Dear Mike Rowe,
Hello, I am a boy scout in Iowa, and I read the letter you sent to a boy who was contemplating whether or not to become an eagle scout. I am sorry to say this, but I am slightly offended by the meaning I interpreted when you brought up taking the path to become an eagle scout, or living a life of predictability and mediocrity. I honestly am not a very enthusiastic scout, I know that, others have told me that, and I doubt I will go for my eagle. But, I am one of the top people in my grade, I am taking two honors courses next year, I maintain straight A’s, I am on my school’s honor roll, I swim competitively with my local swimming team, and I plan on going to the best college I can. Please explain to me how this seems to be a life of mediocrity, because I work hard, and I stand up for my opinions, and in this case, I disagree. I know you are successful, and I know you are an eagle, but to be successful, must you be an eagle?
Illowa Council ( Iowa/Illinois)
Well Josh, that’s an interesting letter and a very fair question. And since I’m sitting here at home waiting for my dinner to be delivered, I’ll fire off a snappy response. (Pizza by the way, in case you’re interested.)
First of all, don’t apologize for being offended. There’s plenty in the world to be offended by and if my comments hurt your feelings you have every right to say so. Of course it’s important to realize the decision to be offended is exactly that – a choice. And since you seem to accept responsibility for the path you’ve chosen, I assume you’ll also accept responsibility for the way you feel. Owning your feelings is a fundamental difference between a child and a grown-up, and though I can’t be entirely sure which you are, you seem like a smart guy. So I’m going to respond as though you’re an adult. Ready?
The short answer is No – The Rank of Eagle guarantees you no measure of long-term happiness or success whatsoever. The world is full of gifted athletes, academic geniuses, decorated war heroes, and former Eagle Scouts who have gone on to lead miserable lives of failure and regret. Make no mistake about that.
Of course, this is not the message that many adults want me to deliver to their kids. They would prefer a more optimistic form of encouragement, one that stresses the many benefits that often come as a result of attaining this award. Well, I’m sorry, but you can get that elsewhere. (In fact, you can get that everywhere.) My exact thoughts on the matter can be found here, in a letter I send out to Scouts who have actually made it to Eagle. On this point, I suspect we agree. However, after reading your note more carefully, I was struck by something that doesn’t add up. In your own words, you claim – “I honestly am not a very enthusiastic scout, and doubt I will go for my Eagle.”
Given your excellence in school, your commitment to physical fitness, and your desire for higher education, that confession strikes me as a bit out of context. I mean, why would a guy who’s so passionate and deliberate about everything else in his life invest his time doing something for which he has so little enthusiasm? And why would he find my comments “slightly offensive”, if he had already determined the achievement in question was of little interest to him?
Do you see my confusion? You’ve asked me to explain – in light of your many ambitions – how your chosen path might lead to a life of mediocrity. Well, the answer Josh, has nothing to do with your ambition, and everything to do with your apathy. You seem to have embraced both. Your “lack of enthusiasm” is dangerous, not because you feel it, but because you tolerate it. And if you can tolerate a lack of enthusiasm in Scouting, there’s no telling what else you’ll let yourself become bored with.
Let me step back a moment, (since my pizza is still not here!) and say again how very skeptical I am of this “Everybody-Gets-a-Trophy” mentality. Look around and you’ll see symptoms of this condition everywhere. My cousin got a trophy a few years ago that read “Thanks for Participating!” (His basketball team came in second to last.) You can see it in classes where the teachers grade on a “curve.” (Since when is a 75% a B+?)
The truth is, many adults today are more concerned with your self-esteem than with your performance. Too many parents and teachers and coaches want their kids to succeed so badly that they’ll drag them across the finish line if they have to. Frankly, I find it insulting to those kids who are willing to do their best. I think we send a really crappy message to millions of kids when we reward them equally, for accomplishments that are clearly unequal. I think we set them up for failure later in life.
Anyway, the letter that offended you was written because I don’t want to see that sort of mentality creep into Scouting. I don’t want the Eagle standards lowered just to encourage less enthusiastic kids to “go for it,” or satisfy a parents desire to see their precious little snowflakes bring home another “trophy.” And frankly, I don’t think the best way to inspire and motivate kids like you is to blow a bunch of sunshine up your butt.
To be really honest Josh, I don’t think you were really offended by my comments at all. I think you’re hiding behind this “lack of enthusiasm,” because deep down, you’re afraid of failing. That’s exactly how I felt when I realized how much work the Eagle rank would require. I wanted to quit, right then and there. But I didn’t want to admit that I wanted to quit, so I just pretended not to care. I concealed my fear with apathy, and didn’t come clean until my old man called me out. I suspect that’s what you’re doing now.
Of course, I could be wrong; I often am. But this much I’m sure of – you’ll learn a heck of a lot more in life by failing than succeeding. Unless of course, you’re unwilling to try, in which case you’ll learn exactly nothing.
My advice? Quit Scouting today. Or, quit pretending not to care. Because the short answer to your question goes like this – You can be plenty successful without becoming an Eagle. But you’ll never get anywhere by doing things half-way.
That will absolutely, positively assure you a life of spectacular mediocrity. Having said that, my pizza is here, and I need both hands to eat it.
Joshua and Mike continue their dialogue:
I enjoy your response Mr. Rowe, it makes things make sense, but honestly the reason I stay in scouts is for my friends and because I enjoy it, and I just don’t enjoy some of the requirements. Now, the reason I say I am not enthusiastic is because I have finished a lot of my requirements, but the issue is that so many require outside summer camp outs, normally I am to busy with other things to go, and during the winter a lot of my requirements can’t be completed.
I enjoy your response Mr. Rowe
Thanks. My friends call me Mike.
It makes things make sense, but honestly the reason I stay in scouts is for my friends and because I enjoy it.
Cool. Doing something because you enjoy it is well and good, and having fun in life is right up there in my list of Top Two things to do. But you didn’t ask me about enjoyment. You asked me about success – and the role of the Eagle Award in avoiding a predictable and mediocre existence.
I just don’t enjoy some of the requirements.
Your “enjoyment” is completely irrelevant to your willingness to try.
Please, re-read that last sentence.
Now once again – Outloud.
I’ve told this to hundreds of Scouts over the years, and will tell thousands more the same thing next month in Virginia, when I speak at the hundred year anniversary. The most valuable lesson I learned in Scouting, was not merely the importance of trying things I didn’t enjoy – it was the ability to learn how to enjoy those same things. That’s the single biggest reason why I have the job I have today. If your strategy in Scouts (and Life) is to avoid those activities and requirements that you don’t enjoy, you will have a difficult time transcending any definition of mediocrity. That’s not a criticism – merely an observation.
Now, the reason I say I am not enthusiastic is because I have finished a lot of my requirements, but the issue is that so many require outside summer camp outs, normally I am to busy with other things to go, and during the winter a lot of my requirements can’t be completed
You just admitted a resistance to tackling requirements that you do not enjoy. Now, you seem to be saying you can’t deal with those same requirements because you are simply too busy?
Look, there are many qualities shared by the vast majority of Scouts who never make it to Eagle, and you possess the two most common – a lack of enthusiasm, and a hectic schedule. There is no shame in either excuse. Indeed, these are the same exact qualities shared by the vast majority of perfectly average adults. Remember, the Eagle Award is supposed to be hard. It demands sacrifice. And it requires you to do things you might not enjoy. Why do you suppose so few people get there?