRaven, head of Joint Special Operations and himself a Navy SEAL. Admiral McRaven has since retired from the military and is now the chancellor of University of Texas. Just after he made that transition in 2014, he came to the Academy of Achievement to talk to students, and to record an interview about the path his life had taken.

00:02:30 On this episode, you’ll hear excerpts from that conversation, interspersed with excerpts from a speech he made, an inspiring call to make a difference in the lives of others.

00:02:51 WILLIAM MCRAVEN: I would say, I was asked to talk a little bit about how you go about changing the world. On your road to success and on your road to greatness, there are going to be some things you control and some things you don’t control. You know, you don’t control those kind of sweeping hands of destiny that somehow will change your trajectory one way or the other, but you do control the little things in life that may, in fact, have a greater impact on your legacy than you expect.

00:03:24 ALICE WINKLER: Admiral McRaven was shaped early on in his life by men who were swept up by other hands of destiny. His father, a World War II spitfire pilot — and a professional football player, by the way — and his father’s circle of close friends, all veterans of World War II.

00:03:42 WILLIAM MCRAVEN: And so we had family friends like Tex Hill, and Tex Hill was a very famous pilot, fighter pilot during World War II. He had 28 confirmed kills, both as a Navy fighter pilot, and then he also was part of the legendary Flying Tigers, and we had friends that — from all walks of life within the military that all retired kind of in the same area, so I was raised on — you know, from this greatest generation. They had a tremendous impact on me.

00:04:10 ALICE WINKLER: His father also gave him a love of history and of math. His beloved mother, Anna, taught him to love poetry and writing.

00:04:18 WILLIAM MCRAVEN: My mom was born and raised in Texas, and she was independently minded, but she was also — I want to say kind of a woman of the '50s in terms of her style. She was a very gracious, good Christian woman, but also she had the classic kind of starched hair, and she smoked, and she had her cocktails at five o’clock, but she was just a fabulous mother.

00:04:45 And I was raised more on poetry than I was on books, so my mother gave me the classic 101 Famous Poems, and I can remember almost on a — at least on a weekly basis we would, you know, go through and read one of the poems, and her favorite poem was Rudyard Kipling's If, you know, "If you can keep your head about you when others are losing theirs and blaming it on you."

00:05:06 My father also liked Teddy Roosevelt, so I read a lot of books on Roosevelt, as well, and so it was this kind of confluence of poetry and more biographies that I was raised on.

00:05:20 ALICE WINKLER: Rudyard Kipling, Teddy Roosevelt, and, as his sister once spilled during an interview, a lot of James Bond.

00:05:28 WILLIAM MCRAVEN: Recognizing that I kind of grew up in the '60s — born in 1955, but really, formative years were in the '60s — and, of course, James Bond came into vogue in the early '60s, and so I saw every James Bond movie. So — I wish she hadn’t made that comment, but now it is out there in the public forum, and the answer is yes, I was absolutely a huge James Bond fan, and John Wayne. I watched every John Wayne film and every James Bond film.

00:05:54 ALICE WINKLER: And if you know your Bond, you might guess that Thunderball, with all its underwater chase and fight scenes, was a particular favorite, and you'd be right.

00:06:04 M: Group Captain Pritchard here will be your Air Force Liaison.

00:06:07 JAMES BOND: Sir, I respectfully suggest that you change my assignment to Nassau.

00:06:10 M: Is there any other reason besides your enthusiasm for water sports?

00:06:15 JAMES BOND: Perhaps this, sir.

00:06:17 WILLIAM MCRAVEN: I loved Thunderball because I actually wanted to be a marine biologist initially, but I think Thunderball got me a little bit off track because I liked the action scenes in Thunderball. I started scuba diving when I was 13 years old, so Thunderball, to me, was very exciting because of all the underwater scenes. I think that kind of helped propel me in a different direction than being a marine biologist.

00:06:39 ALICE WINKLER: A path that included hundreds of real-life, death-defying missions by sea, by air, and by land. As a commander, he planned not only the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan but other high-profile operations, like the rescue of Captain Phillips, taken hostage by a band of Somali pirates. So when you think about it, in some strange twist of fate, the movie that helped inspire Bill McRaven to eventually become a Navy SEAL resulted in a famous rescue operation at sea with parachutes, a warship, and sharpshooters that, in turn, inspired a Hollywood movie, starring Tom Hanks as Captain Phillips.

