Mow the Lawn, Do the Dishes, Save Your Soul

This is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

Last year, journalist Roger Cohen wrote this wonderful little insight in The New York Times:

Life is a succession of tasks rather than a cascade of inspiration, an experience that is more repetitive than revelatory, at least on a day-to-day basis. The thing is to perform the task well and find reward even in the mundane…Want to be happy? Mow the lawn. Collect the dead leaves. Paint the room. Do the dishes. Get a job. Labor until fatigue is in your very bones. Persist day after day. Be stoical. Never whine. Think less about the why of what you do than getting it done. Get the column written. Start pondering the next.

The more I look at it, the more I’m convinced that Joseph Smith’s elevation of the mundane–and consequently the everyday tasks that come along with it–was one of his most inspired doctrines and deepest insights into the human condition. It is within the boring that we discover, as the article puts it, our “personal sliver of the divine.” And it is this affinity for the everyday that tends to be one of the most frequent themes in the General Conference talks we’ve covered so far. President Hinckley’s October 1972 address is no different. In it he celebrates the “small day-to-day decisions will determine the course of your lives.” He determines that the ability to “grow in favor with both God and man…is not beyond your capacity. The course of our lives is not determined by great, awesome decisions. Our direction is set by the little day-to-day choices which chart the track on which we run.” Hinckley admonishes his audience, “Be smart…Be clean. Be obedient. Be prayerful. To do so will require a measure of discipline, the exercise of which will bring strength and capacity for great and demanding tasks that lie ahead of you in building the kingdom of God and in filling places of useful service in the work of the world. Your lives will be satisfying and your joy will be eternal.” Day-to-day choices and the discipline to make good ones are what it’s all about. This even extends into the realm of work:

I have concluded that the work of the world is not done by intellectual geniuses. It is done by men of ordinary capacity who use their abilities in an extraordinary manner. As a member of this church you have the obligation to seek learning and to improve your skills. It matters not whether you choose to be merchant, teacher, carpenter, plumber, mechanic, doctor, or to follow any other honorable vocation. The important thing is that you qualify to be useful workers in society…You cannot afford ever to do cheap or shoddy work. You bear the priesthood of God.

I think part of the reason I (we?) find General Conference so boring is because that’s exactly what they talk about. As Cohen says,

I am less interested in the inspirational hero than I am in the myriad doers of everyday good who would shun the description heroic; less interested in the exhortation to “live your dream” than in the obligation to make a living wage.

When you think of Sisyphus — the Greek mythological figure whose devious attempt to defy the gods was punished with his condemnation to pushing a boulder up a hill and repeating the task through all eternity when it rolled down again — think above all that he has a task and it is his own. Rather than a source of despair, that may be the beginning of happiness.

I’m sure the future Eden will still need its lawn mowed.

Other Noteworthy Quotes & Insights

Marion G. Romney on the helping the poor and needy:

The ultimate test: “In [Matt. 25], the Master declared that the test on which the division would be made on that great day would be the care given to the poor and the needy.”

The necessity of voluntary charity:

In this modern world plagued with counterfeits for the Lord’s plan, we must not be misled into supposing that we can discharge our obligations to the poor and the needy by shifting the responsibility to some governmental or other public agency. Only by voluntarily giving out of an abundant love for our neighbors can we develop that charity characterized by Mormon as “the pure love of Christ.” (Moro. 7:47.) This we must develop if we would obtain eternal life.

The principles of welfare: “Simple as was this program, it was nevertheless founded upon the two basic principles of action operative in all inspired welfare programs, namely: (1) those who have are to give, and (2) those who receive are to work.”

And yet, “As positive, however, as is this commandment against idleness, a disregard of it by the receiver does not justify Church members in failing to impart of their substance “according to the law of [the] gospel, unto the poor and the needy.” (D&C 104:18.)”

Building Zion: “The operation of these two principles, philanthropy by the giver and industry by the receiver, was so perfected in the days of Enoch that “the Lord called his people ZION, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.” (Moses 7:18.)

Interesting tidbits from Harold B. Lee:

Faith-promoting rumors:

I understand that there is a widely circulated story that I was alleged to have had a patriarchal blessing (I don’t know whether any of you have heard about that) that had to do with the coming of the Savior and the ten tribes of Israel. In the first place, a patriarchal blessing is a sacred document to the person who has received it and is never given for publication and, as all patriarchal blessings, should be kept as a private possession to the one who has received it. And second, with reference to that which I was alleged to have had, suffice it to say that such a quotation is incorrect and without foundation in fact. There is one thing that shocks me: I have learned, in some instances, that those who have heard of these rumors are disappointed when I tell them they are not so. They seem to have enjoyed believing a rumor without substance of fact. I would earnestly urge that no such idle gossip be spread abroad without making certain as to whether or not it is true.

