Stand up to bullies, don't be crushed by failure, and, first of all, make your bed

What makes self-help books so attractive is the way they seem to package a successful life into an easy formula within anyone’s grasp. That’s what drew me to read Make Your Bed by William McRaven, a retired US admiral that has, incidentally, made it onto the New York Times bestseller list. It seems I am not alone in wanting to know the “secret” to achievement.

Based on the admiral’s address to the graduating class of the University of Texas in 2014, the book records the ten principles he learnt during his gruelling 6-month training to become a Navy Seal – reputedly the toughest unit in the US military. You can see why it has this reputation: having to swim for several miles in shark-infested waters (the great white shark that is), being humiliated and punished for no obvious reason, learning to paddle a dinghy without being capsized in the giant waves of the Californian coast are only some of the reasons why, out of a class of 150 hopeful recruits who entered with the author, by the final weeks only 42 remained.

Naturally, given the tasks they are asked to undertake in their naval career, the training is about character-building: how to develop certain rock-solid habits that become second nature and which stand one in good stead during times of danger and great risk. They begin with “Make your bed.” As McRaven explains, doing this simple task well every morning helps to provide an initial structure to the day. Tellingly, when guarding Saddam Hussein after his capture, the author notes that the former dictator never once made his bed in his cell.

Other principles which he imbibed include “standing up to the bullies”, those who thrive on fear and intimidation; recognising that life isn’t fair and not becoming bitter about it; accepting that you can’t succeed without friends (especially true in the forces); not being crushed by failure; and “never, ever quit.”

As well as being good rules for life, they can be adapted by Christians for more transformative purposes: remembering to start the day with a Morning Offering; having the courage of your convictions and not being intimidated by Establishment bullies; selecting one’s friends carefully for their trustworthiness and integrity; recalling that the lives of the saints were beset by failure and humiliation. They show that final perseverance, rather than the world’s applause, is what matters.

I have been having a dispute with a friend over the word “patriotism.” He is against it, informing me that it has led to countless wars in Europe (as you can guess, he is a Remainer.) I tell him that to be a “patriot” is to be a romantic and to love those indefinable aspects and features of one’s country that make it “home”. By this definition, Admiral McRaven is an old-fashioned US patriot, proud to serve his country and demanding the highest standards of himself in doing so.