Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Transition periods, part II

This was my day today:

10:30am, receive an e-mail from my colleague John telling me to investigate further on some research I was doing and figure out the identity of an unnamed company described in a study. Start working on it.

12:15p.m.; text my friend Simon to make sure ultimate Frisbee is still on this evening. Yep, he replies. 7:00 at Berkeley, which means I’ll need to leave work at 6:00 to be safe and 6:15 at the latest. I’d brought a change of clothes and everything.

1:30, start to get frustrated because I’m not getting any definite results.

3:00, meeting with John. I’m very frustrated because I wish I had a silver bullet, but all I have to show is a hunch after four and a half hours of work. Feeling frustrated because I have nothing to show – though I don’t really admit it at myself at the time -- I keep surfing on the computer for more information until 3:06, making me ten minutes late.

4:30, after the meeting with John I come back and do some more work. At this time I finally find – if not a silver bullet, then a bronze bullet. My mood changes dramatically. I was moderately listless, annoyed, irked and frustrated; a grimace and pressed lips dominated my face. Now I’m excited.

My movements start to accelerate as my attention peaks. I get up, walk over to the kitchen area, and eat some almonds I keep in the cupboard. Then I go sit down. Then I get up and go to the kitchen to refill my water. Then I drink my water, and go sit down again. I work for two minutes, then I repeat the pattern. I do all this, if not in doubletime, then at one-and-a-half-time.

I start to realize what happened and sketch out the evidence I’ve accumulated so far on a piece of paper. As I start writing, I see the details that I’m missing and get more information on that.

5:30, By this time of sketching, I realize I have five slides worth of circumstantial evidence; and I’ve pretty much made my case solid. John’s going to heading off to New Orleans tomorrow afternoon, and I promised him I’d have drafts by noon so he could take a look before he took off. I frantically start putting together mock-up draft slides so I can go give them to the production assistants in the morning. I’m doing double-time now, rifling through my scrap paper pile looking for a blank sheet and the closet, looking for a roll of tape.

6:05, I lay out my five mock-up slides on my desk, and slap my desk, which probably makes my neighbour Kim wonder what I’m doing. I guess it’s some sense of excitement and a sense of accomplishment, not that it was a conscious decision.

6:12, I’m downstairs, having attempted to cut off another woman trying to leave the building twice without thinking about it, I’m in such a hurry to get to the BART station. I decide to call Haley, another friend, to confirm the Ultimate game is on. “I’m pretty sure it’s not,” she tells me. “The people who usually organize it sent out an e-mail that they won’t be organizing it today.”

6:20, I call Simon to get the organizer’s phone number, as I tap my fingers on a pole waiting at the BART/Muni station. The ride is 25 minutes minimum, plus waiting time, plus walking time to the church, maybe another 10 minutes. They will probably leave at 7:00, and they don’t know to wait for me.

I text Simon again when he doesn’t text me the number fast enough. I call the organizer; he doesn’t answer. I text him. I’m at a crossroads -- one way goes home, another way goes to church, where I could go for Institute class, another way goes to Berkeley for the game. Todd doesn’t text back. I wait. I wait for maybe five minutes. I decide I can’t wait, and walk downstairs to take the Muni home.
I start reading a book. I get through a few pages on the ride.

7:05; I get back, see my landlord at home, pay him the rent check

7:15: I try to read, can’t concentrate, go and warm up some dinner, and have half the plate eaten in a minute when……I stop.

What am I doing?

I’m still doing what I was doing an hour, hour and a half ago on the elevator down from my office or at the Muni station. I’m still in a hurry. I was reading one of those books that invites you to ponder and reflect, but I wasn’t. I was just reading pages. I saw my landlord so I immediately thought of something I could do related to him and I did it. I saw my food and started doing something related to it, namely eating it, as fast as I could.

But, wait, I don’t need to be doing that anymore. I don’t need to be in a hurry, but I still am. “Breathe,” I tell myself, recalling an experience from my childhood.
Before every chess tournament I played, before probably every game, my mom would squat next to me, pull my small body close to hers, look me in the eye, and tell me, “Think.” It was code for don’t-make-stupid-mistakes-because-you’re-in-an-artificial-hurry; take a breath, calm down, and evaluate the situation, and then respond.

This is really interesting, I wrote the post on Transition just a couple days ago, and (aided by using WhatchaDoing to track my moods ) already I am finding examples aplenty.

A side story, which I'll explore a bit later when I get some more data, is about the value of introspection. I'm good at introspection, but often am way too self-conscious and thus shier and less confident than optimal.

Solution: in addition to introspecting better when needed (like above, when eating dinner), learn to NOT introspect when that's needed.

Turn off my self-consciousness, worrying what other people think of me, and especially my tendency to mentally kick myself, when the situation demands. For example, when dancing.

Easier said than done, of course, but I'll be working on that. Feel free to ask me how it's going.

Special offer: if you ask me about this, in person, more than a week from now, I will buy you a bagel, donut, coffee, or half of a meal. (I value reminders.)

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Transition periods.

“For a period of time, almost all my chess errors came in a moment immediately following or preceding a big change. For example, if I was playing a positional chess game, with complex maneuvering, long-term strategic planning, and building tension, and suddenly the struggle exploded into concrete tactics, I would sometimes be slow to accommodate to the new scenario. Or, if I was playing a very tactical position that suddenly transformed into an abstract endgame, I would keep on calculating instead of taking a deep break and making long-term plans.

I was having trouble with the first major decision following the departure from prepared opening analysis and I was not keeping pace with sudden shifts in momentum. My whole chess psychology was about holding on to what was, because I was fundamentally homesick. When I finally noticed this connection, I tackled transitions both in chess and life. In chess games, I would take some deep breaths and clear my mind when the character of the struggle shifted. In life, I worked on embracing change instead of fighting it. With awareness and action, in both life and chess my weakness was transformed into a strength.”
– Josh Waitzkin, p. 75-76, The Art of Learning

I really like this quote and have been noticing this in the last couple of weeks. At one point we were just wrapping up a project – I had gone through information-gathering to assembling and distilling, made some slides, editing them, and was on some pretty minor copy edits, when a new avenue opened up that we hadn’t really seen before. My colleague asked me to explore that avenue; I did, of course, but it was sort of uncomfortable, being suddenly shunted from tying up loose ends to blazing a new trail.

How is it different?

I’m still figuring that out, but I often listen to music when I know what to do – when I’m looking at red-inked slides and deleting a comma or changing a couple of words; when I know what the data is supposed to look like and am formatting it; when I know the slide that I want to make and am implementing it.

On the other hand, if I need to think and introspect, to plot my next steps, I can sit back in my chair, sit there and stare at the computer, go walk up and down some flights of stairs, or whatever, but I need to be alone with a problem, and I can’t have threads flying around where my attention might grab onto and run away. Ie, I can’t listen to music.

The interesting thing is, I didn’t really realize this consciously until now. I’d just have music on, and suddenly I would think ‘Aah, I can’t concentrate’ and turn it off. Of course, I couldn’t concentrate before, but I didn’t need to.

There are lots of applications, of course, to my current life in which I've been living in a new city (I've been in SF for the last 2 months at my new job) and all the people I know well are in different places.

Another interesting thought: in chess, you are basically thinking all the time. There are a few occasions where you know exactly what you’re going to do, like in the opening few moves or a couple of brief sequences. But in these cases the opponent generally knows exactly what he’s going to do too. So you move fast, he moves fast, you move fast, and suddenly you both don’t know what to do anymore and have to think about it again.

On the other hand, there’s a lot of times I have to think in my work – but there’s lots of times I don’t really have to think very hard. ‘Okay, I need to make a list of all the different steps in manufacturing solar cells and all of the different companies involved.’ ‘Okay, so I’ll read all the Wikipedia articles, do lots of obvious Google searches and type the relevant part names and company names into Excel and merging cells accordingly.’ And that takes me like the next hour. During which I don’t actually need to think very hard – once I realize what I need to do, doing it is trivial – but unlike in chess, takes time.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Rules of Evidence

Sometimes people need to learn the rules of conditional probability.

A story that I read went as following (not 100% sure if this is true but seems to kind of line up with the evidence).

"In the famous murder trial, OJ Simpson matched a blood test that 1 out of 1,000,000 people match. Johnny Cochrane's defense was along the lines of "There are six men walking around LA who could have killed Nicole Brown."

