Charity and Problem Solving
I’d like to talk with you today about problem solving. Let’s take an example of a problem that might be familiar to you. Imagine that you are in a class requiring group work. In fact, a big percentage of your final grade will be based on a single group project. You didn’t get to choose the other members of our group; they were assigned. And there is no formal team leader. The purpose of the project, your professor said, includes learning to collaborate as peers.
From the very beginning, you could tell that you were in trouble. The other two members of the group don’t seem nearly as concerned about grades as you do. As the semester has progressed, you have begun to carry a disproportionate share of the load. When the other two submit work for interim deadlines, you end up redoing it. You have begun to wonder whether they are actually doing less than they’re capable of, because they know that you’ll cover for them.
There is more than just your personal pride and desire for fairness at stake. A bad grade on this project could prevent you from getting an A in the course. And the extra time you’re spending on this project is also affecting your performance in other courses. This group project could end up costing you a scholarship, as well as admission to the transfer school of your choice.
If you are like me, you already see some quick, effective solutions to this problem. You could go to your professor to explain the facts, and demand either to get a new group or to have yourself graded independently of your two teammates. In the process you could play upon the guilt that the professor ought to be feeling for putting you in this situation in the first place. Another approach might be to threaten your teammates by telling them that you’re about to have this kind of conversation with your professor.
If those approaches fail, you might just have to take matters into your own hands. You’ve discovered that it’s harder to fix your teammates’ work than it would be to do it yourself. Why not just plan to do everything alone? That would save the time you’re investing in group meetings, and you’d be sure of a good final product.
Now that I’ve got your stomach roiling, let me tell you about another way to think about solving the problems in our lives. I have learned it by watching three people I admire. They are President Henry B. Eyring, Elder Robert D. Hales, and President Kim B. Clark of BYU-Idaho. I have been blessed to spend much time with them. In addition to being father and son, President Eyring and I were home-teaching companions for four years in my youth. Later, I served as Elder Hales’ bishop. Particularly during several years when he was battling life-threatening illnesses, I visited him often. President Clark is both my boss at BYU-Idaho and was, until last month, my home teacher.
Each of these men is an outstanding problem solver. Because all three are products of the Harvard Business School, there was a time when I assumed that they learned their problem-solving skills there. But as I have watched them closely, I have discovered another source of their analytical abilities, one that surprised me. It is a set of four verses from the 13th chapter of Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians. Those verses are very familiar to us:
4 Charitysuffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,
7 Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
Now, you might ask, “This describes the way I should feel, but how will it help me to be a better problem solver? Doesn’t that require thinking clearly and doing good analysis?” For most of my life, that is what I believed. I went to school and honed my thinking skills so that I could be a good problem solver. But watching President Eyring, Elder Hales, and President Clark has helped me see that good thinking begins with the right kind of feelings.
To see why that is so, let’s group the 15 attributes of charity into four categories of our own creation: selflessness, optimism, generosity, and patience. For example, “selflessness” seems to embrace these five attributes of charity:
- Envieth not;
- Vaunteth not itself;
- Is not puffed up;
- Doth not behave unseemly;
- Seeketh not her own.
The word “optimism” seems to capture three more attributes:
- Rejoiceth in the truth;
- Believeth all things;
- Hopeth all things.
Likewise, a person who is kind, is not easily provoked, thinks no evil of others, and does not rejoice in their iniquity could be described by the term “generosity.” And one who suffers long, bears all things, and endures all things certainly qualifies for the label “patient.” So, with apologies to Paul, one of the most sophisticated thinkers in the scriptures, we’ll simplify our study of charity and problem solving by using the four terms Selflessness, Optimism, Generosity, and Patience.
Selfless Problem Solving
Let’s begin by exploring the problem-solving benefits of selflessness. Throughout my life, I’ve heard my father say, “Motive is everything.” He almost always says that when I bring an important personal choice to him, such as what graduate school I should attend or what job to take. It used to frustrate me to hear him say, “Motive is everything.” For one thing, I assumed that he was questioning my motives in general. For another, I couldn’t understand how my motives could make a particular choice right or wrong; the way I saw it, the rightness or wrongness of a choice was a quality inherent to that course of action, not something affected by my feelings.
