When did you think, “motivational speaking—that’s the gig for me”?
I never liked that title, “motivational speaker”—it was more of a teacher. I wanted to be a teacher. I got home from my mission, and I was a business major, but I got involved with Especially for Youth right after my mission and had so much fun with that and had an opportunity to teach there. And since then, not only teaching but teaching young people, has been really fun. I feel a great sense of satisfaction when I see someone say, “Oh, I get it! I never got that before.” When the light comes on. And I guess that’s when I thought, “I want to keep doing this.”
Your ideas and books have varied greatly—everything from things you learned from golfing to the concept of the “Imagi-nation.” How do you come up with such creative ideas?
I guess they’re just things I’m currently interested in. With golfing, I had just started golfing—and I kind of see life lessons in everything—and I saw life lessons in golf more than any other sport. So I said, “I want to write about golf,” and Deseret Book said, “Okay.” I was kind of surprised.
I see life lessons in so many things—that’s where I get my ideas—the things that I’m interested and the things that youth are interested in. One of my goals is to make the difficult parts of the gospel interesting—that’s why I wrote Isaiah for Airheads and Righteous Warriors about the Book of Mormon war chapters. People go, “What’s that for? How come there are so many wars in here?” or “The Isaiah chapters are too hard.” To try and find a way to make that more accessible to everyone.
While there are many similarities for everyone during adolescence, circumstances for individuals are affected by their home environment and time period they live in. Why do you think you have been able to relate so well to youth throughout your career?
If they knew how old I was, they probably wouldn’t listen anymore. I just try to keep it real, try to put some humor in it, not take myself too seriously. I have long given up on trying to speak their language, but I think they understand the language of just trying to be real and tell them what you think—and let them see that it’s possible to enjoy life.
How has your experience as a father helped you evolve as a speaker and writer for youth?
I find myself explaining the reason that we’re asking our children to do things a lot more. And with young people, it helps not just to explain the standards, but why—to explain not only choices, but consequences. I think as a father you find yourself doing that a lot more. And to help kids realize that “I love you” sounds like “where are you going? Who are you going with? When will you be home?”—that means “I love you.” It doesn’t mean “I’m trying to control you” but it means “I care deeply about what happens to you and your maximum happiness.”
One of your books includes secrets to a happy marriage. What is the secret to your own happy marriage?
There was a MormonAd years ago that said, “Marriage isn’t any big thing, it’s a lot of little things”—a lot of little reminders every day that you care, that you’re thinking of your spouse. Then again, all those little things come from a big thing that is a changed heart—a covenant heart—that says I want to keep my covenant of marriage.
I don’t know if people realize that, in addition to being a writer and speaker, you’re a professor at BYU. What does teaching religion do for you that your other employments do not?
As much as I enjoy teaching teenagers, I love young single adults. We have much more of a discussion-model than a fireside. I enjoy exploring with my students how to apply these wonderful scriptures to our lives. College students have great questions—I think that’s why I enjoy it the most. And then when I can open those questions up to the group, we all learn together.
If your current career were unavailable to you, what would you for an occupation?
Be a pastry chef. No, just kidding. All through my childhood, I wanted to be a pilot, and my eyes went bad when I was seventeen, so I couldn’t fly for the military. I always wanted to fly airplanes and still have an interest in airplanes. I went up in an F-16 a couple years ago—that was great. So, yeah, I think I’d want to be flying airplanes. I’ve soloed, I just didn’t finish [my hours for a license]. And right now, with six kids, I don’t think my wife would want me taking flying lessons.
What single event in your life are you proudest of?
Oh, I just married really well. That’s absolutely it—I married well. I’m reminded of the fact that I married well every day. She’s a great mom, a great wife and mother, and I also just love being with her.
I can imagine the pressure to be witty and charismatic takes its toll. Do you ever wish you could just give a boring high councilman talk?
I have to add the humor later. I have to figure out what I’m trying to say, what’s most important to say, and then my secondary question is, “Now how do I get the person who doesn’t want to listen to be engaged?” The first question is always “what ought to be taught?” the second is always “how do I teach it so I don’t lose any of those who are most at risk?” So the humor doesn’t come naturally—I have to think later, “this part’s getting boring—what do I do?” There’s other people that the humor just flows, but I have to work on it.
Where does your inspiration for humor come from?
My dad was really funny. I just love to laugh—life is funny enough . . . in a tragic sort of way.
One of your most recent books explores the parables. What’s your favorite parable?
I love the parables because it’s like looking at a Sudoku puzzle—you know there’s a solution. They make you want to figure out what they mean. Without question, though, my favorite parable is the parable of the prodigal son, because there’s two stories. The son comes back, and it could have ended there. But there’s another brother, who hears about this while a party is going on. And he has to deal with his own feelings of his younger, wasteful brother coming home. It’s a story you see acted out in families all over. It’s just so full of drama and causes us to wrestle with our own feelings when we think it’s unfair when someone is welcomed home. [To learn more about his book Of Pigs, Pearls, and Prodigals, click here.]
Did this book come as a follow-up to your Righteous Warriors book? How did it come about?
I took a trip to the Holy Land in January of last year and had not planned on doing this. But once I saw the backdrop for the parables, I got so excited about it. I don’t know if I’ve ever had that much enthusiasm for a book as when I got home from the Holy Land and thought, “I’m going to write about the parables.”
So, what’s the real story behind your last name?
It’s an Old English name. One of the first on record was a Richard Bytheway in Somerset, England, in 1254. There were similar names that described location like “at the well” or “at the water,” and those people eventually removed the “the,” so those people became “Atwell” or “Atwater.” The Bytheways never removed the “the.” So that’s the real story. Some alterations of the name were “Bitaway” and “De la Rhode.” I was down in San Antonio, and they have a mall there with a kiosk that said, “Family Name Histories.” And I thought, “Well, they won’t have mine,” but I looked it up in this binder and they did. And that’s where I learned all that. It’s a dweller by the road, that’s what it means. So, some have an occupation, like “Taylor” or “Cooper,” but the Bytheways were just hangin’ out by the road.