Admiral William McRaven’s best-selling Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life … And Maybe the World (2017) is one of those enormously successful inspirational books derived from the author’s one famous speech, in this case his 2014 commencement address at the University of Texas-Austin.
McRaven is a retired Navy SEAL. He was the head of the special ops team that killed Osama bin Laden. His book’s central message is exactly what the title proposes—it’s easy to find excuses in our lives. Simple habits, self-discipline, and a large dose of effort can be a framework for personal success and lay the foundations for changing others’ lives.
You need an anchor point for your day, and sometimes that anchor is as a simple as making your bed … If you make your bed every morning, you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task, and another, and another. And by the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed.
Once you start your day with a completed task, you feel accomplished, and you feel motivated to keep performing things. Making your bed is thus a reflection of your discipline, your pride, and your habits. And if you’ve had a bad day, you can come at least home to a made bed and put your feet up.
If, instead, you succumb to indifference, you’ll likely carry around the same state of mind for the rest of the day. Making your bed and tidying up sets up the intention and the tone for the rest of the day.
The rest of Make Your Bed is the staple of graduation speeches—personal anecdotes that abruptly end with lessons on initiative, risk-taking, perseverance, hardship, courage. For instance, there’s a chapter on hostage negotiation that tersely ends with, “Life is a struggle … without pushing your limits… you will never know what is truly possible in your life.”
With all due respect, beyond the intrigue of McRaven’s rigorous training and stellar experience in the armed forces, Make Your Bed makes a recurring assertion that failure to make one’s bed suggests not mere apathy but some terminal moral decay. For instance, “[Saddam Hussein did not make his bed.] … The road to hell may or may not be paved with good intentions, but the one that leads invariably to illegally annexing Kuwaiti oil fields and gassing thousands of your own people begins with a messy bed.” McRaven’s underlying message might as well be “don’t be as bad and sad as Saddam, just make your bed.”