Naval Admiral William H. McRaven, a Navy SEAL for 36 years and ninth commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, gave an extraordinary commencement address in 2014 to the University of Texas at Austin. You may have seen it shared widely on Facebook and in many blogs and business and professional magazines. The YouTube video embedded below has had over 3.4 million views, and rightly so. The speech is remarkable because Adm. McRaven drew on ten lessons from Navy SEAL training that apply to pretty much everything in life and work for anyone. They're all good, but there is one that made a huge impression on me. It's the lesson of the "sugar cookie."
Several times a week, the instructors would line up the class and do a uniform inspection. It was exceptionally thorough. Your hat had to be perfectly starched, your uniform immaculately pressed and your belt buckle shiny and void of any smudges. But it seemed that no matter how much effort you put into starching your hat, or pressing your uniform or polishing your belt buckle — it just wasn't good enough. The instructors would find "something" wrong.
Mark this: the people who gave up and went home - the ones who didn't become Navy SEALs - were the ones who couldn't accept failure. The ones who succeeded and became SEALs were the ones who learned to get used to failure and keep going. The point of the exercise was to ensure that everyone ended up a "sugar cookie." No illusions here that some people always get it right while others fall short. The only way forward was to accept that you were going to fail, and to keep trying anyway. What sent some of the men home was simply pride. Our fear of failure, and our avoidance of situations where we might fail, does not come from an urgent need to accomplish important things. The people who accomplish important things are the ones who keep trying and failing until they get it right. Our fear and avoidance is due to our vanity in wanting to look successful and impressive. The ones who went home were the ones who couldn't handle the idea of having to look like a failure in order to get to the point of success.
"The purpose is to experience fear. Fear in the face of certain death. To accept that fear and maintain control of oneself and one’s crew.” The purpose of this training exercise was never to succeed. The purpose was to learn to maintain courage and control even when everything failed; to avoid giving in to panic or despair. The lesson is to never let your perception that you are failing or your fear of losing tempt you into giving up. The people that succeed are the ones that refuse to give up after failing (or after thinking they've failed).
The application for Christians is critical: more often than anything, it's our doubts about how we're doing and our own insecurities that discourage us and cause us to get derailed. Very often we are on the right track spiritually but we lose heart because we can't see that things are working out. Our perception is that we've failed, and we shrink back from what seems hopeless.
Keeping our faith fixed in God includes persevering in doing the right thing even when the evidence of our senses tells us we're losing. We trust in God's point of view instead: "When I thought, 'My foot slips,' your steadfast love, O LORD, held me up. When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul." (Psalm 94:18-19). One of the precious comforts in Scripture is that God often does His most glorious work when it looks like it's already too late. Think about how the disciples felt for those three days after Jesus died upon the cross. And then...
We need to stop keeping score of our "successes" and worrying if we think our "failures" outnumber them. We need to stop measuring ourselves against other people or against what we think a successful Christian should look like. Everybody ends up a sugar cookie sooner or later. Instead, we need to keep following Christ in every way we can, and trust Him to make the most of the results.