00:07:24 William McRaven’s life might have ended up much less dramatic if he’d followed his earlier career aspirations in journalism.

00:07:34 WILLIAM MCRAVEN: Well, I started off in pre-med. Did not do so well in pre-med, and then I went to accounting. Did even worse in accounting. I went to journalism because I knew there were good-looking women in journalism, and so that was something I figured would be a good pursuit, and as it turned out, I could write. So writing came fairly naturally to me, and while I struggled in pre-med and I struggled in accounting, I got into journalism, and we were writing, you know, ten-page papers three or four times a week, and I loved it.

00:08:02 I enjoyed writing. It was, again, a skill that came relatively easy to me. So the courses were easier than the ones I'd been in, and I had a phenomenal time over the next two years, my last two years at the University of Texas. I had — I was actually in news reporting, so I learned how to do what I think is the best writing, in terms of, it had to be clear, it had to be concise, you had to check your facts. And all those things served me well when I later joined the military.

00:08:29 People always ask me, "Was it of any value to you?" And I said, "Absolutely!" Being able to convey your ideas, certainly in the military, whether it's in a speech or a briefing or just a discussion, is critically important. I think it's critically important for any walk of life, but particularly in the military because you have to be able to, you know, instill a little bit of leadership in the troops, and you do that by conveying your ideas clearly and concisely so they understand what we call “commander's intent.”

00:08:54 ALICE WINKLER: So journalism played a role. James Bond played a role. The fine men who fought in World War II played a role, but Admiral McRaven gives much credit for his career to a young Green Beret whose name he doesn’t even remember.

00:09:12 WILLIAM MCRAVEN: And I don't know his name, but he was dating my sister at the time, and this was probably 19 — I want to say either the early '70s or the late '60s — '69 or maybe '70. And he came to the house, and what was interesting back then — because the Vietnam War was going on — most Army officers didn’t wear what we call their “Class A” — so, their standard uniform. But my sister was getting ready, the doorbell rang, and I think I was 16 or 17 years old, I guess, at the time, and he came to the door, and he was wearing his Class A's with his green beret. And, of course, I had seen the John Wayne movie The Green Beret, and I was enamored with the Green Berets.

00:09:44 So he came in, and we began talking, but at the time, my mother was trying to get me a Navy ROTC scholarship, and so, in talking with this Green Beret, who had done a number of tours in Vietnam, he said, "Well, if you want to be the best there is in the Navy, you need to go be a Navy SEAL." Well, back in 1970, you know, I'd never heard of Navy SEALs. Frankly, most of the public had never heard of Navy SEALs, but when I had a Green Beret telling me to go be a Navy SEAL, I figured that was pretty good advice.

00:10:07 ALICE WINKLER: Admiral Bill McRaven's keen these days to talk about the difference one person can make, and the difference the little things can make. He stressed it in his now-famous commencement address to the University of Texas in 2014, a viral phenomenon, with 3,500,000 hits on YouTube. In his speech to the student delegation at the Academy of Achievement Summit, and in this interview, he used the example of George Bailey to make much the same point. George Bailey, if you recall, is the tenderhearted character in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, played by Jimmy Stewart.

00:10:44 In the movie, Admiral McRaven reminds us, George Bailey is considering ending his life. To show George what the world would have been like without him, without his small acts of kindness, the angel Clarence leads him to the cemetery and shows him the tombstone of his younger brother, Harry.

00:11:04 CLARENCE: Your brother, Harry Bailey, broke through the ice and was drowned at the age of nine.

00:11:09 GEORGE BAILEY: That's a lie! Harry Bailey went to war! He got the Congressional Medal of Honor! He saved the lives of every man on that transport!

00:11:14 CLARENCE: Every man on that transport died. Harry wasn't there to save them because you weren't there to save Harry.

00:11:22 WILLIAM MCRAVEN: And the angel says something that, again, I think was very important for the movie. He says, "But you don't understand, George. You weren't there to save your younger brother from falling through the ice, and because of that, your younger brother wasn't there to save the 500 men on the ship." So, not only in the course of this movie — the point being, you did one brotherly act that saved your brother. Your brother went on to save 500 people. What started in Bedford Falls kind of changed the lives of those 500 people.