Political agendas and violent/illegal activism:

There seem to be those among us who are as wolves among the flock, trying to lead some who are weak and unwary among Church members, according to reports that have reached us, who are taking the law into their own hands by refusing to pay their income tax because they have some political disagreement with constituted authorities. Others have tried to marshal civilians, without police authority, and to arm themselves to battle against possible dangers, little realizing that in so doing they themselves become the ones who, by obstructing the constituted authority, would become subject to arrest and imprisonment. We have even heard of someone claiming Church membership in protest against pornographic pictures being displayed in theaters, having planted bombs, and therefore becoming subject to punishment by the law and subsequently standing judgment before the disciplinary bodies of the Church.


There are among us many loose writings predicting the calamities which are about to overtake us. Some of these have been publicized as though they were necessary to wake up the world to the horrors about to overtake us. Many of these are from sources upon which there cannot be unquestioned reliance. Are you priesthood bearers aware of the fact that we need no such publications to be forewarned, if we were only conversant with what the scriptures have already spoken to us in plainness?

Check out the other posts from the General Conference Odyssey this week and join our Facebook group to follow along!

The Pebbles In Our Shoes

2016 05 31 Pebbles In Our Shoes

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

This is how I pick which talk to write about every week: I pick the one I can’t stop thinking about. This means that there are basically two kinds of talks that I write about.

First, I write about my favorites. These are the talks that strike me when I first read them, and that continue to resonate in my mind and heart long after I have reached the end. Elder Marvin J. Ashton’s talk Love of the Right from the April 1971 General Conference is one of those, and I ended up quoting from it in my Sunday School lesson on Sunday. This week, I liked Elder Gordon B. Hinckley’s talk Watch the Switches in Your Life, and especially one line that I took as a great comfort: “the work of the world is not done by intellectual geniuses. It is done by men of ordinary capacity who use their abilities in an extraordinary manner.”

Second, I write about the talks that confound, puzzle, or even discomfit me. The first are talks I don’t want to leave behind, the second are talks that don’t want to leave me alone. This week, that would definitely be President Harold B. Lee’s concluding address to the priesthood session: Admonitions for the Priesthood of God.

There was an awful lot that I highlighted from this talk. Here’s one part that has been troubling me since I read it. President Lee recounts a question a sister asked “concerning the promise made that if one would keep the Word of Wisdom he should run and not be weary and should walk and not faint.” The sister asked, ““How could that promise be realized if a person were crippled?”

This is the kind of technicality my 7-year old son is always asking me about. It seems that every time I ask him to do something, or give an explanation, or basically say anything at all, he turns into a pint-sized lawyer and finds the exceptional case and then asks me about it (if I’m lucky) or does it (if I’m not lucky).

So sure, the question seems a little pedantic to me. General promises aren’t fulfilled in a perfectly regular, obvious, and transparent way without exceptions. And for good reason. That would turn Heavenly Father into a sort of cosmic vending machine. As with many hardships we face on Earth, the chaos and confusion of this fallen world are features, not a bugs. And yet here was President Lee’s response, “Did you ever doubt the Lord? The Lord said that.”


President Lee then goes on:

The trouble with us today, there are too many of us who put question marks instead of periods after what the Lord says. I want you to think about that. We shouldn’t be concerned about why he said something, or whether or not it can be made so. Just trust the Lord. We don’t try to find the answers or explanations. We shouldn’t try to spend time explaining what the Lord didn’t see fit to explain. We spend useless time.

If you would teach our people to put periods and not question marks after what the Lord has declared, we would say, “It is enough for me to know that is what the Lord said.”

Some of this, I love. The phrase, “too many of us… put question marks instead of periods after what the Lord says” is refreshing and memorable. But the thing is that if you were to boil everything I write about religion down into its distilled essence, you would be left with “try[ing] to find the answers or explanations.” That is, by and large what I do. And it is this which President Lee dismisses as “useless time” spend trying to “[explain] what the Lord didn’t see fit to explain.”


I, for one, certainly preferred Elder Tanner’s tone in the preceding talk: “let us listen to the prophet’s voice and follow him, not blindly but by faith” then President Lee’s sternness.

The peril for you, dear reader, is that when I pick talks the way I do, I don’t always know quite how to process them. I’m afraid that if this is a troubling passage for you, as it is for me, we must simply be troubled together.