Yes, but the chance that OJ is guilty given that he matched the blood test AND she is his ex-wife is way better than 1 in 6.

Cut to today and Amy Winehouse's death.

Police said the cause of her death is being treated as "unexplained," rejecting speculation that she died from a drug overdose as "inappropriate."

Of 27 year old women who die suddenly and unexplainedly, I'm not sure what the proportion of "drug overdose" is. I'm going to guess one out of 20 or so -- heart attacks and strokes aren't terribly common in this age demographic.

But given that Winehouse used heroin, cocaine, ecstasy, and alcohol, at the same time....the probability that Amy Winehouse died of a drug overdose is a lot higher that one in 20.

Friday, July 22, 2011

"I was desirous that they should not be destroyed"

Thursday night, 8:30, in a long-sleeve shirt in a cold, windy, 55-degree evening in San Francisco. Standing outside with a bunch of friends from church, who all met up at Off The Grid. Great convo with a guy I met named KC.

KC: I mean, I flew out to New York and saw the Book of Mormon musical the first night it was out. It was absolutely amazing. You know, it was profane and sacreligious and all that. But the details – they got them all right. The baptismal dress. Immersion. Shout outs to Abinadi. The Jospeh Smith – they dressed him up in exactly the costume from the visitor’s center – they went to Salt Lake for that.

But a few things, a few lines; this one stuck in my head.

“These people, who had nowhere else to turn – we gave them something amazing.”

I was on exchange with the elders, and we were teaching this girl, who was telling us how she went to college, was kind of disenchanted with the party scene, and came for a while back to San Francisco to figure her life out. She was getting all teary-eyed, asking what her purpose is.

And that’s the line that came into my head.

"These people, who had nowhere else to turn – we gave them something amazing.”

Some church members, I guess it bugs me when they just kind of trash the musical unseen, without giving it any credit. And I can see where they’re coming from, I have a friend that’s serving in Uganada and I can see things from his side; and I’ve been a missionary. But still.

Me: What specifically are you frustrated about?

I mean, are you frustrated because you don’t want to argue with them but you feel they’re wrong? Are you frustrated because they’re coming off the wrong way by badmouthing it, and giving Mormons – and you – a bad reputation? Are you frustrated because you think they’re putting their spiritual progress in jeopardy by their attitude?

KC: Hmm...the best way that’s coming to me to describe this is from the Book of Mormon.

[pulls out his iPhone to the Scriptures app]

“I, Zeniff, having been taught in all the language of the Nephites, and having had a knowledge of the land of Nephi, or of the land of our fathers’ first inheritance, and having been sent as a spy among the Lamanites that I might spy out their forces, that our army might come upon them and destroy them—but when I saw that which was good among them I was desirous that they should not be destroyed.” (Mosiah 9:1)

This guy, he’s sent out to spy, to figure out how the Lamanites can be destroyed so the Nephites can get their land back. But he gets there and says – heck, there are good things here. Good people. And I don’t want them to be destroyed.

I have been among these people. A spy, so to speak. And yes, I see their blasphemies and their idolatry. But I also see the good in them. And I don’t desire for them to be destroyed.

[Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God. -SB]

Friday, May 20, 2011

Chosen, but also called

Another writing that has influenced me: the book of Amos, in the Old Testament.

After reading Eugene England’s “Good Literature for a Chosen People,” this quickly became my favorite book of the Old Testament.

England explains the context and appeal of this book far better than I, so here we go. This is specifically written to Latter-day Saints but relevant to everyone.

VERY EARLY IN OUR HISTORY, we Mormons began to identify ourselves symbolically with ancient Israel as a chosen people….But being "chosen" seems not so much being choice, better than others, but rather being called or selected and then asked not only to live better than all the others, but to try to be a blessing to all those others too. The Israelites had trouble with this complexity. They liked the choice part of chosen and often forgot the called part.

Perhaps the central burden of the so-called literary prophets of the Old Testament is to remind Israel that they are chosen by God in order to serve him in a special way so they can bless others, that rather than favoring or excusing them, he holds them especially accountable.

The classic example is Amos, a "herdsman" from the hills just south of Jerusalem, who about 750 B. C. was called by God as a prophet to preach repentance to the Israelites, the chosen people. He went to Bethel in the Northern Kingdom, whose people thought themselves, because chosen, not only superior to the non-Israelites, but also better than their cousins, the people of Judah in the south.

In what might be called the "Amos strategy," the Lord through his prophet uses the people's pride in being chosen to set them up to be especially affected by his message of repentance.

God first condemns the Gentiles for their idolatries: "For three transgressions of Damascus, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof" (Amos 1:3), he declares, and then he continues the refrain to condemn all the Israelites' pagan, idolatrous neighbors, Gaza, Ammon, Tyre, Moab. We can imagine the crowd murmuring its agreement: "Amen, brother Amos, amen."

Then the Lord condemns their neighbor Israelites: "For three transgressions of Judah, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof; because they have despised the law of the Lord, and have not kept his commandments." We can imagine the shouts of assent at the threatened punishment of their hated relatives: "I will send a fire upon Judah, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem." (Amos 2:5)

But now the prophet, at the height of the chosen people's self-satisfied judgment of others, turns the judgment of God on them: "For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof; because they sold the righteous for silver, and the poor for a pair of shoes; That pant after the dust of the earth on the head of the poor" (2:6-7).

Being chosen, in this view, means being the ones known and taught by the Lord and, thus, the ones most responsible to keep his commandments and to be punished if one does not. It does not mean being better than others, by definition more righteous and blessed. It does not even mean simply knowing the correct forms of worship and having special priesthood power to perform them as the core of one's religion.

The Lord makes this painfully clear by saying, through Amos: "I hate, I despise your feast days, and I will not smell in your solemn assemblies. Though ye offer me burnt offerings and your meat offering, I will not accept them; neither will I regard the peace offerings of your fat beasts. Take you away from me the noise of thy songs; for I will not hear the melody of thy viols. But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream. .. . Woe to them that are at ease in Zion .. . That lie upon beds of ivory, and stretch themselves upon their couches, and eat the lambs out of the flock, and the calves out of the midst of the stall.. . but they are not grieved for the affliction of Joseph" (5:21-24; 6:1, 4, 6).

In other words, religious worship, even in the approved forms and with authority, is an offense to God if it is not accompanied by intense social morality— that is, by aggressive caring for justice and mercy in society, by compassionate grief for the afflictions of the poor and exploited.

We [Mormons] are satisfied with the one part of chosen, where, for instance, God calls us "the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which I . . . am well pleased" (D&C 1:30), but we forget the other part: "Ye only have I known among the nations of the earth; therefore, I will punish you for your iniquities" (Amos 3:2).

Our best writers, I believe, address themselves to both parts of chosen, our specialness and our special responsibilities. They both comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable and, at their best, do the comforting in part to be more effective at the afflicting.

Spontaneous order and the invisible hand

Along with detailing some personal guiding principles, I'm going to post some of my favorite writings. These are a favorite topic of mine.

“I, Pencil,” Leonard Read, 1958.

This economics class features your friendly drawer-dwelling #2 as the narrator, explaining the fascinating fact that no single person in the world knows how to make him. Instead, he is produced by thousands of people each of whom brings a certain piece of knowledge to the table – how to mine graphite, how to log wood, how to design a pencil machine.

“Who feeds Paris?” Frederic Bastiat, from Economic Sophisms. (Google Doc, PDF)

“On coming to Paris for a visit, I said to myself: Here are a million human beings who would all die in a few days if supplies of all sorts did not flow into this great metropolis. It staggers the imagination to try to comprehend the vast multiplicity of objects that must pass through its gates tomorrow, if its inhabitants are to be preserved from the horrors of famine, insurrection, and pillage.

And yet all are sleeping peacefully at this moment, without being disturbed for a single instant by the idea of so frightful a prospect.”

Or consider this problem: try to design some set of metrics to calculate the relative social value of a Civilization IV CD, a bushel of apples, and living in a studio apartment in New York City for a month.

How do you do that? Even if you could, I could easily add fifteen more items to the list.

Any metric you design will take lots of time and still be relatively arbitrary and imprecise. To demonstrate this, ask an acquaintance to assign numbers to the same items and compare results.

