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William McRaven's Commencement address

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William McRaven's Commencement address

Below is the text of the Commencement address, as prepared for delivery, by Admiral William H. McRaven, retired U.S. Navy four-star admiral and former chancellor of the University of Texas system, for the Institute’s 2020 Commencement, held online May 29, 2020.
Thank you very much for that kind introduction. President Reif, distinguished guests, members of the faculty and of course, the MIT graduating class of 2020. It is truly an honor for me to have the opportunity to address you today.
I had an entirely different speech prepared for this afternoon. It was a nice little speech. It was about how you, the brilliant men and women of MIT are like the Navy SEALs of academia. I made some good analogies. I had some cute little antidotes and some lessons from my career. But somehow, that speech just didn’t seem right in light of all that has happened in the past five months. The fact that I am standing here alone, and that you are isolated somewhere at home, is proof enough that the world has changed.
But there is a part of the speech that I retained. It was the part about heroes and how after all these years I came to realize that the heroes we need—are not the heroes I had been looking for. When I was a young boy growing up in the 50s and 60s, I always envisioned myself as the hero. I always wanted to be Superman, with his powers to fly, with his invulnerability, with his super strength. A hero who saved the world every day from some catastrophe. Or Batman, Spiderman, the Black Panther, the team of the X-men and the Fantastic Four and my favorite of all—Aquaman. I so wanted to ride on the back of a seahorse and fight evil underwater.
But as I grew up and travelled the world, and as I saw more than my share of war and destruction—I came to the hard truth that Captain America isn’t coming to the rescue. There is no Superman, no Batman, no Wonder Woman, no Black Widow, no Avengers, no Justice League, no Gandolf, no Harry Potter, and no Aquaman. If we are going to save the world from pandemics, war, climate change, poverty, racism, extremism, intolerance—then you, the brilliant minds of MIT—you are going to have to save the world.
But, as remarkable as you are—your intellect and talent alone will not be sufficient. I have seen my share of real heroes, on the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan, in the hospitals fighting COVID 19, on the streets keeping America safe and open—and I know that there are other qualities necessary to be today’s hero. So, if you will bear with this old sailor for a minute or two, I would like to offer some thoughts on the other qualities you will need to help save the world.
First, you must have courage. Winston Churchill once said that courage was the most important quality of all because it guaranteed all the rest. He was not just talking about the physical courage to charge the hill, run into a burning building, or stop a madman with a gun. He was also talking about moral courage. The courage to stand up for your convictions. Physical courage has long been the hallmark of a great warrior, but I would offer that the moral courage to stand up for what’s right has an equal place in the pantheon of heroes.
If you hope to save the world you will have to standby your convictions. You will have to confront the ignorant with facts. You will have to challenge the zealots with reason. You will have to defy the naysayers and the weak-kneed who have not the constitution to stand tall. You will have to speak truth to power.
But if your cause is good and decent and worthy and honorable and has the possibility of saving even one of God creatures, then you must do what all heroes do. You must summons the courage to fight and fight hard for your convictions. You must yell them from the mountaintop. You must shout them from the lectern. You must write in bold, cursive and underlined phrases. You must bring your convictions out from the darkness and the subtly of your heart—into the light of day. They must be made public and challenged and confronted and argued.
There will always be those who don’t want to hear your convictions. Particularly if they are true.

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