In this case, my provisional understanding is that President Lee’s primary point is that we should not let our questions or searches for explanations interfere with our obedience in the meantime. The pattern of faith emphasizes experimentation. If you try to work out all the pros and cons of (for example) following the Word of Wisdom without every trying it for yourself, then the quest for theoretical knowledge will crowd out and replace more valuable experience.

Rationalization? Cherry-picking? Perhaps.

There is no member of the Church who couldn’t benefit from prophetic guidance. We’re all wrong about something. That much is a given. It’s the reason we have prophets in the first place. But I don’t think that rushing precipitously from one view to its opposite is the best approach. The most important doctrines are the one that are repeated most frequently and most plainly, and that is where our attention should be focused.

For lesser issues—such as the precise implementation of the principles President Lee was teaching in this passage—I think the most important thing we can do is allow ourselves to be bothered by what we hear and read. Dismissing it out of hand is obviously folly. But rushing to try to adopt it before we really understand is another, lesser species of folly.

There are lots of quotes about how you should be kind to everyone you meet because everyone is fighting some battle, carrying some burden, wrestling some demon. This is both dramatic and, for the most part, true.

But it’s also true that everyone you meet is walking around with pebbles in their shoes. Little things that don’t make sense. That they haven’t figured out. Little irritants that remind them that they have something to learn, something to change, something to do, but they haven’t figure out just what or how quite yet.

If you have pebbles in your shoes, as I have in mine, that’s OK. Don’t ignore them, because they mean you have something to learn, but don’t obsess over them either, because there are probably bigger concerns.

In time, you will figure many of them out. And when you do, they will be replaced with new pebbles. And that, too, is OK. A kid who graduates from pre-algebra to algebra may feel equally challenged by both subjects, but they’re still progressing. That’s how it is for us a lot of the time, too. We learn and grow, but so do our challenges. It’s OK. Be patient. Trust God. He’s a good teacher.

Check out the other posts from the General Conference Odyssey this week and join our Facebook group to follow along!

You Are What You Love: A Lecture by James K.A. Smith

This is part of the DR Book Collection.

I already mentioned this book in my last General Conference Odyssey post, so I won’t repeat too much.

In You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, philosopher James K.A. Smith argues against the modern idea that we are simply “brains on a stick” and that Christian life is achieved by downloading the right spiritual data into our heads. We are not so much thinking creatures as we are lovers, i.e. creatures of desire and habit. He points out the gap between what we think and what we actually want. More disturbingly, he notes that we may not actually love what we think. Our wants are often shaped by what he calls “secular liturgies”: repetitive practices and rituals that orient our desires and shape our habits. Take for example (as Smith does) the mall: the mall doesn’t tell you what to think. It doesn’t hand out a tract with a list of propositions that the mall believes. Instead, it shapes your consumerist desires as it assaults your senses with sights, smells, comforts, etc. This is why Christian liturgy is important and necessary. Christianity is not just a rival worldview, but a rival set of desires. And those desires are shaped through repetition.

You can see Smith lecturing on this idea at Biola University below:

Cultural Intelligence

In the Spring 2016 issue of National Affairs, economist Arnold Kling has an engaging article on the concept of cultural intelligence:

Thanks to work in a number of related fields, collected in some exceptionally important books published in just the past few years, it is becoming increasingly apparent that progress tends to arise from the evolution of decentralized trial-and-error processes more than from grand schemes launched by planners and revolutionaries.

Economists and scholars of public policy are not the only ones conducting this research; students of human behavior are also finding support for Burke and Hayek’s theses — that the knowledge embedded in social norms and practices is vast compared to the knowledge of even the brightest, most educated individuals. As individuals, we cannot figure out very much by ourselves, but we learn a remarkable amount from others. In short, some social scientists in recent years have been building (or rebuilding) a powerful case for cultural intelligence.

One implication of their findings and arguments is that two sets of institutions in particular — markets and traditional social and familial practices — are the most important products of the process of social evolution building on cultural intelligence because they are the foremost means by which that process operates in free societies. It should hardly surprise us, therefore, that these two sets of institutions are also the foremost targets and objects of scorn of today’s progressive planners.