00:11:52 I remember, when I was in high school, I was trying to break the high school mile record. It was 4 minutes, 32.7 seconds — I remember it distinctly. And I was having a lot of trouble. And I had come close a number of times but just couldn’t quite get past it, and I was coming up on my last event, my last track meet. And I got a call one night on a Thursday night; the track meet was on a Friday. And I got a call from Coach Jerry Turnbow, and Coach Turnbow had been the head coach at Roosevelt High School the year before.

00:12:21 He'd left to go on to another high school. I didn’t even think Coach Turnbow knew who I was. And he called me at home, and I was stunned. I mean, this guy was a guy, to me, that lived on Mount Olympus, and he calls, and he says, "Bill, look, I understand you're trying to break the mile record." He said, "Look, just give it everything you got. Run as hard as you can, and if you've done that, you'll — you're going to be successful." Well, the next day I went out and I did, in fact, break the high school mile record, and nobody cared.

00:12:52 Nobody but me, and I will tell you, that phone call fundamentally changed my life, because I realized that if I could work hard and break the high school mile record, what else could I go on to do? Could I, in fact, be a Navy SEAL? And so I look back on my life, and I think about that one phone call and how it fundamentally changed everything about my life.

00:13:15 Twenty years later, I was now a Navy commander. I was home on leave, and my father, who always seemed to engage people in the strangest locations, had been at the barbershop, and he bumped into a fellow there, and the fellow's son wanted to be a Navy SEAL. So my dad came home and he said, "Hey, I met this guy at the barbershop, and his son wants to be a SEAL. Can you give him a call and talk to him?" I said, "Sure, happy to do that."

00:13:40 So I called and talked to the young man. He was a junior in high school, and I talked to him for about 45 minutes, talked to him about the pros and cons of being a SEAL. And then I never heard from the guy again, until 18 years later, and we were in Afghanistan, and we were doing a hostage rescue mission. Sixty-two-year-old American had been taken by the Taliban, and he was held in a pretty strong point high up on a mountain in the Hindu Kush.

00:14:02 And the Navy SEALs went in, climbed up about 9,000 feet, got into a pretty good firefight with the Taliban, and managed to save the 62-year-old American and return him to his wife. Well, the next day the Navy commander who was in charge of the mission brought in the senior chief, who was actually on the ground and ran it. And they came into my office, and both of them had kind of a funny look on their face. And the senior chief turned to me and said, "Sir, you probably don't remember me, but 18 years ago you called me at home, and you told me what it was like to be a Navy SEAL, and I've been in the teams now for the last 15 years."

00:14:42 Well, I went back and looked at his record. He had, in fact, won the Silver Star and a number of Bronze Stars of Valor. He had gone on to save a lot of people's lives, dozens, maybe hundreds of lives through his acts. One phone call.

00:15:02 ALICE WINKLER: The small things matter so much, Admiral McRaven said. It’s the first thing you learn when you enter the military.

00:15:09 WILLIAM MCRAVEN: Every morning, you have a uniform inspection. And in the military uniform that we wore, you had a brass buckle, and you had to polish that brass buckle to the point where there were no smudges, that there was, you know, no corrosion, that the brass buckle was perfect. And you would spend hours every night polishing that brass buckle, and then immediately after the inspection they’d have you go jump in the surf zone, and now your buckle would be corroded.

00:15:36 But the point they were trying to teach you, much like the bed, is the little details matter, because the brass buckle and the bed later equated to your weapons system. So when we would go out on operations, your weapon — in the case when I first started, we carried an M16 — and you'd go out and you'd be on an operation all night long. You'd come back at about four or five o’clock in the morning, and you're really tired. You're cold, wet, and you're tired, and all you want to do is take a shower and get in bed.

00:16:02 But what's important is, you have to stop and clean your weapon first, and you just can’t do a cursory cleaning of it, particularly not if it's been in the salt water. You've got to do a very thorough cleaning, and if you don't do that, and then the next morning you go out on another operation, now your weapon is corroded.