What my father knows is that selfishness creeps into our analysis without our perceiving it. Unwittingly, we tend to see extra merit in a choice that would benefit us personally. A course of action that will ultimately make us look good or bring other personal rewards is one that we may rationalize as good for others as well.
That tendency is manifest in the options we considered for handling our group-work problem. When we thought about a conversation with the professor, we could have reasoned that going directly to the person in authority is best for everyone. But the Savior instructed otherwise. Matthew 18:15 records his guidance:
Moreover, if thy brother trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.
The Savior goes on to say in verses 16 and 17 that we retain the option to involve third-party witnesses and those in authority, if necessary. But the first thing to do is to engage our spiritual brother privately, before he faces the potentially humiliating experience of being confronted publicly. The Savior’s statement, “If he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother,” suggests that this approach to the problem could produce more than just an immediate resolution of a disagreement. It could deepen a relationship and help us avoid future problems. In fact, it could make our brother or sister our partner in problem solving.
This is what President Eyring means when he says motive is everything in decision making and problem solving. Selfishness blinds us to our personal biases. Selflessness, by contrast, helps us see beyond our immediate, personal desires to broader potential outcomes that may be better not only for others but for ourselves as well.
Selflessness also allows the Holy Ghost to inspire us. This inspiration may include feelings to make a choice that defies rational analysis because important facts can’t be known until the choice is made. That is one important reason why my father would say, “Motive is everything” when I explored school and job options with him. Neither of us could foresee the people I would meet in those schools and jobs who would make all the difference in my life. I needed pure revelation, and the only way to get it was by wanting nothing but what God wanted for me.
The scriptures teach what is possible when our motives become purified in this way. You recall what the Lord said to Nephi as he gave him sealing power to command the elements on this earth: “[A]ll things shall be done unto thee according to thy word, for thou shalt not ask that which is contrary to my will.”[i]
You and I might naturally assume that successful people like President Eyring, Elder Hales, and President Clark have been careful to calculate the impact of their decisions on their careers; otherwise, how could they have been so successful in competitive places such as the Harvard Business School? I can testify from close observation that their success in serving the Lord and His children is rooted in the attitude, “Not my will, but Thine.”[ii] When their hearts are entirely free of self-interest, when their motives are pure, then they can think clearly and receive the Holy Ghost’s confirmation of their ideas and His whispers to their minds. The same can be true for us.
Optimistic Problem Solving
We can see from the Lord’s statement to Nephi that selfless motives are essential but not enough to being effective problem solvers: Nephi had the Lord’s assurance that his motives were right, but he still had to decide what to ask for. As we begin to tackle a problem such as the underperformance of our two teammates, the Gospel gives us the advantage of seeing the bigger picture. We know that each of these struggling students has divine heritage and potential; each is a god in the making. In addition to knowing that individuals are destined to get better, we know that the same thing is true of conditions on this earth. Though the world is certainly rough in spots, it is destined to be a temporal and spiritual paradise. Of all people, we Latter-day Saints should be optimistic about the future.
Along with knowing that good will triumph and righteousness prevail, we also know that divine forces are at work, preparing the world and the people in it for the Savior’s return. Elder Hales has a metaphor for this. When, in the midst of difficult problems, potential solutions unexpectedly present themselves, he will sometimes say, “The bushes are rustling.” What he means is that forces we cannot see are at work, advancing our righteous causes. The scriptures teach this reality. Think of the Lord’s promise in the 84th Section of the Doctrine and Covenants:
[I] will go before your face. I will be on your right hand and on your left, and my Spirit shall be in your hearts, and mine angels round about you to bear you up.[iii]
I also love this promise in the 30th chapter of Isaiah, which indicates that we can have guidance not only from ahead but also from behind:
And thine ears shall hear a word behind thee, saying, This is the way, walk ye in it, when ye turn to the right hand, and when ye turn to the left.[iv]
The fact is that Heavenly Father not only guides us along the path, His influence suffuses everything we encounter, as declared in the 88th section of the Doctrine and Covenants:
[H]e is above all things, and in all things, and is through all things, and is round about all things…[v]
Knowing that the Lord is in all things gives us an advantage in problem solving. We don’t need to fear that the forces acting on us are random. There is order and purpose even in what appear to be desperate situations. If we are patient and persistent in treading the Lord’s path, things will work out. It is akin to playing a game that we know we are destined to win. Where others might conclude that the rational thing is to quit or flee, we can confidently stay and expect that at some point the bushes will start to rustle.
