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Issue 233 – Eagles and Parkinson’s Law


Writing for The Economist in 1955, Cyril Northcote Parkinson began a semi-humorous essay with this statement:

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

This has become famous as “Parkinson’s Law,” mostly because it’s pretty accurate!

It’s high time we recognize that in vastly too many instances we apply this to the rank of Eagle Scout.

It’s as if, because one can earn this rank anytime prior to one’s 18th birthday, then age 17 years, 364 days is perfectly OK as a planned completion date! Baloney!

Just the other day, with just one merit badge to go, a 16-1/2 year-old Scout was told, “No rush…you have lots of time.” Baloney!

The BSA Advancement Committee Policies and Procedures (No. 33088) has a special appeals provision to follow when the Scout’s 18th birthday is imminent. Baloney!

A small part of the problem here is the Cub Scout program, in which the Arrow of Light rank is typically presented to the Webelos Scout on the same evening that he leaves the pack. The impression created among some proportion of parents, boys, and leaders is that Boy Scout ranks work the same way: After seven years of Boy Scouting, the young man gets his Eagle badge and departs the troop, never to actually ever wear the badge. Pity!

Well here’s the plain truth: Despite the hyperbole, pomp, circumstance, and accolades that have been relentlessly seeping through the sheets in recent decades, Eagle ain’t that tough.

“Back in the day,” it wasn’t all that unusual for a Scout to earn Eagle, and then go on and earn the Explorer Silver Award—the two together commonly called “The Double-Eagle”—all before being able to get a drivers license. Young men at one time also earned Eagle and the Sea Scout Quartermaster Award, well before being able to legally have a beer.

When I sit on an Eagle board of review for a 17 or 18 year-old, I make a point of asking what advice he would give to a boy just starting out on the trail to Eagle. Every one has said precisely the same thing: Earn it before you get to high school if possible, or before your sophomore year, for sure. But, when I then ask if in their own troop this was encouraged, the invariable answer is along the lines that the adults there didn’t “believe” that a Scout was “mature enough to understand” how important Eagle was, and so they used various ruses to “slow Scouts down.” Some troops even delayed their Scouts “so that the boys will stay in the program longer,” according to several horribly misguided Scoutmasters from around the country.

Look, Tenderfoot takes a month; Second and First Class can be knocked off before a boy’s 12th birthday; Star and Life can be handled in another year with a little imagination and sticktoitiveness, so that’s by the 13th birthday; and Eagle takes another six months or so, so we’ve got a wrap by 14. Perfect! Now the Scout actually gets to wear his Eagle badge on his shirt, get some fun merit badges on subjects he’s interested in, get to a Jamboree plus Philmont and Northern Tier treks, and a whole bunch of other stuff in the next three years!

“Oooo… But the Eagle Project,” you say. To which, hey, what’s the big deal! It’s not like he’s building the Great Pyramid or launching UNICEF. He’s doing a project in or around his town that shows he knows how to plan, “sell,” and manage—otherwise called “leadership”—that does some good for the community.

“It was easier ‘back then,’ because there was no Eagle project,” say some. But they forget that, “back then,” there were no “merit badge fairs,” or even “merit badge midways” at Jamborees, there were no “in-house merit badge counselors,” no “trail to Eagle workshops,” no “troop Eagle advisors,” no “Life-to-Eagle packets,” and no parents to drive us hither and yon (we walked, strapped on our roller skates, rode our bikes, or took public transportation—what a concept!).

“Well all of those reasons are why Eagles accounted for only 2% of all Scouts!” say others. But we forget that advancement is one of eight methods of Boy Scouting; it’s not the be-all, end-all to the program. If a guy decided he wanted to continue to advance, he did it. If he was happy at First Class or Star or Life, then that was OK—it wasn’t such a big deal, because along the way he was getting the other seven methods of Scouting, and they usually stuck.

Nowadays, we often suggest that, somehow, a young man has “failed” if he’s not an Eagle Scout…and we give him (and expect him to take) all seven years to get there. Enough!

Scouting isn’t about “failing” or even “passing.” It’s about having fun in the out-of-doors, with friends maybe for life, learning about ourselves, learning to get along with others, and handling some challenges while we’re at it. Advancement is surely a part of the program, and it’s an important part. But it’s not Scouting’s answer to surmounting Everest or walking on the Moon, and it shouldn’t be treated as such. And it sure as heck shouldn’t take seven years!

Do it in two, or three, or four years and you get to wear the badge for a while. If you’re in a troop that says you have to “mature” in addition to completing all the requirements for six ranks and 21 merit badges, go find a troop that “gets it.” If you’re in a troop that believes Eagle is their parting gift to you, as you head off to college or the workplace, go find another troop. If you’re in a troop that doesn’t “believe” in “young Eagles,” well, you get the idea.

Suppose you have a manager who tells you he has a project for you that can be done in about two to four hours, but you can take all day, if you want. Just how much enthusiasm are you going to give that project, and how good are you going to feel at the end of the day?

Just because you have seven years to do it doesn’t mean you should take seven years.

Happy Scouting!



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(November 21, 2010 – Copyright © Andy McCommish 2010)

Letters to AskAndy may be published at the discretion of the columnist and the editor. If you prefer to have your name or affiliation withheld from publication, please advise in your letter..


About AskAndy

Andy is a Board Member of the U.S. Scouting Service Project, Inc.

Andy has just received notification by his council Scout Executive that he is to be recognized as a National Distinguished Eagle Scout. He is currently serving as a Unit Commissioner and his council's International Representative. He has previously served in a number of other Scouting roles including Assistant Council Commissioner, Cubmaster, Scoutmaster, Den Leader, and--as a Scout--Patrol Leader, Senior Patrol Leader, and Junior Assistant Scoutmaster. His awards include: Kashafa Iraqi Scouting Service Award, Distinguished Commissioner, Doctor of Commissioner Science, International Scouter Award, District Award of Merit (2), Scoutmaster Award of Merit, Scouter's Key (3), Daniel Carter Beard Masonic Scouter Award, Cliff Dochterman Rotarian Scouter Award, James E. West Fellow (2), Wood Badge & Sea Badge, and Eagle Scout & Explorer Silver Award.

Read Andy's full biography

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