I Promise, To Do My Best, To Do My Duty…

“I promise to do my best, to do my duty to God and my county; to help other people and obey the Law of the Pack.”

– The Cub Scout Promise

I learned the Cub Scout Promise in first grade. I was a Tiger Cub with an iron-on patch on a white t-shirt and it was just something I had to learn. My mom read it to me slowly and I repeated the words after her until I could do it on my own. Time came and I was able to say it in front of my Den Leader and repeated it at every Pack meeting until I left the Scouts in fifth grade.

I hadn’t really thought about the Cub Scout Promise since then, not consciously, not at all. Until last summer, when we signed my son, Jack, up for Tiger Cubs. I hadn’t planned on becoming a Den Leader, but had somehow fallen into it. And so it was that I found myself playing my mom’s role, helping my son to memorize the lines.

It’s only as an adult that I understand the simple power of this basic pledge. It’s only now that I am an adult, a husband, a father, a professional that I understand its understated profundity.

“I promise to do my best”

I’m not the most talented person in the world. I wasn’t born with the best brain, the prettiest face. I can’t throw a baseball 90 miles-per-hour and you probably won’t find me doing differential equations in my head during free time. But I’ve come to realize that none of those things really matter. You can’t choose them. You can’t opt-in to God-given greatness. Some people have it, some people don’t. But not everyone who has a natural ability uses it. Simply being born with something doesn’t mean you’ll ever succeed with it. You need a second part, another element, like the two tubes of epoxy. You’ve got to have drive. You need perseverance. You need dedication above ego.

One of my favorite baseball players in the San Francisco Giants’ pitcher Tim Lincecum. He’s won a couple of Cy Young awards, constantly leads the team in ERA and strike-outs and, just looking at him, there’s no way he should be any good. He doesn’t have Randy Johnson’s height or Brian Wilson’s personality. He’s not the tactician Greg Maddox was and he’ll never throw a ball as hard as Aroldis Chapman. He won’t ever be singular. He’s less than six feet-tall and weighs 179 pounds. He’s gangly. He’s lanky. And he’ll blow a 93 mile-an-hour fastball past you on the inside corner because you’ll be looking for a change-up in the dirt.

Lincecum made the absolute most of what he was given. Watch him pitch. He uses every inch of his body – every twisted and strained ligament to create potential energy and make it kinetic. Lincecum does his best. He does more than his best. He never settles for less than his best.

Every man can learn from that. Every man should understand that it’s not about whether you are good at something now. It’s about whether or not you are willing to fail, fall and try until you are. Doing your best isn’t about being the best, it’s about being better today than you were yesterday, better tomorrow than you are today.

“To do my duty”

We all have stuff we don’t want to do. I hate coming home and having to take out the trash and do the dishes. There are days when I’d rather just leave it all for someone else. But that’s not fair, is it? My wife, I’m sure, has days when she doesn’t want to do the things she needs to do for our family, our children, herself. But she does it. It’s her job. If she does her job and I don’t do mine – because I’m tired or don’t feel like it – then who’s breaking the deal?

Doing your duty isn’t about simply checking things on your list, it’s about taking responsibility. It’s about understanding not just what you have to do, the obligation, but why you’re doing it. Duty without purpose is task. Is it enough to know that you need to read to the kids every night or do you need to know that reading to them helps boost their literacy and develops a permanent bond between you based on fulfilled promises and expectations.

We all get bogged down. We all lead harried, hectic lives. A man knows how to separate tasks from duty and prioritizes duty above all else.

“To God and my country”

I’m not the proselytizing type. I don’t believe in telling people what to believe. But I am a man of faith. I’ve always been a person who believed in a higher power, even if I haven’t always understood what that meant. I have my differences with religion, but I’ve never really doubted faith. And where the Cub Scout promise is concerned, I find that there’s an interesting correlation between faith and patriotism. They are joined by syntax and wordsmith, but if you stop and think about it, aren’t faith and patriotism based on the same base principle?

Both require a certain amount of humility, an understanding that a man is small part of something larger. Both require a belief in something much, much bigger than a single person. It’s easy to allow your world to shrink. You wake up, make coffee, drive to work, come home, eat dinner and go to bed. What faith and patriotism do is require you to, consciously and purposefully, pause to consider a larger picture. They force you to find the perspective that you are but one small being amid a mass of small beings living under a common ideal. A man who understands this is a man who doesn’t get too worried about being cut off in traffic, it’s a man who can sympathize, empathize and consider other people.

That, to me, is an essential trait of a real man.

“To help other people”

This may seem redundant after the ideas of duty, God and country, but I think it’s actually complimentary. As a writer, I spend a lot of time thinking about my next move – my next book, my next article, my next pitch. And this comes with anxiety. I wonder where I’m going to get the down payment  for a house, if I’ll have enough money for groceries and gas. It can be a solitary life spent in empty rooms, alone with your thoughts and ideas, worries and confusion.