The alternative solution: you could just use money.

Commonplace are laments about our financially-driven society, how everything is monetized, how some things like the Civilization IV CDs are priceless, etc, etc. But that’s somewhat like only realizing you have a body when you get sick.

For one thing, complaining as complaining isn’t conductive to happiness. For another, you can’t go lay out in the sun, play Ultimate Frisbee, etc if you don’t notice your corporeality.

Ideally, it seems we should be about equally able to recognize the value of money and its pitfalls. That a toaster can be produced and sold for $5 – our awe and gratitude should be written in our hearts. The many variations of the thought, “Money isn’t everything,” – they should be on the tip of our tongues.

The latter is practiced by almost everyone; the former, by few. I only learned through reading Bastiat and Read.

“Seeing around corners,” Joanathan Rauch in The Atlantic, April 2002.

An economist, a political scientist, and a programmer team up to make computer models of society. They create models of human beings and are able to replicate corrupt societies transitioning to honesty, racial self-segregation in America, Zipf curves for distribution of income and city size, a native American society’s ecological and civilizational collapse. Even genocide in Bosnia and Rwanda.

“I don't think I'm alone in finding this artificial genocide eerie,” writes the author. “The outcome, of course, is chilling; but what is at least as spooky is that such complicated—to say nothing of familiar—social patterns can be produced by mindless packets of data following a few almost ridiculously simple rules.”

The warning is clear. Spontaneous order is a two-sided coin.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Your life's greatest work is you

I might blog a little bit about my scripture reading this week. Here, I'm going to quote one of my favorite talks called The Fourth Missionary by Lawrence Corbridge. (It's gated, but I have a copy so if you want one, comment, or email.) This is a really nice talk for missionaries about completely dedicating yourself to the work, but I'm just going to quote the part that's applicable to all of us.


Your life's greatest work is you

You can choose what kind of person you will become. Do you think about that? Do you think about and plan for who you want to become?

As you entered the mission field you concluded one phase of life and began another. To this point many of you have had the protection and close support of family and church leaders and teachers. Now you have moved into a new phase of life on your own. You are essentially on your own. From this point on, you are wholly responsible for what you do and most importantly for who you become.

For the most part, your life is yet ahead of you. What will you do with it?

What will be your greatest work? What will be your most important creation?

I will tell you. Your greatest work: your most important creation is and will ever be you. What kind of person will you become?

By this I do not mean what role in life will you take. I don't mean will you be a cowboy, lawyer, surfer, homemaker, engineer, computer programmer, accountant or the like. I do not refer to what kind of car you will drive; what kind of clothes you will wear; what kind of house you will live in; what kind of spouse you will marry or what kind of family will you raise.

I mean, when all of that is removed and there you stand alone, who will you be? I mean, you.

What personality will you have; what strengths; what knowledge; what character; what emotional state; what presence; what qualities; what virtues? What will you look like? What will you sound like? What will it be like to be around you? Who will you be?

Envision and plan for your greatest work.

We plan many things in life. We each live in a house that was built from a plan. Someone first envisioned the house in his mind and a plan was then put to paper.

One of my sons had a poster picture of a Porsche Carrera on his bedroom wall. It is a beautiful creation. The lines and symmetry of its design make it a work of art in the opinion of some. That car began somewhere, sometime ago in someone's head. First, someone saw it in his mind and then put it to paper. Someone envisioned it; then plans were prepared, the work was done, and a beautiful car was created.

Some of you have carefully planned your education. You carefully planned your course selections over these past several years with a view toward college admissions and intended occupations.

All of you at some point made a plan to serve a mission, you followed that plan and here you are. Now, hopefully all of you plan the appointments, activities and goals of each day and week.

We plan many things in life. But, have you planned your greatest work? Have you envisioned who you will become? Do you plan for what kind of person you want to become? Can you see in your mind who you want to be? Do you know?

The choices

As you consider what kind of person you want to become, what choices do you have? The choices are more limited than what you might think. Here are most of the choices, but overall they are a choice between the qualities of light or the qualities of darkness:

Do you want to be powerful or weak?

Certain and confident, or afraid and insecure?

Comfortable with your self or arrogant and abrasive?

Do you want to be filled with light or darkness?

Do you want to have peace or conflict within?

Generous or selfish?

Influential or inconsequential?

Do you want to be free or be a slave?

Happy or miserable?

Do you want to be kind and loving, or mean and cruel?

Honest or dishonest?

Do you want to be forgiving or hard and unforgiving?

Knowledgeable or ignorant?

Do you want to be a person of faith or doubt and fear?

Trustworthy or unreliable?

Hardworking or lazy?

Do you want to be cheerful or despondent?

The first of each of these choices is an attribute of light. They are incorporated into your character as you choose to follow Christ.

Dynamic process; always changing

As you consider the question of what kind of person you will become, you must understand the dynamic process of life. You not only can change but you do change all of the time.

Sometimes people do not believe this. They excuse their failures and weaknesses by saying: "That's just the way I am." "I am just short tempered, impatient person." I can't get up in the morning. That's just the way I am." "That's my nature." Or, "I'm just shy. That's all. That's just who I am." "I am not really a spiritual person."

To believe that weaknesses and deficiencies in your character are unchangeable is to reject the central truth of the plan of salvation. You are not cast in stone. You not only can change but you do change all of the time. You are a dynamic, changing, evolving being. You are always changing. You never stay the same. You cannot stand still.


Amen, Elder Corbridge, amen.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

1 Nephi 8

The tree of life.

I’ve read the tree of life narrative many times. The first time I read the Book of Mormon, I remember being impressed that this was something of substance, weight, not fluff. And this was in a read-through where I was like, “Well, this book is written from an interesting religious point of view. Hmm.”

A couple lessons stand out this time.

The first thing is that the fruit is experiential.

Ultimately, I believe – and hopefully you believe – because we tasted. Your dedication to Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ doesn’t come because of carefully honed, convincing argument. Such argument perhaps establishes a climate for belief, but it is personal experience that leads to belief. Blake Ostler has a wonderful piece on this, entitled “Spiritual Experiences as the Basis for Belief and Commitment,” on YouTube or html.

The second thing is that this is real.

When it says that “there arose an exceedingly great mist of darkness, insomuch that they which had commenced on the path did lose their way,” I think of Suguna or Madhavi.

When it says that “after that they had partaken of the fruit of the tree they did cast their eyes about as if they were ashamed…and they fell away into forbidden paths,” I think of Suni or Jay Tony family.

This should help me love them more, judge (in the bad way) them less, and rekindle my desire to help them back on the path. Does it? I don’t know.

And when I read “they did point the finger of scorn at me, and those that were partaking of the fruit also, but we heeded them not,” I think of myself, or the person I hope to be and continue becoming.

My sophomore year, I was living in a dorm, coming to church and the elders were visiting me. One time, walking down the hall to the door and letting them in, I wondered what everyone else would think. I wondered if I should keep meeting them in my dorm. And then I remembered those words, about what happened to the people who were ashamed. I remember the thought dawning on me, and smiling to see the application of the words I had read.

Oh those beautiful words: “but we heeded them not.”

Sunday, April 24, 2011

1 Nephi 2-5

Look at Laman and Lemuel’s train of thought: “And they said he had done it [Lehi left Jerusalem] because of the foolish imaginings of his heart.” (1 Nephi 2:11)

I’ve heard people close to me criticize, for example:

- A friend ‘s decision to work and save for years in order to attend a college with others of the same high standards.
- Putting off college for two years to serve a mission
- Believing that Christ came to the Americas.
- Believing in God.

What stood out each of these times was the caustic tone of the person making the remarks. Reflecting, I hear an echo of Laman and Lemuel’s accusation: “the foolish imaginings of out heart.”

As I said before, I don’t think Laman and Lemuel are evil people, just misguided. This attitude seems to be timeless; let us remember that. (And keep in mind, of course, that sometimes our friends are right.)

I like Nephi’s progression. “And I, Nephi, returned from speaking with the Lord to the tent of my father.” (1 Nephi 3:1)

Hopefully, we will not simply “go to” but “return from speaking with the Lord to”:
- PEC meeting or Weekly Planning session
- a crucial business meeting
- a home-teaching visit
- a DTR talk (or family council with our spouse),
- or any other place where we have to make decisions.