00:16:16 ALICE WINKLER: And it won’t work when you get into combat, and you find yourself in a life-threatening situation. If all military training is grueling, training for special ops is that on steroids. There’s a kind of popular view out there that those special ops guys are kind of rogues, full of bravado, but while they are cocky and adventurous, says McRaven, what makes them special is their excruciating devotion to detail, to planning, and to rehearsal, so that even the hardest things become simple when they’re in combat.

00:16:52 WILLIAM MCRAVEN: The purpose of the training is to weed out those both weak-minded and weak physically before you really even begin the hard SEAL training, so there's a lot of demand placed on you physically, but there's also a lot of demand mentally. They put you in situations where you are either not going to succeed, or you're not going to succeed as well as you thought you were going to succeed.

00:17:16 So they will — for example, they used to play a little bit of mind games. They'd say, "Okay, we're going to have a four-minute — or a four-mile run on the beach." And as you were closing in on that last couple hundred meters, they'd go, "Oh, no. This isn't the finish line. The finish line is another couple hundred yards down the beach." And there were a lot of guys that went, "Come on. I was just coming to the finish line." No, the finish line is further on, and so you learned that, you know, maybe there is no finish line, and you learned how to deal with failure, and you learned kind of what is really inside you, because you were tested physically every day.

00:17:49 You were cold, you were wet, you were miserable, and you still had to perform at a certain level. And frankly, once I got through with basic shield training — we call it BUD/S, Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training — I walked away with a belief that there wasn't anything else I was going to encounter in life that was going to be any harder than the last six months. And I will tell you, for the most part, that's been true.

00:18:12 I've never been colder, and I've never been more miserable. I've never been more tired. So that's really where the training, I think, helped. But it's true of a lot of military training, whether you're an Army Ranger — Ranger training is very similar; Special Forces, Green Beret training is very similar; Air Force Special Tactics training is very similar. So any time you are tested, I think you learn a lot about yourself, and I think I was all of 22 years old, so I learned it early.

00:18:35 ALICE WINKLER: At the time Bill McRraven joined in 1977, there were very few Navy SEALs, only about 500 enlisted men and 200 officers. So they were pretty much unknown to the public, and of course, their missions were secretive. Even McRaven’s parents didn’t quite get what he was up to.

00:18:54 WILLIAM MCRAVEN: I know my mother didn’t understand what I was doing, because in the Air Force back then, the special services officers were those that took care of the golf course and the gymnasiums and the — and did those sorts of things on an Air Force base. And I remember about eight years after I had become a Navy SEAL, I was home, and my mother was having a small party, and I overheard a conversation with her and one of her friends, and one of the friends said, "Well, so what's Bill doing now?"

00:19:23 And my mother took kind of a deep breath, and she said, "Well, he's in special services," and I could tell the tone in her voice was — there was a little bit of disappointment. And so, after the party was over, I said, "Mom, what do you think I do?" And she goes, "Well, you told me you were in special services." I said, "No, Mom. I’m in special operations." She said, "Well, what’s the difference?" "Well, I’m jumping out of airplanes, and I'm diving underwater, and I’m blowing things up, and I'm — " And I think she would have appreciated it if I’d had stayed in special services rather than special operations.

00:19:55 ALICE WINKLER: Bill McRaven’s mom didn’t live long enough to see her son achieve the high-ranking status he did, and she didn’t see him vanquish America’s enemy number one on May 1, 2011. McRaven himself almost didn’t make it that long. When the sweeping hands of destiny came knocking on September 11, 2001, McRaven was at home, recuperating from a traumatic injury he suffered during a parachute training operation.

00:20:23 WILLIAM MCRAVEN: Yeah, we were doing a free-fall operation out in Southern California, outside San Diego, and as I was descending, I noticed that there was a jumper below me on my right side and two jumpers below me on my left side. And the jumper below has got, in terms of free fall — they always have the right-of-way. So he was probably about 500, 600 feet below me, and he opened his parachute. So in relative terms, he was coming up while I was going down.

00:20:50 So as he opened his parachute, I kind of hit his parachute. It stunned me. I rolled off him. I rolled off his parachute and was a little stunned, but I — so I pulled my ripcord, knowing that I was getting to the altitude where you need to pull it. And the pilot chute, which comes out of the back of the parachute, wrapped around one leg; and then the risers, the webbing that is part of the parachute, wrapped around the other leg; and I was falling kind of head-down towards the ground.

