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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
long, and is kind
not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,
5 Doth not
behave itself unseemly
seeketh not her own
is not easily provoked
thinketh no evil;
not in iniquity
but rejoiceth in the truth
all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
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.
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
- 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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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]
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
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]
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
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.
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]
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.’ ”
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.
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
you and I qualify to hear these words, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.
Doctrine and Covenants 84:88.
Doctrine and Covenants 88:41.