More murmuring: “And thy brothers murmur, saying: it is a hard thing which I have required of them. But behold I have not required it of them, but it is a commandment of the Lord.” (1 Nephi 3:5)

Laman and Lemuel essentially “shoot the messenger” – getting mad at their dad for relaying what God wanted them to do. Why were they mad? Because they didn’t want to do it.

I really like Nephi’s example of likening. “Let us be strong like unto Moses: for he truly spake unto the waters of the Red Sea, and they divided hither and thither.” (1 Nephi 4:2)

"Let us go up, the Lord is able to deliver us, like unto our fathers, and to destroy Laban, even as the Egyptians.” (1 Nephi 4:3)

Let us (me) remember the scriptures and personal history to similarly live in sacred space. Let us (me) truly have the faith to expect miracles in our (my) everyday life. Perhaps not the big miracles but the small “line upon line” miracles. Let us understand precisely what we need – a dose of charity for an irritating coworker, a smile while meeting new people, a sense of humor with a troublesome child – and pray and work for that.

The Book of Mormon project: 1 Nephi 1

After a friendly reminder from the bishop and a good Sunday school lesson, I've decided that I need to be more dedicated about my scripture study. I need to search them instead of simply reading. So I'm re-reading the Book of Mormon from the beginning, writing my insights in my journal, and blogging what I learn. So far I'm 7 out of 7 this week, up from too-glassy-eyed 4 or 5.


So, from the beginning.

One of the big things I've been impressed with is that the Book of Mormon depicts ordinary people, being asked to do extraordinary things. Sure, there are lots of really good people, but I don't think above and beyond the people you meet in church on Sunday.

For example, look at 'murmuring' and the general level of rebelliousness. Laman and Lemuel aren't evil, they're just really stubborn and prone to anger. They try to kill Nephi because they see his plan as completely ruining their life -- and there are a lot of people that would behave similarly.

Or, who 'murmurs.' Lehi murmurs when the steel bow breaks and he thinks they are all going to starve. Sariah murmurs when she thinks Laban has killed all of her sons. Laman and Lemuel murmur all the time, of course -- the only person who doesn't murmur is Nephi. And my journalistic guess is that he wasn't always perfect either but he was writing the record so we don't get to hear about it. (Except in lament form in 2 Nephi 4.)

The action in 1 Nephi 1 begins with some strange scenes, including Lehi seeing a vision and throwing himself on his bed. Not much of a catchy lede, is it?

Stephen Covey makes the point that private victory precedes public victory. Wars are won in the general's tent. Anger and malice are quieted in the heart before others observe a changed countenance. The events of Gethsemane gave Christ the courage he needed for Calvary and completed the triumph of the empty tomb that first Easter morn.

In 1 Nephi 1:20 we have the first "thus we see" passage. These form somewhat of a series of thesis statements [PDF, but a really good one], and this is the first one.
"But behold, I, Nephi, will show unto you that the tender mercies of the Lord are over all those whom he hath chosen, because of their faith, to make them mighty even unto the power of deliverance."

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

“I believe, because I want to live in that reality.”

In science-fiction novelist Orson Scott Card’s Homecoming saga, his character Nafai makes the case for belief in God against a skeptical interrogator.

“I believe the Oversoul, because I want to live in the reality that [I have seen.] In which lives have meaning and purpose. In which there’s a plan worth following. In which death and suffering are not in vain because some good will come of them.”

This is really personal to me. It describes my frame of mind as I was “investigating” – ie, going to church and deciding whether I believed and wanted to join.

To me, wanting to live in that reality did not make me believe, but it made me "investigate." To keep going to church, read the scriptures, keep praying.

Here's the full quote:
“If I wanted to doubt, then I could doubt endlessly,” said Nafai. “But at some point a person has to stop questioning and act, and at that point you have to trust something to be true. You have to act as if something is true, and so you choose the thing you have the most reason to believe in, you have to live in the world that you have the most hope in. I follow the Oversoul, I believe the Oversoul, because I want to live in the world that the Oversoul has shown me.”

“Yes, Earth,” said Moozh scornfully.

“I don’t mean a planet, I mean – I want to live in the reality that the Oversoul has shown me. In which lives have meaning and purpose. In which there’s a plan worth following. In which death and suffering are not in vain because some good will come of them.”

“All you’re saying is that you want to deceive yourself.”

“I’m saying that the story the Oversoul tells me fits all the facts that I see. Your story, in which I’m endlessly deceived, can also explain all those facts. I have no way of knowing that your story is not true – but you have no way of knowing that my story isn’t true.

"So I will choose the one that I love. I’ll choose the one that, if it’s true, makes this reality one worth living in. I’ll act as if the life I hope for is real life.”

Another story: after I had spiritual experiences persuading me to believe, I read a lot of convincing arguments calling my faith into question.

I then spent about 100 or 200 hours sorting through it all, finding counterarguments for some points, found additional points to bolster my faith, and accepted that I didn’t have any good counterarguments for some points.

I also did a lot of things I didn’t perfectly understand at the time. Most prominently, going on a mission. (I understood it was important, but had no idea of the full picture.)

What was the point? Why spend so much time and energy?

Because I wanted to live in the reality that I had seen.

This is not all of faith, choosing to believe based on the world one wants to live in. But they are the crucial, hopefully rare, moments, when you refuse to break and wait patiently for your strength to return.

There are indeed times when “a person has to stop questioning and act, and at that point you have to trust something to be true.”

(Is this a form of Pascal's Wager? Maybe, but this form seems tenable.)

Here’s the full quote with context.
“Don’t make me laugh, Nafai,” said General Moozh. “You’re far too bright to believe this. Doesn’t it occur to you that maybe the Oversoul is manipulating you?”

“The Oversoul doesn’t lie to me,” he said.

“Yet you say it has lied to me all along. So we can’t pretend that the Oversoul is rigidly committed to truthfulness, can we?”

“But it doesn’t lie to me.”

“How do you know?” asked Moozh.

“Because what it tells me…feels right.”

“If it can make me forget things – and it can, it’s happened so many times that…” His voice petered out as Moozh apparently decided not to delve into those memories. “If it can do that, why can’t it also make you, as you say, ‘feel right’?”

Nafai had no ready answer. He had not questioned his own certainly, and so he didn’t know why Moozh’s reasoning was false. “It’s not just me,” said Nafai, struggling to find a reason. “My wife also trusts the Oversoul. And her sister, too. They’ve had dreams and visions all their lives, and the Oversoul has never lied to them….”

Nafai wanted to be able to explain to him why he wanted to follow the Oversoul. Why he knew that he was freely following the Oversoul; why he knew that the Oversoul wasn’t lying to him or manipulating him or controlling him. But because he couldn’t find the words or even the reasons, he remained silent….

“The Oversoul has fooled you again, and this time you may well die for it,” said Moozh.

“The Oversoul has never fooled me,” said Nafai. “Those who follow the Oversoul willingly are never lied to.”

“You never catch the Oversoul in his lies, is what you mean,” said Moozh.

“No!” cried Nafai. “No. The Oversoul doesn’t lie to me because…because everything that it promised me has come true. All of it has been true.”

“Or it has made you forget the ones that didn’t come true.”

“If I wanted to doubt, then I could doubt endlessly,” said Nafai. “But at some point a person has to stop questioning and act, and at that point you have to trust something to be true. You have to act as if something is true, and so you choose the thing you have the most reason to believe in, you have to live in the world that you have the most hope in. I follow the Oversoul, I believe the Oversoul, because I want to live in the world that the Oversoul has shown me.”

“Yes, Earth,” said Moozh scornfully.

“I don’t mean a planet, I mean – I want to live in the reality that the Oversoul has shown me. In which lives have meaning and purpose. In which there’s a plan worth following. In which death and suffering are not in vain because some good will come of them.”

“All you’re saying is that you want to deceive yourself.”

“I’m saying that the story the Oversoul tells me fits all the facts that I see. Your story, in which I’m endlessly deceived, can also explain all those facts. I have no way of knowing that your story is not true – but you have no way of knowing that my story isn’t true.

So I will choose the one that I love. I’ll choose the one that, if it’s true, makes this reality one worth living in. I’ll act as if the life I hope for is real life.”

