Wednesday, October 21, 2009

What Matters Most - September 27, 2009

Life is starting to get busy again. Wow. General Conference is next week. Make sure you take a few questions with you so that the Lord can answer them.
We had our first Savior of the World practice yesterday in North Salt Lake and I haven't yet figured out why I'm supposed to be there. One thought I had – maybe it would have a bearing on finding an eternal companion – was quickly postponed when the director announced the “no dating within the cast” rule. After hearing every leader in the Church encourage young single adults to date everyone we meet, I doubt that the no dating rule went through Correlation or any of the Administrative Councils. Whatever. I guess I'll have to resort to “hanging out” with anyone I find really interesting.

I've spent every spare moment writing essays for my application to Stanford. Stanford has a dual MBA/MA in Education program that I think would be great (complete with professors that have already played a major part in educational reform)... but the competition will be pretty rough. Each year the MBA program has a graduating class of less than 400, and, projecting more than 8500 applications this year, that's an acceptance rate of less than 5%! The dual MBA/MA program accepts about 20. I'm only planning to apply to Stanford - it's the only program that fits... but I'll think of some other schools as potentials by Friday.

Why Friday? I take the GMAT this Friday at noon. At the testing center, I need to supply the school codes of every institution that I want to receive my scores. Scary, considering that everyone I know who has taken it recently spent months preparing. I spent three days two weeks ago and I don't think I'll make time in my schedule until maybe Wednesday or Thursday.

But, even though my chances are slim, I feel like this is the right thing to do. As I've worked on application essays, I have often typed for hours and then finally had a bolt of inspiration that resulted in essays far beyond what I originally envisioned. I've laughed, cried, and even gotten mad from the memories that each story evokes. One essay, the most notorious of the application, comes from this prompt: “What matters most to you, and why?” After struggling for days on this one, I had a number of realizations that helped me truthfully answer the question. This is what I have right now:

My first answer to the question of what matters most was simply, “My relationship with God.” Then I asked why. The answer I gave was, “Because through my relationship with God I've gained knowledge that has given me a better perspective in life.” For a while I was OK with that answer. But, as time went on, I thought, “But, then, isn't what matters most the knowledge? And why do I value that knowledge? Because it gives me hope, peace, and happiness. Then, really, isn't what I value hope, peace, and happiness? If my relationship with God didn't bring me those things, it wouldn't matter. But, then, why would happiness be the most important thing in my life?”

At this point I started struggling to understand everything I've done in life. Why am I religious? Why do I want to go to Stanford? Why do I do anything? I'm not willing to believe that we, as humans, are directed solely by instinct – that life is simply an exercise in maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. But what other answer was there to explain my desire to be happy? And so I did what I do whenever I have questions I can't answer – I prayed for help and turned to the scriptures. And as I read, I realized why.

Within the framework of the knowledge I have from God, I know that good and evil are irrevocably tied to the eternal opposites of happiness and misery. Happiness comes from being good, and misery comes from being evil. Still, that doesn't explain why I value happiness more than misery. I know that we are all children of an infinitely good God, and that we were created in His image. But that doesn't answer the question, either. There is no reason to assume that we have the same values as God; while we were formed in His image, the intelligence that makes us who we are has existed since the beginning of the time. We didn't inherit His personality or His values – only His potential. While we have traces of Divinity within ourselves, that Divinity cannot predispose us to good or evil. What matters most to us cannot be influenced by our past or even by our natures. Ultimately, what matters most depends solely on our individual choice.

Hence, the reason that happiness matters most to me is because I have decided it for myself. I have chosen happiness... and, from there, flow the rest of my decisions in life.

I believe that, deep down, happiness matters most to all people. The only other option is misery, and I don't think I've ever met someone who truly wanted to be miserable.

The differences in our lives and actions, then, come from the differences in what we perceive to be the road to happiness. One man believes that wealth and fame will bring him happiness – and so he values it more than anything else. Another believes that developing family bonds will lead to happiness, and so the family tops his list.

I believe that God knows the road to eternal happiness, and that He has created a plan for us so that we, too, can be happy in this life and in the life to come. He has revealed the things that we should do so that we can learn in this life to be happy. The plan of happiness is simple – we need to search out the truth in all places, make changes in our lives to adhere to that truth, and come closer to God by making covenants with Him. True happiness comes from following the plan and helping others to do the same.

On a professional level, I would say that what matters most is being in an organization that understands the basics of this plan. It means having an organizational structure like that of IDEO, where the CEO searches for truth in all places by meeting often with the people on the lowest tier, and where the ideas that shape the company's future come from the people at the bottom as well as the top. It means being willing to completely restructure, like Stanford achieved recently with its MBA curriculum, to meet the needs of an ever-changing society. And it means being willing to understand and accept what matters most to employees and clients – even when it isn't the company's stock – and creating an environment where they can continue to matter most.

It still needs a lot of work. I'll work on it tomorrow. But what was amazing to me was how involved the Lord was in the experience. After struggling, I turned to the scriptures and suddenly understood the answer... and not only was I able to answer the question for me, individually, but I was also able to answer the question for everyone – and to show that everyone is involved in the same search for happiness. I read the essay to my younger brother and he mentioned that, given a thousand essays, he would definitely pick this one as being representative of me. My only concern as I finished writing was that maybe the committee would be prejudiced against someone who is so clearly religious. Do the members of the admissions committee really want a response that requires understanding the gospel? But then I realized that that is exactly what they are looking for. They wouldn't ask a question like, “What matters most to you, and why?” if they didn't logically expect to get profoundly individual answers, each written in a completely different paradigm that would require a lifetime to understand. And, as much as I may want to write to please the committee (and therefore get a spot), the essay truthfully explains who I am.

As I edit this (and every other) essay, I'll certainly add simple information to help my readers better understand my perspective. But I don't know if I will take out the unique vocabulary or the thoughts that raced through my mind – because it's who I am. And while one part of me says, “Just hide under a bushel until you're there – and then let your light so shine,” another pulls me to uphold my personal integrity, “Be yourself. Have faith. Don't worry. Everything will work out.”
Each of us has high-stakes scenarios where it would be easier to leave the gospel at the door. Places where we know we could have an impact on the lives of others; conversations where we know that our viewpoint would be the dissenting vote. But personal integrity requires much more than being a different person for each circumstance. It requires being the same person, holding the same values, no matter where we are. It means being faithful, true, and honest – willing to make any sacrifice that is necessary. In my case, it means being willing to reveal what really matters most in my life, and thereby sharing the plan of salvation in a high-stakes MBA application essay. Maybe for you it's being willing to talk with a friend about the gospel. Whatever the stakes, be true to yourself. No matter what happens, if you are doing what is right, the Lord will protect and provide for you. He will go before and prepare the way for you.

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