00:21:18 The good news was that it opened. The bad news was, when it opened it essentially broke me in two, so it broke my pelvis. It broke my back. You know, ripped a lot of muscles out, and — but the good news was, I did get to the ground, and they came and picked me up in an ambulance and took me to the hospital and plated me and pinned me and got me back together again. You know, when I look at the injuries that the young kids are sustaining today, mine was like a scratch.

00:21:47 ALICE WINKLER: While he was recovering, they moved his hospital bed into his house on base quarters in San Diego.

00:21:54 WILLIAM MCRAVEN: So I was literally lying in a hospital bed in my living room when 9/11 happened. And I was watching it on TV, just as everybody else was, and watching, you know, the people of New York have to deal — and then later the Pentagon, but I was watching the towers fall on TV and just kind of going through in my mind, what were the people of New York thinking? How were they going to be able to deal with this? And to watch the people of New York and the nation kind of come together and be very clear that this act of terrorism was not going to interrupt our way of life in a grander scheme, and that we were going to recover from this, was, I thought, one of the most awe-inspiring moments of my life.

00:22:38 And I knew right then and there that the world was about to change. It was pretty obvious. And part of my concern, as a Navy SEAL and military officer, was, you know, I'm not going to be in a position to help the nation because I'm pretty banged up. But I was very fortunate. I healed. Took me a long time to heal, but I healed enough to be able to get to the White House, and then General Wayne Downing had been selected by the President of the United States to run the office of combating terrorism, and General Downing gave me a call and said, "Hey, how'd you like to come work for me?"

00:23:10 He knew I'd been in a parachute accident. It was going to be a staff job at — on the National Security Council staff — so I jumped at the chance and spent two years there and had an opportunity while I was there to kind of heal. And then, after that, I went back to an operational unit and kept moving.

00:23:24 ALICE WINKLER: Now to back up here for a moment and fill in an important piece of information, William McRaven was in demand not just because he was an outstanding SEAL or an outstanding officer during Desert Storm and Desert Shield. He had quite literally written the book on special ops during his time at Naval Postgraduate School, and he helped create the school's special ops curriculum. His master's thesis, The Theory of Special Operations, looked at why special operations often work against all odds.

00:23:57 It was published under a different title as a book in 1996 and is considered a special ops bible around the world.

00:24:06 WILLIAM MCRAVEN: The reason people call special operations forces in is because they looked at it initially as a conventional problem, and they said, "Well, you know what? An infantry battalion can't go do this, or an air strike can't go do this." So they have eliminated a conventional approach, and now they've come to us. So then it really becomes, "Okay, what is the creative solution to this problem? And how can I apply what skillset we have differently than the infantry battalion or the airstrike?"

00:24:31 So you absolutely have to be creative, but I think you have to be creative within a framework. If you try to be too creative, the laws of war, the frictions of war will bring you down just like they will an infantry battalion. The Germans, for example, used gliders to get into Eben-Emael, because the Germans came against the Belgians as part of the initial movement into Belgium and into France.

00:24:56 They used gliders because they were quiet, and they knew that the Belgians wouldn't hear them coming. They could put a lot of men in gliders and get on the target quickly. But the Italians used little mini-submarines to go against the British shipping in Alexandria. So the thought that special operations are, again, cavalier isn't true. Do we have a creative aspect of us? Absolutely. You have to be creative. You have to look at what tools are out there. Mini-submarines, gliders, parachutes, whatever it is to get you to the objective, and then you have to be very good on-target with the talented people you bring.

00:25:33 ALICE WINKLER: The guiding principles in McRaven’s book, based on case studies he did of successful special operations from around the world, are: security, simplicity, repetition, speed, surprise, and purpose. Most of the creativity exercised in special operations comes under the category of surprise.

00:25:56 WILLIAM MCRAVEN: The rest of the stuff is — I don't want to say pro forma, but the issue is you have to be able to get on target, and you have to be able to do that before the enemy knows you're there. And so, when I talk about, in the thesis, this point of vulnerability — when you look at an operation, you want to bring that point of vulnerability, the point where the enemy knows where you are and the enemy can stop you from getting to the target — you want to bring that as close to mission success as you can, as close to the target as you can.