(Orson Scott Card, The Call of Earth, Chapter 6, Weddings, pp. 275-280)

Sunday, March 20, 2011


This is the conclusion of my series on the equation:

Potential for Good
= Desire x Skills

It is one of my guiding personal principles.

Previous posts:
Introduction: Potential for Good = Desire x Skills
Level 1: Purifying your heart (desire)
Level 2: Spiritually-rooted skills (A)
Level 3: Spiritually-rooted skills (B)

One of the main themes of the Book of Mormon is that those who follow the commandments of God will prosper. The people of whom it speaks wax and wane spiritually. Often, their spiritual declines are followed by political intrigue, economic decline, societal disunity and military overconfidence followed by crushing defeat.


I feel like the above reasons might provide a partial explanation. These “Christlike attributes” of which I’ve spoken, and their applications, form a glue that holds our families, communities, workplaces, and societies together.

A paycheck can motivate you to go to a job. But working with colleagues who lack integrity and kindness, it is easy to become resentful and frustrated.

A sense of community and shared purpose can hold a group together. But without love and the desire for humanity's good, gangs and nation-states often go astray.

Authority can get you to obey your parents. But if they don’t love you enough to listen to you your relationship will feel hollow.

In my life, some of my deepest satisfactions have come from watching myself – after months of trying – starting to develop some of the Christlike attributes I sought. I realized that doing so would improve my own quality of life. It is my dreams that this can in some significant way impact the world.

Writing these things doesn’t give me any claim on perfection. Anyway, the original Greek in Matthew 5:48, “perfect” is better translated “complete, finished, fully developed.” I feel more complete, more finished, and more fully developed. I’m sure there are many steps to go but I’m confident that I am on my way.

This same growth is available to everyone, if we really want it.

"God sells us all things," wrote Da Vinci, "at the price of labor."

If you are more interested I would recommend:
- Reading Stephen Covey's book, The Spiritual Roots of Human Relations, online here, or on Amazon.
- Studying Preach My Gospel, Chapter 6, "Christlike Attributes."
- Meeting with your local LDS missionaries.
- Going on a mission

(At least, these are the ways I learned these things...)

Level 3: Spiritually-rooted skills (B)

This section deals with the ‘skills’ part of my equation:

Potential for Good = Desire x Skills.

It builds on my discussion of desire for good, and on my overview of this equation.

These skills are slightly more advanced skills than those in the previous post, and build on those skills. Again, there are a lot of skills on this list that I won’t discuss, including:

- Able to Find Mentors
- Knowing How to Present Yourself
- Reliability and Integrity.
- Curiosity or Always Wanting to Know More

These type of skills I feel like I’m just starting to learn., so I’ll list a few with brief notes.


This is completely linked with being able to understand others and their feelings, make good judgments, care about others, and so on. True leadership requires character – Donald Trump and “Slick Willy,” take heed.

Covey gives the example of parents, employers, teachers, and other leaders.

Often, “they may be competent, knowledgeable, and skillful, but are emotionally and spiritually immature.”

Imagine: “How do these immature people react to pressure? How does the boss react when subordinates don't do things his way? The teacher when the students challenge her viewpoint?

“How would such an immature father treat his teenage daughter when she interrupts his convenience with her problems? How does he discipline the younger children when they get in the way? How does he handle a difference with his wife on an emotionally potent matter?”

Creating and changing culture.

Culture, at its bottom, concerns the underlying assumptions that we make that govern our behavior. Persuading people to do good things is good, but an even more powerful way is to persuade them to positively change their assumptions.

Simple examples would be introducing and popularizing memes like “Just because Joe has Down’s syndrome, doesn’t mean we should be mean to him” or “I know it’s hard to admit being wrong, but…” or “It’s worth doing [good thing X] because…”

There are some generally true memes like the previous ones, but the tricky part is figuring out how to choose and popularize the right meme in a complicated situation.

- A student who on her frenetic elite college campus, frequently reminds her overly busy friends of the importance of taking time to build meaningful relationships.

- A professor who realizes his students put him on too high of a pedestal and then takes the right actions and changes his behavior to help them treat him more informally.

- A newspaper editor who loves the community and is fierce in defending them inspires those around him to keep persistently asking questions and to be willing to offend local authority figures. (Two much-needed skills in journalism.)

Anyone can do this, but it involves a ton of Level 1 and Level 2 character attributes and skills to do well.

Good judgment, to correctly evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of any given group of people or individual, and find the right meme to spread. Listening, to gather information. Communicating, to express things in the right way. Maybe as a joke.

Humility, subtlety, and persistence, to do this as often as needed without drawing undue attention to yourself and engendering resentment. Love for others, to want to do this at all. Knowledge, of how people interact with each other and organizational dynamics.

(Without these skills, one risks becoming the crackpot with his pet idea, the constant shrill-voiced moralizer, the ‘friend’ who always tries to make others change.)

Relationship skills.

The ability to form a functional relationship with a roommate, a co-worker, a significant other. Some common elements and shared responsibility, working together, agreeing on decisions, enough interaction that you could really get on each others’ nerves, the potential for rewarding emotional openness and intimacy.

The same problem Covey writes about for leaders is applicable here, too.

Level 2: Spiritually-rooted skills (A)

This section deals with the ‘skills’ part of my equation:
Potential for Good = Desire x Skills.

It builds on my discussion of desire for good, and on my overview of this equation.

There are some concrete skills that one can develop, that require Level 1 "Christlike attributes." Here are some I won’t discuss:

- Learning Through Constructive Criticism
- Being Mature or Serious When Necessary.
- Comfortable Around Grown-Ups.
- Can Work Hard

Here are some I will discuss.


Most of the time we passively listen to others. They talk about topic A, then we respond and tell them what we think about topic A, then move on to topic B, then they tell us what they think about topic B, and the conversation goes on.

Only very rarely do we practice “active listening.” The intent of active listening is to try to fully understand the feelings and emotions of others before one responds.

How to do that? When they express complex feelings or experiences, and when it’s appropriate, ask them, “So you’re saying that xxxxxxx. Is that right?” Maybe you’re right. Maybe you’re not. Either way, they will appreciate the attempt to understand them and will usually further explain themselves.

It’s hard. Genuine sympathy requires 'charity,' or pure love. It involves real emotional effort, trying to understand the other person and put yourself in their shoes. It rules out the common move: Rush In And Offer A Lengthy Sermon of Masterful Advice That Will Definitely Solve the Problem.

You aren't all-wise, and you need to understand before you can offer a good solution. You can only understand by listening.

Stephen Covey calls this “Diagnose before You Prescribe,” and gives a wonderful example.

Imagine. . . . You have been getting headaches and are having trouble with your eyes. You think you need glasses. You call on Stan, your friend, an optometrist. He briefly listens to your complaint and replies, "Yes, I'm sure you need glasses. Here, I've worn this pair now for ten years, and they've really helped me. They'll do the same for you, and I've got an extra pair at home. Take this pair."

You try them on. "But Stan, I can't even see as well as before," you report.

He assures you, "That's okay, it's just a matter of adjustment, of getting used to them. Before long you'll see as well as I do."

The foolishness in this scene is transparent. And yet, in everyday settings, prescribing (giving advice) before diagnosing (understanding) is most common.

For instance, you are trying to communicate with your daughter. "Come on, honey, tell me how you feel. I know it's hard, but I'll try to understand."

"Oh, I don't know, Mother—you'd think it was stupid."

"Of course I wouldn't! You can tell me. Honey, no one cares for you as much as I do. I'm only interested in your welfare. What is it that makes you so unhappy?"

"Oh, I don't know."

"Come on, Mary, what is it?"

"Well, frankly, Mother, I just don't like school anymore."

"What do you mean you don't like school! Everyone in our family likes school! If you'd apply yourself like your older sister does, you'd do better and then you'd like school. Time and time again we've told you to settle down. You've got the ability, but you just don't apply yourself."

After a long pause you begin again, "Now go ahead. Tell me why you feel this way."

Sometimes we train our children not to open up to us with their problems.

Listening requires love and patience; it requires us to acknowledge the possibility that we might be wrong. I have more than one listened to a small voice inside me, ordered back the cavalry rushing in with My Infallible Advice, and asked a good friend struggling to express their feelings one more clarifying question.

Listening is a spiritual skill.


Everyone communicates differently.

