Admiral Eric Olson's H-SC Remarks

Admiral OlsonHampden-Sydney College, Class of 2013. 
Commencement remarks.
May 12th, 2013

Thank You.  

Good morning.. Trustees, Faculty, Administration, (Father Bob), especially the parents and mostly the students who are graduating in the Hampden-Sydney College Class of 2013.  You are the reason we have gathered on this magnificent morning -- magnificent for its content and glorious for its weather and pageantry.

It is great to be with you.

Dr. Howard....   We, all of us, owe a lot to your vision, energy, passion and strong leadership.  I, who knew you under such different circumstances many years ago, and watched you with real admiration then, among the many who are so fiercely proud of you now.  I'm very honored to be with you today.

It's my mission today is to share a few thoughts with you -- if not profound, at least worth listening to on some level.

Class of 2013, it's your mission to listen to them, and then you can celebrate as you choose.

I first want to congratulate each of you on your magnificent achievement.  This may be what your parents expected of you, and what you expected of yourself, but it's not to be taken lightly.  From this day on, you will be alumni of a college that is as prestigious as it is unique.  You have all been tested... against the high standards of Hampden-Sydney College, against each other and against your own notions of your capabilities and limitations.

Some of you, I suspect most of you (perhaps all of you) had moments, hours, days (maybe weeks, months and whole semesters) of trepidation when you wondered if you were good enough; if you had what it takes to overcome every obstacle in your quest to be at this place at this time.

And here you are. 

So Point Number One is this.  Go for it.

In Navy SEAL training, we have historically graduated only about 20% 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.  

A few years ago, we did a statistical study of those who started the training but didn't complete it, the 80% who, for one reason or another, failed to achieve their dream.   We already knew that, by far, most of those who didn't graduate left by their own choice.  They quit.  They rang the bell, dropped their helmets on the ground and walked away.

What we learned from our survey and the analysis that accompanied it 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 required to do would be too difficult (or too cold, or too wet or too painful or too tiring).  They didn't actually ever fail, they quit because they feared that they would fail. 

The point is that what keeps most people from achieving their dreams and goals is a decision to not actually begin the next difficult step.  Once they begin, they almost always find that it wasn't as bad as they feared it would be. 

As Woody Allen said, "90 percent of success is just showing up."  Or, even more to the point is Wayne Gretzky's observation that "you miss 100% of the shots you never take."


We also surveyed the successful graduates, the 20% who would actually became Navy SEALs, in an attempt to determine what factors contributed to their success.  We looked at age, experience, geographic origin, interests, intelligence, fitness levels, and more. 

Interesting but not surprising was that, in the category of "sports and hobbies," we found that the number three best indicator of success was being on a water polo team at the high school or collegiate level -- and number two was being on the wrestling team at the high school or collegiate level.  But both interesting and surprising was that the number one indicator was a high level of expertise in playing chess.  

So... before we started focusing our SEAL recruiting efforts on the chess clubs, we did some thinking about why this would be -- and realized that it actually reinforced my last point.  

Point Number Two is that the strategic thinkers, those who could see beyond the next move or the next challenge, were the ones who succeeded in our long and demanding program.  They weren't focused on what would happen after breakfast or lunch -- they were mentally days or weeks ahead, already figuring out how to be in the best position to overcome a future challenge.


My next point, and Number Three of Five, is the importance of nuance and context.  Our reliance on social media and other sources that compress and abbreviate information, and on bulletized slide presentations for decision-making, 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. 

And by quickly examining a problem through a single lens, we miss so much of what is important.  Sometimes the WHY of things is more critical than the WHO, WHAT, WHEN or WHERE.

A vignette:  A male Army Civil Affairs officer in a remote area of Afghanistan asked the male village elders what infrastructure project (clinic, bridge, school, culvert...) would bring them the most value.  The elders told him that, because the women of the village had to walk almost 10 kilometers each way to bring water from the river, a deep well would be of greatest value to the village.

Misunderstanding the motives of the elders and, in fact, believing that they were trying to improve life for the women, he organized and funded the digging of a great well - which was celebrated by the elders with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and the eating of much goat.

Six months later, on a follow-up visit to the village to check on the well, the Army team brought a couple of female Soldiers who were able to ask the women of the village about how things were for them.  The response was that things had been fine until the Americans dug the well and stole away the most precious time of their day, when they had walked (slowly) to the river and then walked (slowly) back, talking with each other about life and children, enjoying their limited freedom from their duties among the men in the village.

We missed the nuance and the context.  We were unable to accurately predict the impact of our actions.  We didn't look at the problem through enough lenses.  We didn't understand.

Whatever time you spend seeking the nuance, the perspective, the overlooked fact or factor -- will be time well spent. 


And that brings us to Point Number Four -- It is always about the people.  We are often tempted to phone instead of visit, text instead of phone, and substitute online processes for human interaction.  But, in the end, it is still and always 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 die for you.  

In my view, it is important now for you to throw yourself into the people pit.  Learn what it is like to have an inconsiderate coworker, a demanding boss, an awesome mentor, a selfless neighbor, a truly courageous subordinate.  Figure out how systems depend on people to run them, and how important decisions, those that affect lives and livelihoods, are made.  Gain, as much as you can, the experiences that will fill you out, make you a better person - not just wealthier or more popular - better.  As you broaden your people horizons, you will find yourself surprised, entertained, disappointed, elated, saddened, humbled, inspired by their stories -- if you take the time to listen to them.


And speaking of people brings us to you, and Point Number Five.

You can do more than you think you can do, and today you correctly think that you can do a lot.  I am among many who are in awe of retired Navy SEAL Lieutenant Mike Thornton, who was awarded the Medal of honor, our Nation's highest decoration for valor in combat, when he was a young Petty Officer in Vietnam.  When asked what was the greatest obstacle he ever had to overcome, Lieutenant Thornton says it was himself -- his own sense of his own limitations.  

To make it even more personal.  I stand before you as a guy who was, by far, not the biggest, strongest, fastest or smartest Navy SEAL, and somehow I became the senior officer in the world's best special operations forces.  

It was about more than physical size and martial skills.  It wasn't just about knocking things or people down. It was also about building them up. 

And that brings us back to the beginning.

Go for it.  Don't quit anything over breakfast or lunch.

Think at least a few moves ahead.

Dig into the nuance and the context.

Learn about people.

Believe in yourself.

Most of you are naturally inclined towards all of this.  Hampden-Sydney College has prepared you for this.  And today is the day it all begins again.

So don't ever stop manning up.  And know that being a good man means being a good teammate and good friend; a thought leader; a man who carries his share of the load and then some; a man who is wiling to stoop down to pull others up; and when the time comes, a man who is a loyal and hardworking husband and an attentive father.  

Even in real life, there is a code of conduct and a code of honor.

Today, there is also a Point Number Six:  Happy Mothers Day to all of you Moms who are with us today.  You have every reason to be very proud today, and as much as today is the graduates' day, it is also yours.  

Graduates, without a mother, none of you would be here.  Don't ever forget all that they have done for you.  

And, in a way, you gain a new mother today, an alma mater ("nourishing mother"), who also deserves your everlasting respect and support.

Don't ever forget what your alma mater has done for you.  You know how to read, write and think at a higher level than most.  I urge you to do some of each every day.


As I am honored to be among you, I am now forever associated with this College, and I am now interested in each of you.  I wish you true happiness, extraordinary adventures and very meaningful lives.  

Thank you again for this opportunity to be with you.

Go Tigers!