Drawing on the work of cultural psychologists and anthropologists like Joseph Henrich, Kling argues against the the heavily centralized, top-down worldview of the “engineers” and instead embraces the bottom-up adaptability of the “ecologists.” One school of thought centralizes power and decision-making into the hands (minds?) of a few intelligent elites, while the other recognizes that the collective brain matters more than individual ones in terms of knowledge. “Henrich,” Kling writes,

even goes so far as to argue that, as isolated individuals, humans are not particularly intelligent in comparison with chimpanzees. It is not the hardware of our brains that makes us superior. It is instead the software that is loaded into our brains by cultural learning. In fact, Henrich’s central thesis, in terms of this metaphor, is that the hardware of human brains evolved to be able to run the software of cultural learning, and that we are the only species that evolved in this manner. To use a different computer metaphor, we are not born with much in the way of individual intelligence and knowledge. Instead, we download cultural information from the “cloud”: our family and friends, teachers and mentors, books, electronic media, markets, and other cultural institutions.

…This…is highly reminiscent of Friedrich Hayek’s views about how markets work. Markets coordinate across many people the tacit knowledge that resides with individuals. In contrast, the would-be economic planner, who makes decisions by “applying causal models, rational thinking, or cost-benefit analyses,” works with an information set that is woefully inadequate to the task.

The whole thing is worth reading.

Mass Flourishing: A Lecture by Edmund Phelps

This is part of the DR Book Collection.

In debates over capitalism and everything else, it is easy to forget that economies do far more than merely provide goods, services, and wages. Innovation doesn’t just apply to the iPhone, but to art, literature, jobs, etc. According to Harvard’s Edward Glaesar, this is one major takeaway from Nobel economist Edmund Phelp’s Princeton-published book Mass Flourishing: How Grassroots Innovation Created Jobs, Challenge, and Change:

The book eloquently discusses the culture of innovation, which can refer to both an entrepreneurial mind-set and the cultural achievements during an age of change. He sees modern capitalism as profoundly humanist, imbued with “a spirit that views the prospect of unanticipated consequences that may come with voyaging into the unknown as a valued part of experience and not a drawback.” The dismal science becomes a little brighter when Mr. Phelps draws the connections between the economic ferment of the industrial age and the art of Beethoven, Verdi and Rodin.

The book also provides an epic takedown of the enemies of economic dynamism: socialism and corporatism. Even though this is well-traveled ground, it is nice to have a Nobel laureate addressing these ideologies head-on in an academic publication given their growing popularity among young people. For those who may wonder about the connection between “the good life” (flourishing) and economics, this book is for you.

You can see Edmund Phelps present at the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) below:

Anti-Trade Ancient Greeks

Can the ancient Greeks teach our present-day, anti-trade politicians anything? According to Cornell historian Barry Strauss, they sure can. In a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, Strauss explains that, at first, “Athens’s free-trade zone fostered prosperity, democracy and the soaring confidence that built the Parthenon and fired the Golden Age of Greece. Athens also had a magnetic appeal to immigrants. They came from far and wide and represented rich and poor. Immigrants competed with natives for jobs but not for political power since they were rarely allowed to become citizens.” But the backlash produced three disheartening developments:

  • Nativism: “Athens’s old landed elite disliked democracy and despised the immigrants. So, when extreme conservatives seized power in a coup d’état after Athens lost the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.), they evicted immigrants from the city limits and targeted the wealthiest for murder and property confiscation.”
  • Demagoguery: “In Athens, for the first time in history, demagogues emerged. They were popular leaders of unrestrained vulgarity and crassness. They shouted, used abusive language, and instead of keeping their hands modestly tucked inside their cloaks, they raised their garments and introduced hand gestures into oratory. Although wealthy and well educated, they spoke in populist accents and criticized the establishment.”
  • Endless conflict: “Athenian foreign policy should have built an international order that shared prosperity and encouraged allies to stay loyal. Instead, it chose Athens First.”

In short, “Athens had given people an impossible choice: prosperity or freedom. In the end, all they got was the more than quarter-century-long Peloponnesian War, the ancient Greek equivalent of our world wars. The long struggle weakened all of Greece but especially Athens, which by 404 B.C. lost its alliances, its ships and its prosperity.”

Political leaders take note.

Stop Multitasking, Start Monotasking

See if you can get through this very short blog post without getting distracted. Devote all your energy and attention to it. Why? Because, as The New York Times reports,

multitasking, that bulwark of anemic résumés everywhere, has come under fire in recent years. A 2014 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that interruptions as brief as two to three seconds — which is to say, less than the amount of time it would take you to toggle from this article to your email and back again — were enough to double the number of errors participants made in an assigned task.

Earlier research out of Stanford revealed that self-identified “high media multitaskers” are actually more easily distracted than those who limit their time toggling.