Like listening, communicating effectively involves understanding the needs of people, what makes them tick. Finding topics to talk about that they enjoy and are passionate about. Not treating friends as if they are means to an end – talking to them only when you need them – but showing genuine interest in their well-being.

I learned a great lesson about this when my companion and I were trying to save a couple’s marriage. I link the story here.

A few spiritually-based communications skills I've had to work on include:

- Admitting you are wrong when you are.
- Making it easy (not emotionally costly) for others to realize (or admit) they are wrong.
- Disagreeing with someone's opinion without undermining them as a person

This list could go on and on.


One of the most oft-repeated verses in the scriptures is this:

“Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” (Christ, in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 7:7)

My mission president put it simply: “Most people don’t ask God for what they really want, because they have no idea what they really want!”

I don’t mean the important-at-the-time matters, to perform well on an exam or a presentation, to make a good impression to a desired girlfriend or boyfriend, to get that job or a promotion.

The bucket lists I see from time to time are a good idea, but only a start.

I mean what you really want in life. Your deepest desires. What are you trying to achieve in your 20 or 30 or 60 or 70 remaining years on earth? It’s a lot of time to waste.

The ultimate idea should be to define two or three central goals – short and simple – that can inform every day of your life.

I’ve spent a large amount of my time since my mission – at least a few hours every week – thinking about these questions and writing my thoughts down. I feel a new clarity of thinking about what I really want in life emerging from that.

If you don’t know what you want yet, that’s okay. Spend some time deeply pondering it. Talk to some people with more experience. Figure out what you have to do to find out.

A good Covey essay on these topics is here.

Level 1: Purify your heart (desire)

This section deals with the ‘desire’ part of my equation:
Potential for Good = Desire x Skills.

(See my previous post, an overview of this equation.)

There are a group of qualities that Latter-day Saints regard as “Christlike attributes,” that concern the state of your mind and heart.

(And if you want to call them something else, that’s fine. It’s far more important whether you value them and are trying to develop them.)

Consider questions like these.

Am I filled with sincere desire for the happiness of others?

Do I feel confident that God loves me?

Am I patient with the faults and weaknesses of others?

Do I work effectively, even when I’m not under pressure or close supervision?

What do I do and think when no one else is watching?

Am I dependable? Do I do what I say I will do?

Do I look for opportunities to serve other people?

How do I react when faced with opposition or suffering?

Do I think about the Savior during the day and remember what He has done for me?

When I’m doing all I can to effect good, am I content with myself?

Do I find joy in others’ achievements?

Do I focus on uplifting thoughts and put unwholesome thoughts out of my mind?

Am I patient with myself? Do I rely on the Lord as I work to overcome my weaknesses?

These questions measure qualities within ourselves, our desires. If we don't have these desires, well, we must desire them! (See Alma 32:27, "If ye can no more than desire to believe..")

The way we act upon our desire to desire good, is to measure our desires for good -- by asking these questions frequently.

Page 9 of this guide (pdf) gives a good general pattern for developing these attributes: study the descriptions, write your feelings, studied the listed scriptures, discussed them with your mission companion (or a close friend), set goals, pray for help, and evaluate yourself. Page 13 has some good self-evaluation questions.

The hardest thing for me – I did this pretty frequently on my mission – was stripping away my constant excuse. “I’m just not very [faithful, patient, loving, good at having clean thoughts, etc].”

But I found that the things that wouldn’t go away at all were much smaller than I imagined.

(I have a tendency to try to do too much, which I can’t erase but I can monitor and control. When I have too many things in my hands I need to ask for someone’s help or I might go crazy. When I have a ton of small things to do, I need to write them all down on a list and then work through it. I can’t sit still, but whatever.)

And to be honest, my progress was filled with stops and starts, uneven, and a frequent source of frustration when I fell short.

But simple persistence – I thought about these at least twice a week, and usually every day, for two years – yielded results. I had to, after all – I was on a mission!

If you only take one point away, take this. Real change in these qualities requires developing a system that encourages – or even forces – you to think about them regularly for an extended period of time. You become what you do consistently.

And in your quest for spiritual development, keep in mind this thought, from C. S. Lewis.

“Thousands of humans have been brought to think that humility means pretty women trying to believe they are ugly and clever men trying to believe they are fools...

[In reality, humility brings a] man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another.” (in The Screwtape Letters).

Potential for Good = Desire x Skills

The basic formula is: Potential for Good = Desire x Skills

Or in long form: Amount of good I can do = My desire for good x My skills

I think I made this one up – at least, if I stole it from anyone I no longer remember who.

Being good is a nontrivial task, guys. If I learned nothing else from my mission I learned this. Being good is a nontrivial task. And you cannot settle for mediocrity in this area. Neither the world nor your soul can afford it.

There are two main components. First is getting your heart right, earnestly having within yourself the desire to do good. The second step is to practice that desire, developing your skills to do good.

So if you want to do good, what kind of skills should you develop?

I’ve thought a lot about this; one of my deepest desires is to change the world, or some part thereof, in a significant way for good. I need to focus on purifying my heart and building my skills.

At the bottom, though; desire is the key.

It may involve external sacrifices of time and money to get yourself in a good place (such as going on a mission, joining Teach for America; taking the lower salary to become a human rights lawyer.)

It will certainly involve internal sacrifices of pride, require admitting faults and weaknesses, be at times emotionally painful, and require perseverance.

What could motivate you to pay the cost?

Two things are essential.
(1)You must desire the reward.
(2)You must believe it is possible.

For me, these preconditions are motivated, in part, by my faith.

Desirability. Central to our existence, I believe is our purpose to “become perfect, even as our Father in Heaven is perfect.”

(That’s Christ speaking, in the Sermon on the Mount. This will, of course, take a long time. It certainly won’t all happen in this life. Perfect, in the Greek, is also translated "complete, finished, fully developed.)

Possibility. I love how Christ puts it here:

“And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.” (Ether 12:27, Book of Mormon)

But religious belief is not a necessary condition; only desiring self-improvement and believing it is possible.

So how do you go about acquiring skills to do good?

The old saws apply here. We start with the innermost qualities and proceed outwards. We are changed within first; we flee from evil thoughts; are filled with hope and love for others. These private victories are followed by public victories.

I break up this series in multiple parts, following this pattern.

Introduction: Potential for Good = Desire x Skills (this)
Level 1: Purifying your heart (desire)
Level 2: Spiritually-rooted skills (A)
Level 3: Spiritually-rooted skills (B)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Friday, March 11, 2011

The greatest battles of life are fought out daily in the silent chambers of the soul

‘'The greatest battles of life are fought out daily in the silent chambers of the soul.” – David O. McKay

A decade ago, prominent thinker and New York Times columnist David Brooks walked across the nation’s elite college campuses and found a strange phenomenon. A generation of highly capable and self-disciplined students concerned about doing good and changing the world, but lacking utterly a concept of dualistic (good vs. evil) moral universe around them.

When I asked if Princeton builds character, they would inevitably mention the honor code against cheating, or policies to reduce drinking. When I asked about moral questions, they would often flee such talk and start discussing legislative questions. For example, at dinner one evening a young man proposed that if we could just purge the wrongs that people do to one another over the next few generations, the human race could live in perfect harmony ever after, without much need for government or laws or prisons.

As the admissions officer Fred Hargadon puts it, "I don't know if we build character or remind them that they should be developing it."…One sometimes has the sense that all the frantic efforts to regulate safety, to encourage academic achievement, and to keep busy are ways to compensate for missing conceptions of character and virtue. Not having a vocabulary to discuss what is good and true, people can at least behave well. It's hard to know what eternal life means, but if you don't smoke you can have long life. It's hard to imagine what it would be like to be a saint, but it's easy to see what it is to be a success.

The compensation works, to an extent…The Princeton of today is infinitely more pleasant than the old Princeton, infinitely more just, and certainly more intellectual and curious. But still there is a sense that something is missing. Somehow, in the [old] world of moral combat, the stakes were higher, the consequences of one's decisions were more serious, the goals were nobler. In this world hardworking students achieve self-control; in that one virtuous students achieved self-mastery.

Brooks finds a dissident philosophy professor, Robert George, who at last gives a cogent diagnosis of the problem.

"The idea that it is possible to do wrong sitting alone in your room, even if you don't cause another person any harm, George said, is hard for modern Americans to comprehend fully. The problem is that this idea is at the heart of understanding what it means to be virtuous."

