The First Rule of Engagement

The first rule of engagement is to get honest with yourself.

I wanted to change the world since I was a kid. Learning to focus closely, when I was very young my family was living in a motel in the Midwest. I was determined to help us by starting a business. One day I was so excited I made a sign for “Adam’s Drawings”, and hung it on the front door of our motel room. I wanted to sell my drawings to make money for my family. That day when I came home from school the sign was gone. Despite that, or maybe because of it, my desire was intact.

Starting when I was 10, I began taking any odd jobs I could find. I sold vacuums door-to-door with my dad, kept two newspaper routes, delivered flyers for a pizza place, and picked up trash around a community hall. In my teens I kept jobs as a summer camp counselor, janitor, sidewalk shoveler and lawn mower, in addition to finding my livelihood through youth work. During those years I volunteered in my neighborhood for all kinds of things, too. I was a Santa Claus at the neighborhood elementary school, a youth leader at a neighborhood church, and a Boy Scout who was determined to earn his Eagle award by forming a youth council. Acting in experimental community theater, I also joined in on Urban League programs, community council activities, and outreach from my church. I started an environmental justice campaign, and joined my friends in all kinds of shenanigans focused on helping others. My dad made sure we gave back by volunteering for the food bank, and we helped Habitat for Humanity. When I asked him why, I often heard that, “It’s just what we do, bud.”

The only pic I could find online from the hood I grew up in

My dad often takes it upon himself to keep me humble. My high and mighty conception that I have to change the world met its truth because of my dad. After spending 10 years of my life during junior high, high school, and into life after high school doing all kinds of leadership and community service activities, one day I came home from my job at a restaurant frustrated that I was not doing what I wanted to with my life. Much as he was obligated to, Dad asked me what I wanted to do.

“I want to be a leader,” I declared without reservation.
“Why? Why do you want to be a leader?”

I was hesitant to answer, if only because I knew there was more to this than the question asked.

“Because people want me to be,” I said tepidly.

There was a long pause, the kind that some dads specialize in. Mine has that specialty.

“Now, why do you really want to lead?”
“Because I feel like I need to lead, like I want to lead people.”

I was so concentrated on other people and my intention to lead them that I did not see my desire to simply lead because I wanted to.

Today, at this point in my life, I have worked with children, youth, and the adults who support them for the last 20 years, teaching, speaking, coaching, and more. Through much of this, I taught the basic premise of what my dad was trying to teach me back then: Don’t try to change the world because you think the world wants you to change it. Try because you want to, not because you think you have to.

This is the first rule of engagement: In order to get engaged in the world, I must be honest with myself about my desires for the world, and my desires for myself. 

You can get engaged by getting honest with yourself. When was the last time you really sat down and identified your own thoughts, feelings, and actions with regard to a specific situation in your life? Instead of trying the latest fad diet, get engaged by getting honest by looking at what you eat, when you eat, and why you eat. Instead of reading another self-help guide, get engaged by getting honest and taking an look at what you want to change, why you want to change yourself, whether you believe you can change yourself, and who you need to support you. Does going out on that date seem impossible without asking all your friends what they think? Get engaged in your own life by getting honest about what you feel and think about that person. Getting honest with ourselves builds investment in our own lives, and when we are invested, we can get engaged.

Getting honest is the first rule of engagement. More soon…

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

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