The challenge, though, is that the game will sometimes look unwinnable, and we may be tempted to doubt, particularly as we become older and more reliant on our own powers of reason. I admire the way that C.S. Lewis portrays this temptation in his Chronicles of Narnia. As Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy face trials, Lucy, the youngest, sometimes sees Aslan pointing the way. Her older brothers and sister, though, doubt her spiritual vision, preferring to trust their own instincts.
The older we get and the more disappointment we experience, the more inclined we may be to see evil and apparent randomness in the world. Indeed, the adversary would have us see it that way. “Hell,” said T.S. Eliot, “is a place where nothing connects with nothing.” But we can be confidently optimistic that in the Lord’s plans everything connects. Trials and apparent setbacks are only temporary; they are connected to ultimate triumphs. The right course of action is right even when it may not appear to be working out well.
We also have the advantage of knowing that wickedness and sorrow are only temporary conditions in this world. The world’s wickedness can be distracting, but there is a way to see beyond it. I learned that from two people who taught me about driving cars. One, a driving instructor, said, “The surest way to hit a pothole is to fix your eyes on it and try to miss it.” The other fellow, a test-track driver, taught this principle that we get what we look for in a more positive way. He said, “The way to navigate a sharp curve is to focus on the point where the curve ends, the place you want to go.”
We can be better problem solvers by focusing on the place we want to go, and optimistically trusting that the Lord will take us there if our hearts are right. Let’s look again at our group-work problem. Our tendency to view the problem pessimistically and selfishly is based on the assumption that a poor grade could thwart our dreams of a scholarship and transferring to a good university. But the Lord can compensate for whatever apparent sacrifice might be required to help our teammates. President Eyring followed his father’s counsel to major in physics at the University of Utah. The grades he earned in that difficult major were far below those he needed to have a reasonable chance of getting into a good graduate program. Yet the Lord compensated by arranging for outstanding work experiences in the U.S. Air Force, along with a crucial recommendation by a senior officer, allowing him to win admission to the Harvard Business School. Moreover, the things that President Eyring learned as an undergraduate physics student have served him well as he has served the Church. What Paul taught the Roman saints is true: “[A]ll things work together for good to them that love God…”[vi]
Generous Problem Solving
In fact, you may be surprised to find that slowing down a bit to help your teammates isn’t as dangerous as it sounds. I am amazed at how President Clark puts other people first when there are problems to be solved. He is one of the smartest people I know. He can see the essence of a problem almost immediately, and he seems to have an answer only a moment or two after that. But instead of announcing the answer to the other people involved, he begins thinking about ways to help them see both the problem and the answer for themselves. He is a genius not only because of how quickly he “get’s it,” but because he knows how to help other people “get it.”
I am sometimes frustrated by President Clark’s patience in this process. Because I work closely with him, I am among the first people he helps to see what needs to be done to solve a problem. Once I “get it,” I want to get on with implementing the solution. But President Clark prefers to leave no one behind. That is true even when some of the people who need to be convinced seem to have impure motives. When that appears to be the case, my impatience grows exponentially.
Yet he generously focuses on the good in people. When he faces opposition, he assumes that it is a matter of misunderstanding. Instead of attributing impure motives, such as we might do when our teammates give us shoddy work, President Clark says, “They must have a problem I don’t see.” He is even humble enough to ask, “I wonder how I might be unintentionally contributing to the problem.” I think of President Clark as I ponder the response of the Savior’s apostles when He said that one of them would betray Him: “Lord,” they asked, “Is it I?”[vii]
Time after time, I have seen the rewards of President Clark’s generous views of others. By looking for the good in people, he finds more of it than first appeared. And those people appreciate his generosity. By taking a glass-half-full view of them, he often inspires them to fill the other half of the glass by themselves. The result is that the groups he leads gets better both collectively and at the individual level. I can testify that people who work with President Clark not only get to play on a winning team, they grow in personal competence and goodness.