This is a concept that means a lot to me. As I have honestly sat down and looked at the state of my heart over the last few years, I have found a lot of good desires. And a lot of not-so-good ones. I find within myself feelings of goodwill, a desire to understand the world around me and change it for the better. But I also often find feelings of impatience, of anger, of lust.

I often find that the most important decisions I make are small decisions that have to do with these feelings. To show love, by listening with genuine interest to a companion's monologues about snowboarding, because it's important to him. To demonstrate self-mastery and the importance of time, resisting the urge to pull the blankets over my head, and starting the daily routine punctually.

In the world's eyes, if I didn't do these things, I wouldn't be showered with shame or scorn. I'm not Bernie Madoff, swindling people out of boatloads of money; I'm not Eliot Spitzer, cheating on my wife with high-priced call girls.

And yet, if I cannot emerge victorious in these day-to-day spiritual battles, my chance for a peaceful and happy life will be far reduced.

I love this quote from Henry Emerson Fosdick. His central thesis is that, in our day-to-day doings and relationships, if we will not "deny ourselves" in the cause of a godly life, we shall deny ourselves that godly life.

"If we will not deny ourselves bad temper and a wagging tongue, then we shall deny ourselves friendship—God pity us! If we will not deny ourselves a loose and unchaste life, then we shall deny ourselves self-respect and a conscience fit to live with. If we will not deny ourselves those habits of thought and life that keep divine fellowship away from human hearts, then we shall deny ourselves God.

“In short, if we will not give up evil for good, we shall surely give up good for evil."

Once again I note: "The greatest battles of life are fought out daily in the silent chambers of the soul."

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

"Don't hate the player, hate the game."

This is the first in a series of posts, written in order to articulate some of my core values and beliefs. I'll start with the famous one by Ice T: “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.”


Pointing out flawed individuals is easy. Designing remedies to the systems that allows bad behavior to flourish is more difficult.

Hating players is easy. Hating the game, and trying to fix it, is much harder.

Let me list some rules of the game that don’t get front-page headlines in the Wisconsin and New Jersey teacher wars.

- The almost-complete lack of monitoring in the teaching profession.
- Lack of constructive feedback. (My roommate, a third-year teacher, showed me his evaluation form – he was evaluated once a year, for 15 minutes on five vague categories)
- No commonly, frequently used metrics for comparison.
- No effect on pay based on performance.
- No ability to dismiss poor performers.
- Little ability to innovate due to low competition (public schools have huge advantage unless a voucher system is allowed).
- Structural rigidity – workers are attached to particular employer for long amounts of time, which generally discourages innovation.
- Lack of exit option for dissatisfied parents.
- Resulting parental lack of voice and influence in the system. Dissatisfied parents have to raise a lot of noise in the right way to achieve anything. Cost of change is high, so less change happens.

People say that “the schools need more money and [Governor X] won’t give any.” They say that “my daughter isn’t learning math.” They say "Randi Weingartener wouldprotect a dead body in the classroom .” They say that “the school board is heartlessly cutting all the extracurricular programs.”

Key mistake: they are hating the players.

Public schools’ near-monopoly in educational institutions reduces effectiveness and stifles innovation. Teachers’ unions’ near-monopoly on education personnel reduces effectiveness and stifles innovation.

This is the game. If you want to hate something, please hate the game. And then, even more, try to fix it.

(A side note. You can often play this up several levels.

Don’t hate the guy on the SWAT team that pulled the trigger and killed an innocent guy, don’t even hate the detective that led the case, hate the criminalization of gambling.

Don’t hate the guy that’s too scared to testify in a murder case, hate “Stop Snitchin.’” But don’t stop there. Hate the lack of trust between police and minority communities that spawned “Stop Snitchin’”. Hate the incentive system that lets corrupt cops run rackets, hate the war on drugs that gives gangs power in the first place, hate the cultural acceptance of bad behavior.)

Friday, March 04, 2011

An emotional experience

I didn't post this one at the time because it was sensitive. I've changed the names. This is one of my most defining moments -- and at least in terms of the outcome, a failure. Yet it's shaped my view about the divine nature of attributes like love, patience, and the ability to make a joke (I'm serious).

I'm not the greatest at communicating, especially my feelings, but this experience gave me the drive to learn.


This evening we are making an attempt to help save the marriage of a church member.

The church member is named Bob and his wife is named Jane (not really, but names are protected for their, you know, peace of mind). After Bob set up an appointment, we missed each other but in an attempt to figure out where she was called her and that turned into a 40-minute conversation between My Companion and Jane, after which they felt like best friends - he felt like he was just talking to a female friend at home.

She pours out her heart to him about how she wants to be with Bob but she keeps doing all this stuff to him because her parents don't like him and turn her against him.

(My Companion is very relaxed and able to befriend females in America but Indian sisters are much more shy and less comfortable with friendships with males, especially large American males like My Companion. But Jane is 21 and way friendly and is the kind of person who always hangs out with the 17yos that she tutors. My Companion was really happy, because he hadn't felt that relaxed, at ease or open with girls in a while and that frustrated him.)

Jane even wants to come to church, which she does, a little bit late. Bob came on time, but left because he was frustrated at waiting for her (the first time in 18 months she's ever come to church). So Jane spends 2 hours sitting in the bakery across from the church waiting for Bob.

We met Jane once again with her husband, during which time she basically poured out her heart and soul to us and all the relationship problems they are having. (Including all the crap she did to him and all the crap he did back.) He proceeds to make her breakfast the next morning but not talk to her all day (because he was mad about her telling us all that stuff.) We had an appointment with her tonight, but we were actually calling Bob’s friend for another reason.

After we work out the details, he says, "Hey Bob is here, do you want to talk with him?" I said sure, and Bob proceeded to tell me how they had a big argument, both packed up and moved out, and now he is planning to move back to Home City permanently on Thursday.

This of course puts off alarm bells in my mind. I ask, and he clarifies: yes, without Jane.

My Companion and I were discussing last night. It went something like this.

My Companion: "Jane is basically a valley girl. I know girls just like her. She is very easy to convince and because she is driven by emotions and makes quick judgments, she feeds off the emotions of people.

To put it into your terms, she's very easy to hack into. Because she's a daddy's girl and her parents don't like Bob, every time she goes to her parents' house she's filled with all these negative emotions. So she comes back and inevitably takes them out on Bob.

He tried living with her in Home City away from her family, which didn't work, and now he's trying to keep her away from her family (so she doesn't get the source of her negative emotions.) But that doesn't work either, because she loves her family. Last time when Bob got mad at her (after the appointment), I told her to have patience and he would calm down. It worked. But then things just flared up again."

Elder Bhagwat:
(ponders and appreciates the wisdom and insightfulness of his companion) "Well, it seems we - and mostly you - are the only people that Bob and Jane both trust. So we have to figure out what to do. If Bob goes to Home City, when he cools down and comes back we will both be transferred and he'll be back at square one.

“If we can figure out how to diffuse this situation we can start to teach Jane - and Bob for that matter - about faith and repentance and forgiveness that might be the solution. Like you said we need a way to help her put in antivirus software so she can be driven by her desire to love and live with Bob and not other people's emotions....

My Companion: "Well when we talk to each of them about the exactly same matter, even something important like why Jane wants to meet with us in the first place, we get two way different answers. Bob tells us he told her about temples and being married forever and Jane tells us she had no real reason, she simply decided.

“That means they're not talking to each other and communicating so they have no idea what the other one thinks."

Elder Bhagwat: "Yeah, you're right, but we can't just tell them that."

My Companion:
"Why not? I keep telling you, it's not what you tell people it's the way you tell them."

Elder Bhagwat: (skeptically) "So how do we communicate that to them?"

My Companion: "You have to make it into a joke, into something funny. We could pick something like what her favorite food is and ask Bob what it is, and then ask her. Or her favorite color. Something unimportant. Something that doesn't matter. Then they'll laugh when he gives an incorrect answer and understand the point."

Elder Bhagwat: "That's amazing! How did you know exactly what Jane was like? And how do you react to her so well and get her to trust you? I never would have caught any of that, and I would have no idea what to do to communicate that point"

My Companion: "But I don't usually break it down like that in my head. I usually just speak at the spur of the moment." (looks confused at himself as to how he explained so clearly)

Elder Bhagwat: "That totally makes sense though! It means like you understand people so well you internalize what to do, and you just do it automatically."

