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Olson: Now it all begins again

Olson: Now it all begins again

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Editor’s note: Adm. Eric T. Olson delivered the 2013 commencement remarks at Hampden-Sydney College on Sunday, May 12. This is an edited version of his remarks.

Some of you, I suspect most of you, had moments, hours, days 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 No. 1 is this: Go for it.

In Navy SEAL training, only about 20 percent of the physically fit and highly motivated young men who begin the course are still there on graduation day almost a year later — even though all of them believed when they arrived that they would be successful.

A few years ago, we did a statistical study of those who started the training but didn’t complete it — the 80 percent who, for one reason or another, failed to achieve their dream. Most of those who didn’t graduate quit. They walked away.

What we learned from our survey was that 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. They didn’t actually 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 began, they almost always found that it wasn’t as bad as they feared it would be.

We also surveyed the successful graduates, the 20 percent who would actually become Navy SEALs. A common area of expertise was, surprisingly, playing chess.

So Point No. 2 is that the strategic thinkers, those who could see beyond 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, No. 3 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.

And that brings us to Point No. 4: 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.

It is important now for you to throw yourself into the people pit. Figure out how systems depend on people to run them and how important decisions are made. As you broaden your people horizons, you will find yourself surprised, entertained, disappointed, elated, saddened, humbled and inspired by their stories — if you take the time to listen to them.

And speaking of people brings us to you, and Point No. 5.

You can do more than you think you can do. 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 toward all of this. Hampden-Sydney College has prepared you for this. And today is the day it all begins again.

Adm. Eric T. Olson was the first Navy SEAL officer to be promoted to three- and four-star ranks. His military career culminated as the head of the United States Special Operations Command. As president of ETO Group, LLC, Olson is now an independent national security consultant, and is an adjunct professor in the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. Contact him at

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