A few years ago, I met a man through a friend. My friend worked for the man and told me at a party that he was looking for a ghost writer. He’s a speaker and full of the kind of thoughts I envy other people for having and cynics resent. But he’s got a hard time when it comes to putting those thoughts on paper. My first response was “I can do that. I need to do that. I need the money.” I thought about how the extra cash would help pay off the credit cards, how it would help pay the expensive babysitter while my wife and I were at work. I wrote a sample chapter and, before I knew it, the job was mine. The money was mine.

When we began working, I wanted to get paid, get writing and get the thing over with. But a funny thing happened along the way. I began thinking about what he needed instead of what I needed. I started to think about how his message had impacted thousands of people over the years and how others will benefit from reading the book that we were working on. I began thinking about how I could help him improve his business. I thought less and less about getting paid and more and more about going out of my way to do a really good job for him, helping him.

Had I just been focused on the pay check, I might have never spoken with him again after the book was done. I might have made the deposit and never looked back. But I found I genuinely did care about his project. I cared about how his business was growing and how I could help it grower faster, better, in the right direction. We maintained a relationship and I checked in on him every once in a while.

I was going through a tough time at work when we found ourselves at the same party. I was being asked to do more with less money. I was being scrutinized for other people’s mistakes. This man and I started talking and I told him about what was happening. “You’re being screwed,” he told me. “I will pay your bills for the next six months, but you have to march into your boss’s office Monday morning and quit. You are more valuable than that.” I resisted at first, but eventually relented and doing so was the best decision of my professional life. It lead to two books and the best job I’ve ever had.

All that time I thought I was becoming less and less selfish and doing something for him and that experience taught me that it was the other way around. He was giving me a shot at writing his book because he knew I needed it. He took a vested interest in me and I in him. The money I got for that book didn’t change my life, but the experience of realizing that putting yourself into the service of others – wholeheartedly, honestly and truly – did.

“And to obey the Law of the Pack”

It probably helps if you know the Law of the Pack. It goes like this:

The Cub Scout follows Akela.
The Cub Scout helps the pack go.
The pack helps the Cub Scout grow.
The Cub Scout gives goodwill.

“Akela” for the uninitiated is a word that means ‘teacher,’ ‘coach,’ ‘parent,’ or figure of authority and leadership. Following ‘Akela’ means respecting those who deserve respect. It means show deference where deference is due. We live in maddeningly self-important times. Social media, talking heads and status updates – they are one-way communications that say ‘look what I’m doing,’ ‘look how important I am.’ It would be the height of disingenuousness for someone who writes online, shares opinions and maintains several social media accounts to claim that I’m somehow above it all. I’m not. But I think what gets left out some times is a sense of respect.

We can get so caught up in what we’re into that we forget to show respect for other people. We become so focused on getting our candidate elected that we disrespect the office they are running for. We become so focused on feeling important that we forget to be important by treating other people as if they are. I’m not just talking about celebrities or politicians or athletes. I mean the people who’ve earned their way in the world. Leaders in the family, in the office, in the community. Rare is the occasion when someone walks into a position of authority or experiences success on their first try. Usually, they earned their spot. You may be young and full of good ideas, but so was your boss once and your boss was able to parlay youthful enthusiasm into seasoned leadership. You may think you have the world figured out, but that doesn’t mean you deserve more respect than your parents or grandparents. Be humble in this time when humility is as rare as icebergs in Arizona. Stand out by not demanding to be the center of attention.

“The Cub Scout helps the Pack go” is a reminder that we are all members of a community or family. It may be at work, it may be at church or in your sewing circle. Grouping is natural. Forming communal bonds is natural. Just remember that as a member of a group or community, you have a responsibility to do your part to keep it going.

“The Pack helps the Cub Scout grow” means that it’s our obligation to help others in our community grow. It may be helping someone down on their luck or taking on someone and being their mentor; it may be a helping hand or a shoulder to cry on. If you start to understand your duty to the greater community – friends, family, coworkers, neighbors – the greater reward you’ll receive in terms of opportunities to develop as a person.

“The Cub Scout gives goodwill.” It’s no mystery that often times the best gift we can give other people is a positive attitude. It may be a smile to a stranger or a willingness to help out a friend. Good will is all about maintaining an air of approachability and a exuding a sense that you are there to help, no matter what. Wouldn’t it be amazing if everyone did this? If our first instinct wasn’t to hide or cower, but to help? Wouldn’t the world be a different place if we cared more about helping others succeed than jealously guarding our own promise? I don’t need to say too much more about good will. The concept is so deceptively simple. I will just say this: they say that integrity is not only doing what’s right when someone is watching, but doing the same thing when they aren’t. Good will, real good will, works the same way. It shouldn’t matter if you ever get credit for the things you do. It shouldn’t matter if the person ever thanks you. The only thing that matters is that you offer good will freely and without fear of retribution or rebuttal. Its a gift that costs you nothing and can be more valuable than anything you can wrap a bow around – for the person who receives and for you.

So I guess it’s true. I learned everything I need to know about what it means to be a man in first grade, from my mom, line-by-line.

I promise, I won’t ever forget it. Scout’s honor.

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