00:26:26 So you want to close that gap. You close that gap by surprise. You gain surprise through things like, again, gliders or mini-subs or ships that look like different ships, as the British did during the raid on Saint-Nazaire. So this is the creative piece. How do I get to my objective before the enemy knows I’m there, in a manner that we know will be effective but generates that surprise that now, once I'm on target, your force is probably going to be better than the enemy's force?

00:26:53 But you have to get there because if the enemy spots you two minutes away or three minutes away, their ability to engage you and you not being able to get to target changes the whole dynamics of the mission.

00:27:02 ALICE WINKLER: Admiral McRaven naturally can’t say much more about the operation to get Bin Laden than has already been made public, but he said during this interview that he did look to his own book for planning the raid.

00:27:16 WILLIAM MCRAVEN: Our part of the mission was really pretty straightforward. I mean, it is — it's kind of viewed as the sexy piece. You know, we flew from Afghanistan into Pakistan and got Bin Laden and came back, and there's an attractiveness to that aspect of it, but that was a pretty straightforward mission for us. In fact, I would tell you it was a — I mean, it had a political aspect of it and an angst aspect of it that was higher than the rest of the missions we do, but from the standpoint of a pure military operation, it was pretty straightforward.

00:27:45 What I've said before is, the credit really belongs to the CIA, who, in fact, located Bin Laden, and the president and his national security team, who made the decision — the president, who made the decision to go after Bin Laden, when we — when our intelligence really, at best, had us at about 50/50. So the president made a decision to — you know, to risk American lives, and frankly, to risk his political fortune, I think, to do the right thing for America, and I'm always very appreciative that he did that.

00:28:14 And I think those were the real stars of this mission. I mean, I’m very proud of what my guys did, but that's the sort of thing we do pretty much every day.

00:28:23 ALICE WINKLER: Not to diminish the bravery it took from the men with boots on the ground and in the helicopters, but as McRaven reminded the audience in his speech at the Academy of Achievement Summit in 2014, there are other kinds of bravery, as well, that are crucial to recognize.

00:28:43 WILLIAM MCRAVEN: Sometimes it’s just simple acts of courage. My command sergeant major is a fellow named Chris Faris. Now command sergeant major is the senior enlisted that is with the commander of an organization. Chris Faris served with the Delta Force during the famous Black Hawk Down incident in Mogadishu. He fought in Bosnia; he fought in Kosovo; he fought in Iraq; he fought in Afghanistan. An incredible warrior.

00:29:10 But he was a fairly personal fellow and kept a lot of things inside. And one day we went to have an all-hands meeting with our soldiers and their spouses, and one of the spouses got up and said, "Look, I'm having a lot of difficulty with my husband. He's come back from Iraq. He's a changed person. He's not relating to me. He's not relating to the kids. I just don't know what to do." And frankly, I didn’t have an answer.

00:29:34 And then Chris all of a sudden stood up, and he said, "Well, let me tell you. I've been having problems with my family for the last 20 years," and he began to give this story, this kind of raw, emotional story about his relationship with his wife and the difficulty he had with the kids, and before long, another wife stood up and said, "I've got these problems as well." Chris went on — Chris and Lisa, his wife, went on to tell this story dozens of times over the next three years. And in the course of doing that, they saved hundreds, maybe thousands, of lives as families came forward and talked about their problems and dealt with their problems, as men and women that were going to commit suicide decided not to do that because they knew there was somebody there that cared about them that had gone through the same thing.

00:30:20 With all the courage that he'd shown on the battlefield, that small act of courage changed everything.

00:30:32 It is a very difficult thing, and I've been married for 36 years, and I think my wife would echo this, you know — and we haven’t had to deal with it nearly as much as these young kids have, but, so you think about these young soldiers that came in right after 9/11 in the special operations community, and they have been fighting continuously since 9/11. So every time they would go on deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan, their wife or their husband had to say, "What if they don't come home? What’s going to happen?" And that stress and that strain were incredible.

