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.