So, in layman’s terms, by doing more you’re getting less done.

This is because “humans have finite neural resources that are depleted every time we switch between tasks, which, especially for those who work online, [Manoush] Zomorodi said, can happen upward of 400 times a day, according to a 2016 University of California, Irvine study. “That’s why you feel tired at the end of the day,” she said. “You’ve used them all up.” The term “brain dead” suddenly takes on a whole new meaning.”

Monotasking is making a much-needed comeback. Give it a try by reading the entire NYT piece here.

Innovative Coworking Spaces: An Old Idea

Over at Harvard Business Review, there is a post reminding us that the supposedly new idea of collaborative spaces is in fact quite old:

Much has been made of these shared workspaces as a brand-new idea, one that barely existed 10 years ago. But the way they function reminds me of a very old idea: the Renaissance “bottega” (workshop) of 15th-century Florence, in which master artists were committed to teaching new artists, talents were nurtured, new techniques were at work, and new artistic forms came to light with artists competing among themselves but also working together.


The Renaissance put knowledge at the heart of value creation, which took place in the workshops of these artisans, craftsmen, and artists. There they met and worked with painters, sculptors, and other artists; architects, mathematicians, engineers, anatomists, and other scientists; and rich merchants who were patrons. All of them gave form and life to Renaissance communities, generating aesthetic and expressive as well as social and economic values. The result was entrepreneurship that conceived revolutionary ways of working, of designing and delivering products and services, and even of seeing the world.

These Renaissance bottegas had three major elements going for them:

  • Turning ideas into actions.
  • Fostering dialogue.
  • Faciliating the convergence of art and science.

Modern-day work spaces could learn a lot from their 15th-century forebearers.

The Bible and the Believer: An Interview with Marc Brettler

This is part of the DR Book Collection.

The Bible can be very problematic for believers, especially those that adopt an early 20th-century fundamentalist reading that transforms it into a history and science textbook. As biblical scholarship has continued to progress, many of the assumptions held by believers have been challenged. Is there a way to read the Bible that includes both scholarship and faith?

In the Oxford-published The Bible and the Believer: How to Read the Bible Critically and Religiously, biblical scholars Marc Zvi Brettler, Daniel J. Harrington, and Peter Enns explore ways in which historical criticism can be incorporated into various faith traditions, including Jewish (Brettler), Catholic (Harrington), and Protestant (Enns). The book serves not only as good introduction to historical criticism, but a model of how to approach one’s religion “by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118).

You can listen to an interview with Marc Brettler on BYU’s Maxwell Institute Podcast below:

Bourgeois Equality and Economic Betterment

Two centuries ago, the average world income per human (in present-day prices) was about $3 a day. It had been so since we lived in caves. Now it is $33 a day—which is Brazil’s current level and the level of the U.S. in 1940. Over the past 200 years, the average real income per person—including even such present-day tragedies as Chad and North Korea—has grown by a factor of 10. It is stunning. In countries that adopted trade and economic betterment wholeheartedly, like Japan, Sweden and the U.S., it is more like a factor of 30—even more stunning.

And these figures don’t take into account the radical improvement since 1800 in commonly available goods and services. Today’s concerns over the stagnation of real wages in the U.S. and other developed economies are overblown if put in historical perspective. As the economists Donald Boudreaux and Mark Perry have argued in these pages, the official figures don’t take account of the real benefits of our astonishing material progress.

…Nothing like the Great Enrichment of the past two centuries had ever happened before. Doublings of income—mere 100% betterments in the human condition—had happened often, during the glory of Greece and the grandeur of Rome, in Song China and Mughal India. But people soon fell back to the miserable routine of Afghanistan’s income nowadays, $3 or worse. A revolutionary betterment of 10,000%, taking into account everything from canned goods to antidepressants, was out of the question. Until it happened.

So argues economic historian Deirdre McCloskey in the past Saturday Essay of The Wall Street Journal. How did this Great Enrichment happen?:

The answer, in a word, is “liberty.” Liberated people, it turns out, are ingenious. Slaves, serfs, subordinated women, people frozen in a hierarchy of lords or bureaucrats are not. By certain accidents of European politics, having nothing to do with deep European virtue, more and more Europeans were liberated. From Luther’s reformation through the Dutch revolt against Spain after 1568 and England’s turmoil in the Civil War of the 1640s, down to the American and French revolutions, Europeans came to believe that common people should be liberated to have a go. You might call it: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Check out the rest of McCloskey’s piece and be sure to pick up the last in her trilogy on the Bourgeois Era: Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World.