October 3, 1990


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Where do you draw the line when it comes to keeping a promise? You probably have no trouble keeping one when it’s convenient, like when it’s something you want to do anyway.

But what about when keeping the promise inconveniences you, is something that bores you, or requires a big investment of time, money, or emotions? Do you still keep your promises?

Sir Walter Scott kept his promises—even though they were painful to him. You may be familiar with Scott. A biographer, critic, historian, and poet, Scott is considered the father of the historical novel, and he is credited with influencing novelists Leo Tolstoy, Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, Honoré de Balzac, and others.

Scott was born in 1771 in Edinburgh, Scotland. He began his professional life as a lawyer following an apprenticeship under his father, but he soon turned to writing and quickly became the most popular novelist of his day. In 1808, he became a partner in a publishing company, which yielded him greater revenue than simply placing his works with another publisher.

In 1826, his publishing company found itself in financial trouble when it was caught up in another business’s bankruptcy. The debt was enormous: £114,000, or about $160,000. Scott probably could have avoided the responsibility for paying the debt by declaring bankruptcy, but he didn’t. He had accepted the debt, so he made sure to keep his promise—even though it took him until nearly his death to do so.

Over the next six years, Scott, an already prolific author, wrote mountains of pages to earn money. He sold copyrights. He did whatever he could. In the end, he raised £70,000 before he died. Some people believe he wrote himself to death. But his will gave instructions concerning how additional works could be sold, and the debt was paid. Not only did he not allow pain to stop him from keeping a promise, he would not allow even death to do it.

You don’t meet many people like Scott today. Most of us prefer to do what’s easy instead of what’s right. But if we really want to live a golden life, then we would do well to follow his example.

Every civilization rests on a set of promises…If the promises are broken too often, the civilization dies, no matter how rich it may be, or how mechanically clever it is. It all comes down to our promises.– Herbert Agar

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