Major Decisions

by | Apr. 30, 2010

Hot Topics

The point of making money, after all, is to provide for the physical necessities of life so that its true pleasures can be fully experienced. Higher education makes both of these things easier.

I've also learned that the people you meet in college and graduate school can shape your life for the better. I particularly treasure the influence of professors who not only taught well but also took the time to mentor me and my fellow students. I owe many of my most valued skills and perspectives to teachers who went beyond the call of duty.

You can get an outstanding higher education, one that will prepare you to make decisions of great economic and social value and to enjoy the best things in life. You can succeed in college and graduate school even if you are the first person in your family to try. The key is to take charge of the process yourself.

Education and the Gospel Education matters to everyone, but it has special value for those who sense the deeper meaning and purpose of life. My grandfather had that kind of big-picture view of education. Once, when he was president of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, an association of 100,000 scientists, he wrote these words to his colleagues: "I believe that every brilliant conquest made by man is but a manifestation of the divine spark which sets him apart from the rest of creation. Man is in the image of God, destined to go on learning and perfecting himself throughout eternity."

Grandpa learned that principle from his grandfather, who learned it through Joseph Smith. Joseph Smith recoded the divine direction to study and learn all we can "of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms" (Doctrine and Covenants 88:79).

Joseph Smith applied this principle in his own life. His family's poverty prevented him from attending school past the second grade. However, he spent his life studying many of the subjects mentioned above - astronomy, history, languages, law, and others.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of having a truly long-range perspective on education is knowing that our decisions matter not just now but in the life to come, and that we can expect divine guidance in making them. I certainly see that as I look back on my formal education and career choices. In spite of some denial letters, economic downturns, and my own sometimes wrongheaded choices, Heaven has guided my path.

My father has described how and why such things, like rejection letters, happen in our lives: "Your life is carefully watched over, as was mine. The Lord knows both what He will need you to do and what you will need to know. He is kind and He is all-knowing. So you can, with confidence, expect that He has prepared opportunities for you to learn in preparation for the service you will give. You will not recognize those opportunities perfectly, as I did not. But when you put the spiritual things first in your life, you will be blessed to feel directed toward certain learning, and you will be motivated to work harder. You will recognize later that your power to serve was increased, and you will be grateful."

God cares about you and your education. He will not only help you get the education you need, He will take you to the people He wants you to encounter. Those people are in only one place, and so you can be sure not just that there is a right school for you to attend and particular subjects for you to study, but that your choice should be based more on people than on prestige. You will always be grateful for what you learn in school. But even more, you will be grateful for service you give and are given as you learn.

The Growing Need for Education There are many reasons for seeking all the formal education you can get. Education increases your awareness of the world and your ability to maneuver through it. It gives you the chance to learn from the experiences and insights of others. That learning can help you avoid painful mistakes. For example, a class in biology might convince you to avoid smoking, or to stop if you've already started. And a good math teacher could show you why your credit card can be as dangerous to your bank account as smoking is to your body. Education can help you learn from the mistakes of others and avoid making those mistakes yourself.

If you're like me when I was in high school, you may be looking for more tangible benefits, such as a better wage than you can make as a lifeguard. That's a worthy desire and a great reason for getting an education. If fact, if you hope to graduate from the lifeguard's chair to something more interesting and better paying, you had better think seriously about higher education. If you don't, you could be in real trouble because the world is changing in ways that are hard to see but will have a powerful effect on you.

The way wealth is created is changing. In the past, human muscle was the source of the products that made life better. Today, those products are increasingly created by the power of the human mind. That change is important for you. It can be good news if you're well educated, but bad news if you're not.

My grandpa recognized that inevitability when he was young. Grandpa was born in a Mormon settlement in Mexico in 1901. In 1910, revolutionaries took his family's ranch and drove them from Mexico. As refugees in remote Pima, Arizona, they borrowed money to buy land and broke baked ground to start a farm.

Grandpa didn't like this kind of desert farm work. That increased his natural enthusiasm for school. He studied hard and won a scholarship to the University of Arizona. He applied his farmer's work ethic in the classroom and ultimately became a well-known research chemist at Princeton.

In this modern world, we can't begin to make a living on muscle alone. Even minimum-wage jobs, which usually require at least some thinking, don't provide a decent living for a family. At the current minimum wage, a family of just three people with just one minimum wage earner would fall below what the U.S. government calls the poverty level.

Getting Ready - Focus on the Fundamental Skills Your high school courses provide good opportunities to build analysis skills. Make the most of English and math especially. These two subjects are essential to understanding all other fields of knowledge, and mastering them will be a blessing both in your professional work and in teaching your children.

Try to see the deeper power of the words and numbers. Math, for example, is an essential tool for sizing things up. Numbers will help you to answer questions with precision. You don't have to know advanced calculus or Einstein's theory of relativity. But, to consistently make good judgments, you must feel comfortable talking and thinking in the language of numbers.

Here's a practical tip for learning to feel comfortable with math: don't move to the next level until you've mastered the one you're on. That was part of my problem with AP calculus, which I took in my senior year of high school. Among the many courses in which I earned bad grades the year before was college algebra. Without a solid foundation in algebra, I was a sitting duck when it came to calculus; even if I'd studied calculus as intensely as a high school senior as I did the following year in college, I'd have performed below my ultimate ability level. Rather than taking AP calculus without the necessary foundation in algebra, I'd have been better off enrolling in a less difficult math class or even retaking college algebra. Math builds on itself, and so you have to make the foundation solid as you go, even if that means going slower. Remember, the fast track isn't fast if you arrive at the end of the line unprepared.

Skill with words is equally important in making decisions. Warren Buffett, for example, is of course good at reading an income statement. But he is also a brilliant writer. People who don't even own stock in his company look forward to reading the annual letter he writes to his stockholders. Part of the reason that people like to read these letters is that he's very funny. His annual letter often includes jokes and sometimes even favorite chili recipes. But Warren Buffett's writing is also just plain fun to read. His sentences are simple and clear; it's easy to see his logic. Writing with that kind of clarity requires clear thinking. If you can write effectively, you will also think effectively.

You can make a great plan preparing for college. Take classes that you can learn a lot in, whether they're AP or Vo-Ed or anything else that is well taught and stimulates your thinking; don’t worry about appearances. And, in all of your high school activities, keep in mind analysis skills, people skills, and moral sense; you can acquire plenty of skills before you earn your high school diploma.

--- Excerpted from Major Decisions, copyright Deseret Book, 2010. Available now.

Comments and feedback can be sent to