Learning How to Learn

November 29th, 2007  |  Published in Habits, Mormonism

Welcome to Above Yourself, a blog about self-improvement and faith. If you're new here, you may want to subscribe in a reader or subscribe by email. Many of the topics here are related to my faith in Jesus Christ and Mormonism, but all are welcome to share their own beliefs. Thanks for visiting!

A recent article in Scientific American says that “more than three decades of research shows that a focus on effort- not on intelligence or ability- is key to success in school and in life.” Although talent is certainly part of the equation, it doesn’t get us anywhere by itself. A few key concepts mentioned in the article are as follows:

“Our society worships talent, and many people assume that possessing superior intelligence or ability—along with confidence in that ability—is a recipe for success. In fact, however, more than 30 years of scientific investigation suggests that an overemphasis on intellect or talent leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unwilling to remedy their shortcomings.”

“Several years later I developed a broader theory of what separates the two general classes of learners— helpless versus mastery-oriented. I realized that these different types of students not only explain their failures differently, but they also hold different “theories” of intelligence. The helpless ones believe that intelligence is a fixed trait: you have only a certain amount, and that’s that. I call this a “fixed mind-set.” Mistakes crack their self-confidence because they attribute errors to a lack of ability, which they feel powerless to change. They avoid challenges because challenges make mistakes more likely and looking smart less so… such children shun effort in the belief that having to work hard means they are dumb.”

“Such lessons apply to almost every human endeavor. For instance, many young athletes value talent more than hard work and have consequently become unteachable. Similarly, many people accomplish little in their jobs without constant praise and encouragement to maintain their motivation. If we foster a growth mind-set in our homes and schools, however, we will give our children the tools to succeed in their pursuits and to become responsible employees and citizens.”

Carol S. Dweck, Scientific American Mind

Line Upon Line

Learning is more about persistence than it is about natural ability. Ability certainly helps, but it doesn’t win us a marathon. Running a marathon takes persistence and applied effort. As children we certainly didn’t know all that we do now. In the same way, our current level of learning and understanding isn’t a cap on our maximum learning. Although we may have completed high school or college or graduate school, this doesn’t mean we’re done. Our efforts can take us up another level, and we can continually expand on that knowledge.

For behold, thus saith the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have. 2 Nephi 28:30

As a missionary, I was asked to learn Spanish to be able to teach the people of Argentina. I had studied Spanish on and off since elementary school and had always received good grades, so I thought this would be pretty easy. In the Missionary Training Center, we received lots of lessons on Spanish grammar and pronunciation. I did well in those lessons and thought I knew Spanish. Actually speaking it, however, was very frustrating. My mouth wasn’t used to forming Spanish words, and I became a little disheartened. Apparently I had no natural talent for actually speaking Spanish, I thought.

When I really learned Spanish, it came from actually speaking it. One of my instructors told us that learning a language means making mistakes and then correcting those mistakes. When I arrived in Argentina I was pretty intimidated because I still made plenty of mistakes. Luckily, many of the people I came in contact with were very willing to correct me. At first this was frustrating again, because I wasn’t used to being wrong so often, but after a while I realized that these comments were a real help.

That which we persist in doing becomes easier, not that the task itself has become easier, but that our ability to perform it has improved. -Ralph Waldo Emerson

Learning Never Ends

In a devotional speech given at Brigham Young University, Dilworth B. Parkinson, a professor of Arabic at BYU, said that “One of the clearest results of language teaching research is that when a student becomes satisfied with what he knows, when he feels he “knows the language,” he almost immediately ceases to make progress.”

This quote really hit home for me, because I fell in the trap of thinking I was done learning more than once. It has been a recent challenge of mine to know that learning is never really finished. I had the opportunity to translate our church meetings into Spanish, which led me to realize there were many more mistakes to be made and many more lessons to learn. It’s a challenge to maintain the proper learning mindset, but if we do, our progression has no limits.

Blessings from Reading the Book of Mormon

November 11th, 2007  |  Published in Mormonism

Many of our latter-day prophets have spoken of the importance of reading the Book of Mormon. It’s amazing to me to hear some of the promises that are given to use if we make reading the Book of Mormon a regular task in our lives.

In the First Presidency Message given in August 2005, President Gordon B. Hinckley issued a challenge to the entire church to read the Book of Mormon by the end of the year. At the end of that challenge, he mentioned the blessings that we would receive from reading the Book of Mormon:

“Without reservation I promise you that if each of you will observe this simple program, regardless of how many times you previously may have read the Book of Mormon, there will come into your lives and into your homes an added measure of the Spirit of the Lord, a strengthened resolution to walk in obedience to His commandments, and a stronger testimony of the living reality of the Son of God.”
President Gordon B. Hinckley, August 2005 First Presidency Message

My wife and I successfully completed this challenge, and as we did it there was certainly a special feeling that accompanied the reading of the Book of Mormon. It’s amazing how such a simple thing like reading in a book can have such a profound effect. As we read in the Book of Mormon, many of our problems seemed much smaller, and we had a much better perspective on our challenges.

