SEAL Your Own Fate

Published 4:41 pm Thursday, May 16, 2013

HAMPDEN-SYDNEY – Eighty percent of those trying to become a Navy SEAL never achieve that goal.

They qualify for the training. They are that good. But they never graduate.

They do not fail, however.

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They quit.

Retired Navy admiral Eric T. Olson shared that information with young men who did make the grade at Hampden-Sydney College and were poised on Sunday to receive their diplomas.

Olson spoke with authority on the subject, having served as Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command in his last assignment prior to retirement. He was the first Navy SEAL ever appointed to the three-star and four-star flag rank.

His first of five pieces of advice to H-SC graduates was “go for it” and he used the Navy's SEAL program to help make his point.

“In Navy SEAL training we have historically graduated only about 20 percent of the physically fit and highly motivated young men who begin the course. Even though all of them believed when they arrived that they would still be there on graduation day a year later,” said the man who earned a Silver Star in the Battle of Mogadishu in October of 1993, the award citing that, “while under withering enemy fire during actions in support of UNOSOM II operations, Captain Olson demonstrated complete disregard for his own personal safety in the accomplishment of his mission.”

The Navy and its SEAL program wanted to learn why the 80-20 split so consistently occurred. So a survey was undertaken “on those who began the training but didn't complete it. The 80 percent who failed to achieve their dream, we already knew that by far most left by their own choice. They quit. They rang the bell, they dropped their helmets on the ground and walked away,” Olson told the 200 young men about to leave the campus for their own missions in life.

What the Navy learned from the survey and analysis of the results was that “by far most of those who quit, quit during breakfast or lunch. They didn't quit because the food was bad, they quit because they were afraid that the next things they would be asked to do would be too difficult, too cold, or too wet or too painful or too tiring,” he said.

“They didn't actually ever fail,” Olson noted. “They quit because they feared that they would fail.

“The point is that what keeps most people from achieving their dreams and goals,” he continued, “is a conscious decision to not even begin the next difficult step.”

Those who do have the courage to fail most often succeed.

“And once they begin they almost always find that it wasn't as bad as they feared it would be,” Olson said of those among the 20 percent who do not allow fear to chew up and swallow their dreams.

They remain present and accounted for.

And so do their dreams.

“As Woody Allen said, '90 percent of success is just showing up,'” Olson said.

“But I prefer Wayne Gretzky's observation that you miss 100 percent of the shots you never take,” he told H-SC's class of 2013.

The 20 percent who became SEAL's, by the way, proved to share a passion and skill at chess. They embodied Olson's second piece of advice about thinking strategically beyond the next move.

The successful SEAL candidates were “not focused on what was going to happen after breakfast or after lunch,” Olson said. “They were literally days or weeks ahead…”

Point three, Olson told the graduates, is to understand the importance of nuance and context, which seem to be clicked into oblivion by today's digital world, a world that can mask the environment in which we actually live.

“Our reliance on social media that compress and abbreviate information and on bulletized slide presentations for decision-making,” Olson said, “have caused a distillation of almost everything into simple and decidedly un-nuanced concepts and phrases. But real life is quite nuanced. Everything and everybody have complexity, subtlety, and depth that defy our attempts to simplify them. By quickly examining a problem through a single lens we miss so much of what is really important.”

People are really important.

Without exception.

“It's always about the people,” Olson said, revealing is fourth of five points. “We're often tempted now to phone instead of visit, to text instead of phone, to substitute on line processes for human interaction.

“But at the end it is people at the core of it all, people who will help you or hurt you, support you or undermine you, partner with you or compete with you, envy you, hate you, respect you, ignore you, or,” he told them, “die for you.”

Olson, who also served as a SEAL instructor, strategy and tactics development officer and joint special operations staff officer, urged his audience to “throw yourself into the people pit…It will make you a better person, not just wealthier or more popular-better.”

In the people pit, you will be surprised.






And inspired.

If you take the time in the people pit to listen to their stories, stressed the man who became commander of the Naval Special Warfare Development group, an American counter-terrorism unit.

Point five brought Olson's commencement address full circle.

“You can do more. You can do more,” he repeated for emphasis, “than you think you can do and today you correctly think that you can do a lot…”

Olson gave the example of a Navy SEAL to make his point.

A SEAL with whom he was, he is, intimately familiar.


“By far, not the biggest, strongest, smartest, fastest Navy SEAL,” he said, before adding that, nevertheless, “someone who became the senior officer in world's best special operations forces. You can do more than you think you can do.”

Olson then continued to reinforce his first piece of advice.

“Go for it. Don't ever quit anything over breakfast. Think at least a few rows ahead, dig into the nuance and the context, learn about people, believe in yourself and challenge yourself…Don't ever stop 'manning up.' And know that being a good man means being a good teammate, and a good friend, a thought leader, a guy who carries his share of the load and more, who's willing to stoop down to pull others up,” he said.

“And, when the time comes, a loyal and hard-working husband and,” he added during the Mother's Day ceremony, “an attentive father.

Olson spoke his words under sunny skies and in a breeze fit for unfurling sails and getting underway, for pulling out of the harbor's relative safety into the waves of challenge on the sea of opportunity that life and the world can provide on a daily basis.

“Even in real life,” he said, pulling up the anchor, “there is a code of conduct and a code of honor.”