You and I might not have time for this strategy of generous problem solving to be fully rewarded in our three-person group, which will be together for only one semester. But viewing our two teammates generously is likely to pay unexpected dividends almost immediately. We might learn, for example, that their failure to produce good work isn’t just a result of insufficient time and effort but also failure to understand key principles that have been taught in class. A few moments of tutoring them in a few difficult concepts might do more good than a semester’s worth of demands and threats.
Even if this generous approach didn’t produce an A on our group project, it would build invaluable leadership skills in us. In my experience, there are far more people who can earn A’s for themselves than there are people who can lead whole organizations to get A’s. That may be true in part because “Type A” people have a preference for self-paced learning. In other words, they take pride in progressing as fast as they can. But you won’t hear anyone preaching the value of self-paced leading. In fact, that kind of leadership is doomed to fail. A wise employer will care less about your ability to earn A’s for yourself than your ability to help a C group learn to perform a little better.
Patient Problem Solving
Perhaps the quality I appreciate most in President Eyring, Elder Hales, and President Clark is their patience. All are quick to observe the commands of the Lord and His servants, but they know that the Lord will hasten His work in His time, not necessarily according to their preferred timetable. Rather than worrying or doubting when plans unfold more slowly than expected, each of these great men embodies the Lord’s injunction to, quote, “In patience possess your souls.”[viii]
In fact, the Lord seems to prize patience in His servants so much that they receive special training in it. More so than in any earthly organization, the senior leaders of the Church are time-tested. I began to notice that after a conversation with President Monson in 2002, when he was the first counselor in the First Presidency. With the playful look that you and I know well, President Monson said, “Your father is going to pass me pretty soon.” I couldn’t imagine what he meant, and I knew that the last thing my father would ever want to do was to pass President Monson in anything.
Smiling at my puzzled, worried look, President Monson explained: “I served as the twelfth man in the Quorum of the Twelve for over eight years. That’s more than anyone except for John A. Widtsoe, who had the position for ten-and-a-half years. But your father has been sitting next to me in that twelfth chair since 1995, and I’m afraid that soon he’s going to pass me.”
President Monson then described how the members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve sit in meetings together. The president of the Church sits at the head of the table, with his first counselor on his right and his second counselor on his left. To the left of the second counselor sits the most senior member of the Twelve. The Twelve sit in order around the table, so that the most junior member completes the circle by sitting to the right of the first counselor in the First Presidency. Beginning in 1995, that put President Eyring to President Monson’s right.
President Monson also explained how food is served when they eat together. Plates are passed to the Brethren in order of seniority, beginning with the president of the Church and ending with the junior member of the Twelve. President Monson said, “I like to give your father a hard time. Sometimes, when my plate is put in front of me, I’ll lean over and say, ‘Boy, Hal, those potatoes look good; I hope there are some left by the time they get to you.’ ”
President Eyring did finally pass President Monson: He sat in that twelfth chair for nine-and-a-half years. Just a few years after that, he was called into the First Presidency. Then, when President Monson became the president of the Church, President Eyring took the first counselor’s chair from which President Monson had teased him when he was the twelfth-most-senior apostle.
According to a patient, divine plan, President Eyring now sits again at President Monson’s right hand, as he did for nine-and-a-half years. During that time, President Eyring did more than just hope that some potatoes would be left for him. He watched President Monson and learned to understand and love him deeply. The Lord patiently prepared President Eyring for his present service.
You may need to be similarly patient with your group members. One attempt to work with them selflessly, optimistically, and generously probably won’t be enough. But your patience will pay off, and you’ll see that the Lord has prepared solutions for your problems. When that happens, you will appreciate the power of charity in problem solving. And you will have a feeling in your heart that reminds you of these words: “Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.”[ix]
May you and I qualify to hear these words, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.