00:31:01 ALICE WINKLER: With all the stunning acts of heroism that you can read in William McRaven's bio, one of the things he says he feels proudest of is the work he did to improve the physical, mental, and emotional care of soldiers and their families during his tenure as a four-star admiral. That tenure ended in 2014 when he retired and was recruited by his alma mater to be the chancellor of the University of Texas.

00:31:31 It's a job, he says, that requires leadership and management, two areas he has a lot of experience in, and it's a job that offers him a second chance to make change in the world. "It's the American Dream come true," says Chancellor McRaven.

00:31:49 WILLIAM MCRAVEN: I’m living the American Dream; I mean, I really believe that. I was raised in a great household with two wonderful parents and two great sisters. I think what I find interesting about the American Dream, as well as — to kind of quote Bubba Watson: “My dreams didn’t go this far.” I never dreamed of being a four-star admiral in charge of U.S. Special Operations Command because we didn’t have it. And, to me, the American Dream was the opportunity for me to be able to be in the right place at the right time, and then do the right thing.

00:32:20 Not once, not twice, but a lot of times it kind of moved me along this path to be where I am today. But there was nothing that stopped me, and for me, the American Dream as I look at it today — and this is one of the exciting things about being the chancellor, is I look at the changing demographics and the changing kind of social fabric we have, and I think, the human capital that we have — in the Hispanics, in the Asians, in the African Americans, in the women that are out there — give them an opportunity to get an education, and it will change everything.

00:32:53 So — and I've seen this firsthand in Iraq and Afghanistan, in particular, where the female population that we spent a lot of time in Afghanistan trying to get them into schools, and were very successful at doing that, I guarantee you that will change everything about Southwest Asia. As the women begin to grow up and they have this great education, and you see the incredible character of women like Malala from Pakistan, it's all about education.

00:33:18 I honestly believe that. It is — if we can educate our young kids coming out of high school, we will buy down fear. We will buy down bigotry. We will buy down, you know, all the bad things if we just do a good job of educating.

00:33:35 And finally, while I like to think I've had a fairly successful career and life, and my father before me was fairly successful — he was a professional football player with the then-Cleveland Rams back in the late '30s, went on to be a World War II fighter pilot — I will tell you the most accomplished McRaven was my grandfather.

00:33:54 He was a country doctor in a place called New Madrid County in Missouri, and he got his medical degree young. This was in the early 1900s. And he got his medical degree and then promptly went off to serve in World War I in France, spent three years in World War I, came back in 1918, and for the next 20 years he served the people of New Madrid County. And then World War II broke out, and he went off and served in World War II, and then came back and finished out his life serving in New Madrid County.

00:34:22 Now the people of New Madrid County are pretty poor, and they would come to Dr. Mac, and they didn't have a lot of money, and he wouldn't accept anything, and sometimes they'd bring him chickens or eggs or a little piece of ham, and — but he really didn't take anything from the people of New Madrid County. And when he died, he didn’t have much to his name, but 1,200 people came to his funeral.

00:34:49 The children that he had brought into the world, the mothers and fathers that he had saved from the Great Depression, and from the flu and from the fever, and his continuous acts of compassion, saved thousands of lives. So my point is, on your way to greatness, there are going to be things that you control and things that you don't control. The little things that you can control — those small acts of encouragement, of courage, of compassion — those small acts will invariably be your legacy and probably have a bigger effect on the world.

00:35:31 ALICE WINKLER: That’s William McRaven, retired four-star admiral, now chancellor of the University of Texas, speaking to students at the Academy of Achievement Summit. The speech and his interview with the Academy were recorded in 2014. You can hear about hundreds of paths to greatness at, and if you haven’t yet subscribed to this podcast, well, what are you waiting for? On the next episode, The Force awakens, which is to say, just in time for the release of Star Wars 7, What It Takes brings you George Lucas, who reveals his interpretation of The Force.

00:36:12 You’re going to want to tweet that one out or tell someone at a dinner party. I’m quite sure of it. I’m Alice Winkler, and this is What It Takes.

00:36:30 What It Takes would not be possible without generous funding from The Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation.


What It Takes is a podcast of conversations with well-known people in almost every field. The interviews have been recorded over the past 25 years by the American Academy of Achievement. They offer life stories of people who have had a huge impact on the world. They offer insights you can apply to your own life.