President Ezra Taft Benson spoke frequently of the importance of reading the Book of Mormon. He highlights the blessings we can receive from doing so as follows:

It is not just that the Book of Mormon teaches us truth, though it indeed does that. It is not just that the Book of Mormon bears testimony of Christ, though it indeed does that, too. But there is something more. There is a power in the book which will begin to flow into your lives the moment you begin a serious study of the book. You will find greater power to resist temptation. You will find the power to avoid deception. You will find the power to stay on the strait and narrow path. The scriptures are called “the words of life” (D&C 84:85), and nowhere is that more true than it is of the Book of Mormon. When you begin to hunger and thirst after those words, you will find life in greater and greater abundance.
Ezra Taft Benson, October 1986 General Conference

What are your favorite quotes about the Book of Mormon? Have you felt any of these blessings as you have read it?

Being Grateful for All Things

August 20th, 2007  |  Published in Mormonism, Spirituality

It’s about three months earlier than I usually think about being grateful for everything around me, but some recent experiences have really caused me to realize how blessed I am for everything I have. I have a healthy family including a very happy little girl, a good place to live, and I have the chance to continue my education before my family grows too large. So in lieu of a longer post, I would simply like to post this quote from James E. Faust, an apostle in the Mormon Church who recently passed away:

In the closing moments of this conference, I come to this pulpit to speak about gratitude as an expression of faith and as a saving principle. The Lord has said, “And in nothing doth man offend God, or against none is his wrath kindled, save those who confess not his hand in all things, and obey not his commandments.” (D&C 59:21.) It is clear to me from this scripture that to “thank the Lord thy God in all things” (D&C 59:7) is more than a social courtesy; it is a binding commandment.

One of the advantages of having lived a long time is that you can often remember when you had it worse. I am grateful to have lived long enough to have known some of the blessings of adversity. My memory goes back to the Great Depression, when we had certain values burned into our souls. One of these values was gratitude for that which we had because we had so little. The Great Depression in the United States in the early thirties was a terrible schoolmaster. We had to learn provident living in order to survive. Rather than create in us a spirit of envy or anger for what we did not have, it developed in many a spirit of gratitude for the meager, simple things with which we were blessed, like hot, homemade bread and oatmeal cereal and many other things.

–James E. Faust, “Gratitude As a Saving Principle,” Ensign, May 1990, 85

Meditation for Inspiration

August 15th, 2007  |  Published in Mormonism, Spirituality, Testimony

Several years ago, I had the chance to attend church in a city where I had lived when I was younger. I’m not sure why, but I remember a challenge that the teacher gave us that day in Sunday School: instead of jumping quickly into bed after praying, listen and meditate so that we can receive an answer to our prayers. The teacher that day explained to us that we should treat our prayers as a two-way communication with one of our closest friends; if we wanted God to be able communicate to us, we shouldn’t hang up on him after we’re finished with our side of the conversation.

I remember going home and trying this out that night. I was a teenager at the time, and my main focus seemed to be spending as much time as I could enjoying myself. Since my family was on vacation, I wasn’t in my normal routine so I had to really make an effort to not only remember to pray but to meditate for a time afterward. I remained in the same position for a few minutes until I became a bit uncomfortable. It was then that I realized that I wasn’t really meditating, I was just kind of sitting there.

After a while longer, I began to think a little bit deeper. I forgot about my previous discomfort, and I was able to clear my mind a little more. This kind of preparation allowed me to receive a very calm feeling all around me, and I began to realize that inspiration was only possible if we opened our hearts and really wanted to learn.

Since then I’ve had that same feeling many times, but it has only come when I have opened up my heart and slowed down my mind. I’m extremely grateful for that Sunday School lesson, when I learned how to communicate with my Heavenly Father.

Have you considered the effectiveness of your prayers, your efforts to reach toward Him from this mortal life? How close do you feel to your Heavenly Father? Do you feel that your prayers are answered? Do you feel that the time you spend in prayer enriches and uplifts your soul? Is there room for improvement?

–Joseph B. Wirthlin, “Improving Our Prayers,” Ensign, Mar 2004, 24–31

Baby Steps

July 9th, 2007  |  Published in Goals, Mormonism

Reaching our goals in life often takes baby steps. Goals should be worked on as part of a series of events, and they shouldn’t be dependent on just one major event happening.

Think of it this way: If your goal is to retire with a million dollars, there are two types of ways you can do it. One way to get a million dollars all at once at the last minute, by winning the lottery or having a really great idea come to you out of nowhere. Winning the lottery is something like trying to hit a home run in baseball with every swing. This strategy might win one or two games through the whole season with a lot of fanfare, but Major league coaches know that consistent winning comes through stringing together a few hits and good strategy rather than trying to have every player hit a home run every time up. This is the equivalent of saving up smaller amounts all throughout life in order to reach the million dollars. It suggests that we should leverage the power of interest and savings in our investment plans.

As Seth Godin has said, “the home runs you almost hit don’t count“. Each time we swing for the fence, we don’t have anything to build on when we miss.

Success in spirituality is achieved through the same means that it is achieved in our daily life, through regular and consistent achievement of smaller goals. No one act can get us into heaven. Achieving our goals through baby steps lets us build on our previous successes, and we can start to achieve forward momentum in a world that is constantly pushing back on us.