My Companion:

Elder Bhagwat: "Like if I'm playing blitz chess, I have about 5 seconds to make each move. So if I make a move, I'll make it because my opponent only has his black-square bishop, and I have my knight here, but most of the pawns are still on the board so it's a closed board so my knight is more valuable that his bishop right now, so I will move my knight here.

If you stopped me and asked me, ‘Why did you make that move’ I could tell you 7 or 8 relevant reasons why but I don't actually have time to think them over in 5 seconds, I just act on some sort of instinct that has internalized those reasons. So I'll make good moves even though I'm not consciously calculating them. So you must do something like that when you talk to people.

Man I'm so glad I get to be with you and make you explain all of those reasons, 'cause I'm clueless. "

It actually fits into what we've been talking about a lot this week.

My Companion and I have been listening to a talk I have on my iPod by a church leader named Henry B. Eyring, who used to be a professor at the business school at Stanford. It's called "The Law of Increasing Returns,"

In it, he talks about how normally things we do (problem sets, cutting the lawn) yield results very quickly and redoing the same work again (doing more problems or the same problem a different way after your answer matches the one in the back of the book, cutting the lawn a third or fourth time) doesn't yield much fruit compared to the effort it takes. This is the case, he points out, with most things done outside of the home. So if we drew a graph of marginal reward against effort it would start high and drop quickly.

But inside of the home, he points out, it is quite the opposite. Years of nurturing children or patience in marriage frustrations can seem to yield few results. After a long, long period of low returns, then - only then - does the reward come. The problem, he was telling, comes from knowing what we should give our heart and soul for in return for rewards that we might now see for a long time, and then how we can get the courage to keep working and waiting. I was especially struck by a couple of his suggestions. First, to look for the humor that comes from incongruity between tons of effort and little tangible result. Second, to appreciate the blessings that do come along the way. There were tons of other really practical insights so I attached the talk for you if you wanted to read it. I'm sure you've probably learned many of them by experience but I think you'd still like it.

What really strikes me is that even though I certainly don't have the experience in working and waiting patiently for years and years in anything (Education doesn't count because I like learning), it is something that I've learned with relationships with my companions.

My Companion has so much patience and rarely reacts at me when I get frustrated, and because he has so much patience with me it really helps me to overcome problems and frustrations and lean on him as a source of strength. This is a quality that he possesses far more than myself or any of my previous companions, and because of it we probably have the strongest relationship I've had so far on my mission.

My companion’s previous companion, Elder X, was also companions with Elder Tuscano and drove Elder Tuscano absolutely crazy. But because My Companion was so patient he was able to help this elder overcome his weaknesses.

It's inspiring in that I want to develop this quality - to work and wait patiently - in myself. I know that I'm going to have tests and trials of my own as I build my career and especially my family in the future, and I know I will need it.

And also, we have to somehow break this down soon for Jane and Bob - hopefully if only by example of how strong our relationship is. We know we're over our heads, but after careful consideration we are the only men for the job right now. (Also by we I mean "Mostly My Companion")

[follow-up: this ambitious attempt to save a marriage did not work. Bob did in fact go back to Home City shortly thereafter. Last we heard the divorce was in process.

Our mission president gave My Companion and I some wise advice afterwards.

“Elders, you two are the nicest guys in the world, and you have the biggest hearts ever and that’s really amazing. But I have been in the marriage business for thirty years. And I know a lot of people who are in it too. And we can collectively count on two hands the number of troubled families we were able to help.

“You can’t help two people save their marriage unless they come to you and say, Bishop, we really want to make this work but we don’t know how and we will do anything you tell us. You certainly can’t make it work for them.”

He was right, as usual.]

My mission in one post

...welcome, friends, family, or whoever is reading this.

This is my MISSION MEGA POST. Ie, I try to encapsulate two years of my life in one webpage.

Yeah, yeah, I can hear the snickers already.

I made an online "Mission Scrapbook" here.

This is a PowerPoint I made for my human resources class at Stanford, about the different parts of a mission. I answer the central question: why would the LDS Church choose a bunch of snot-nosed 19 to 21 year olds as its ambassadors and recruiters?

Here are some of my personally meaningful and memorable experiences.

Trying - and failing - to save a marriage. I realized that it was not my companion and my marriage to save - it was the husband and wife's.

My first baptisms, on my trainer's last week.

My last Sunday - four baptisms! Two really wonderful families.

I should marry a fat girl. Preferably a very fat Telugu girl.

Learning to get along with a companion.
After a somewhat rocky start, I start communicating with my native companion Elder John in a way that made him comfortable. We became best of friends.

We move a family across town after they get evicted, baptize them, and I get transferred, all in the same week. The 9-year-old son cries and gives me a forlorn look when he realizes I'm leaving.

Simple kindness. Making a get well card for a 16-year-old kid.

Learning Telugu, and learning to talk to someone in emotional distress.


This is one of my favorite families, Robert and Girija, on the day of their baptism, when they promised to follow God for the rest of their life. This was our work, to help prepare people to make this promise.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Back to more mundane things...

Why certain economic models (ahem, Keynesian sticky prices) are stupid:

"Which of the following impediments to economic adjustment do you believe to be the most important?

a) the cost of establishing a new enterprise

b) the cost of integrating new workers and equipment into an existing enterprise

c) the cost of adapting physical and human capital to new circumstances

d) the cost of whiting out an old price list (menu) and updating it with new prices

If you answered (d), then congratulations--you have shown your New Keynesian bona fides." Link here.

Friday, January 07, 2011

A post-mission post

A letter to a dear friend

I'm glad you liked the essay I sent. I really liked the "thus we see" part, it has informed my scripture reading. As I read it again with my mission with fresh eyes I notice some parts.

(note: I may not be able to properly express myself in the following sentences)

Pres. Eyring's point, that even if honest seekers meet together it will often increase doubts because they will encounter new ones, strikes me as prescient.

I think -- and it might be too early to tell -- after my mission I'm kind of in a new place with regard to doubt, intellectualism, Dialogue, the bloggernacle, etc. It's really not that important to me anymore, at least the skeptical questioning part. I might still see "as in a glass darkly," but I know my Father more deeply than I did before.

But I have not yet developed the patience and experience to be someone like, well, you. Or President Eyring. You -- and here I presume, I can't read your mind -- go with love for the Lord and your fellowmen, not to collect doubts but to serve others by building their faith in the Lord whom you love. And you have the tools to do it.

I will join you at some point, I believe -- but it will take a lot more experience first. I have the desire but lack the tools.

Ultimately the Dialogue/bloggernacle is commentary, and I'm pretty much commented out right now. I read the Dialogue issue with our pieces in it -- I loved the first article, describing Godel's incompleteness theorem and the limits of the knowable. And of course the parts about both of us. (My essay is here. - SB) Other than that I lacked interest in it.

Not because it was uninteresting, at all, but because now that I've finished my mission I see so many other things that are so interesting.

I see the importance of shaping personal goals -- I've spent a lot of time on that. I see the importance of finding an eternal companion. I am in a completely familiar culture, but I now see it in a completely different way.

The gospel is more real to me. I am more committed than I was two years ago. I see a moral current in the day-to-day events far more than before -- and feel a far stronger love for my brothers and sisters walking around campus. Yet I still need to figure out my new role, unique and "peculiar" as I am among them. (Looks like I'm going to have a newspaper column in the student newspaper, so Stanford should get ready for my trenchant critiques. Ha.)

I see so many amazing things in the world that I want to learn about. I see the complexity of God's "secular" creations again and am newly amazed by it all.

Right now, I need to go apply the principles of my mission in my own life; smile, laugh, listen, go magnify a calling and date some girls and pursue my goals and live a Stanford life again. Maybe if I get a chance, I can lift some doubters around here.

I'll be back in the Dialogue circles in a few months or a year or two. I don't know. I need to live my own life a bit and experience life in all of its amazing complexity and beauty. Then I'll feel somewhat qualified to comment in Latter-day Saint dialogue on Life in the abstract, universal sense, again.

Anyway, I'm not sure if I was writing this to you or myself, but I'm happy I got the preceding narrative down on paper.

Your fellowservant,