Twelve years ago, I was talking with my mother about her bucket list. She said she had been blessed to travel to Europe and other exotic places, but there was one thing she still wanted to do above everything else.
“Have you heard of the Passion Play?” she asked me. I hadn’t, and my mom went on to explain that four hundred years ago, the Catholic residents of the tiny Bavarian village of Oberammergau pleaded with God to spare them from the plague, also known as the “Black Death.” In return, they vowed to perform a play depicting the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ every ten years. According to legend, after the play was first staged in 1634, no more residents died of the plague. To this day, every ten years, the villagers grow out their hair and beards, dust off their costumes, build new sets, and reprise their roles for hundreds of thousands of visitors from Germany and around the world. The play has been modernized over the years to make it more inclusive toward other cultures and religions, but its core remains the same: honoring a commitment to God made centuries ago.
“I want to travel to Germany and see that play,” my mother told me back in 2010.
“Tell you what, Mom,” I said, “we’ve missed this year’s play, but I promise you that we will see it together in ten years.”
Well, in 2020, another plague of sorts hit Oberammergau. For only the third time in history—the others being related to World War I and World War II—the Passion Play was postponed. But this summer, two years after the Covid-19 pandemic swept through the world, nearly two thousand villagers, two horses, two camels, a donkey, nine sheep, and six goats performed once again for hundreds of thousands of visitors.
And just as the Oberammergau villagers kept their promise, I kept mine. Last week, I sat in that audience alongside my wife and children and our dear friends Byron and Lisa Haselden. Next to me sat my mother. Being there with her was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. The sheer size and scope of the play was breathtaking, with thousands of men, women, and children working and performing together seamlessly. What amazed me, though, was how these folks continue to honor a vow made centuries ago. You would think that by now the town would say, “Enough is enough. This is a lot of work for a promise made by our great-great-great-great-great-great grandparents.”
But that’s not what the villagers in Oberammergau did. That’s not what people who take their commitments seriously do. As the old saying goes, people with good intentions make promises, but people with good character keep them.
The more I think about it, the people I look up to the most—the ones with the best character—keep their promises, every single time. For instance, you might know my friend Frank DeAngelis as the principal of Columbine High School when two students stalked the hallways with assault weapons and perpetrated what was then the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history. Frank kept his promise to help the surviving students rebuild and forge a new identity for the school, delaying his retirement until boys and girls who had been kindergarteners at the time of the massacre graduated from Columbine High School.
Except, Frank keeps his promises even when the eyes of the world move on. As I write about in my forthcoming book, The Gift of Influence, seven years ago Frank made a promise to me when I was going through a tough time. “Tommy,” he said,
“every morning I’m going to text you how much I love you.” Now, most people who say something like that might go through with it for a few weeks. It’s a lot of effort coming up with something new to tell a person every single morning, day in and day out. We get busy. Life gets in the way.
Well, not Frank. It’s been over 2,700 days since Frank made that promise to me. On every single one of those days, he has texted me how important I am to him, how much he loves and appreciates me. He’ll send an inspirational quote or Bible verse to help me stay positive. In those seven-plus years, I’ve had my ups and downs, but the one constant through it all has been Frank’s daily message of love.
Another person who keeps their promises is my friend and mentor Scott Lynn. He’s taught me more about business than any textbook or MBA degree ever has, but more importantly, he has lived up to every single commitment in his life. Every time we have lunch, Scott brings along a little black notebook. Inside it he writes down every promise he makes, whether it’s making an introduction, contributing to the National Leadership Academy’s scholarship program, or sending me a copy of the book he’s reading. He writes down every promise, no matter how small. I’ve known Scott for more than two decades, and he has never once failed to do what he says. Not once.
The average person speaks sixteen thousand words a day. Can you remember most of them from last week? From yesterday? From this morning? We say things we forget. We make promises and then life gets in the way. But each of those failed commitments erodes us, just us a little. Our influence wanes, just a little. I have dear friends who have the very best intentions, but when it comes time to follow through on their promise to show up for this or that, to donate to a charity, or to help a friend in need, life gets in the way.
Think about the commitments you’ve made recently. The big ones, the small ones, the ones you made without really thinking, and especially the ones that seem to fall through your fingers like sand. Strive to be like those people in Oberammergau growing out their hair and beards to honor a promise their forebearers made hundreds of years ago. Strive to be like that kind principal from Columbine, Colorado, who simply does what he says, every time. Carry a little black notebook around like my friend Scott does to help you stay accountable. Trust me, people notice when you do what you say—and when you don’t. As the author Paul Theroux once wrote, “Gain a modest reputation for being unreliable, and you will never be asked to do a thing.”