“Thinking Straight,” New Era, Mar. 1985, 44
In 1978 when I stood at this pulpit, I was impressed to talk to the students that were here about the great role that lay ahead in their lives to become leaders in the Church in 1988. Many of those students who sat where you are now sitting are out in the Church. I know of several who are now serving as bishops of their wards. I know of many of the sisters who were sitting in the same seats you occupy who are now serving as the presidents of their Relief Society or Primary or Young Women program. So, I suppose when we talk to you about the realities that you will in fact be the leaders of the Church in a few years, that we can demonstrate from past experience that that truly is going to occur in your lives if you are ready.
In 1978 we had 950 stakes of the Church. Five and a half years later we have 1,450 stakes of the Church. The Church is moving forward, it is growing, it is meeting its ongoing charge and commission from the Lord to fill the whole earth. As more stakes are created, as more wards and branches are created, the pressure bears down heavily for leaders who are prepared to administer these units of the Church. You indeed will be the leaders in a few short years and beyond, of course, as calls will come to you.
Having had the opportunity to see the Church in its operations worldwide over the past few years and coming to the assignment of a General Authority from the business community, I have had some interesting experiences which I have been able to reflect on. I have tried to isolate a principle that, if understood and properly practiced, can help you be successful in your journey through mortality. That principle I have felt to speak about is learning to think straight. I recognize that all of you are thinking. Some of you are thinking that you wish you had studied harder now that you anticipate final exams. I realize that sometimes some of you think that you are thinking too much. But my charge to you this morning is to develop the skill and the capability of thinking straight.
In my office I have a little plaque that reads, “Above all else, brethren, let us think straight”—the last known words spoken by my grandfather Elder Melvin J. Ballard in mortality. As I understand the circumstances, Grandfather, after a very grueling experience of preaching the gospel all through the eastern part of the United States, drove his own car from New York to Salt Lake City. When he came into the driveway at his home, he collapsed and was rushed to the LDS Hospital and was found to have an acute case of leukemia. He never came out of the hospital. He went in and out of coma, but as I have had it told to me by my father, who was there, Grandfather pushed himself up on his elbows and looked into his hospital room as though he were addressing a congregation or a group and said with clarity, “And above all else, brethren, let us think straight.” I don’t go into my office any day of the week that I don’t see that, and I find that it helps me a little bit.
How do we learn to think straight? The book of Proverbs has a little guide that might be helpful: “Hear counsel, and receive instruction, that thou mayest be wise” (Prov. 19:20). I would suggest that straight thinking probably begins with careful listening. It seems to me that those men I have associated with who have seemed to have the instinctive ability to think straight are men who are very good listeners and are able to extract, as they receive counsel and instruction, those principles that will be eternally important in their lives.
I would like to suggest that it is important to take the time to learn the facts. All the years that I was in business a little sign on my desk read, “Don’t confuse me with the facts. My mind is already made up.” Sometimes you can get locked into that kind of a thought process. I had it there in order to stimulate thinking on the part of those who associated with me and emphasize that we did indeed want to deal with the facts.
Fact finding sometimes requires patience, time, and very careful consideration. A friend of the Church of years and years who has since passed away was a man by the name of Lord Thomson of Fleet. At the age of 67, Lord Thomson started out to build a great empire, and in a very short time the Thomson Enterprises consisted of 464 different independent businesses. It is one of the most successful business ventures in the entire world. He wrote a book in the twilight of his life and said these words about thinking:
“Let us be honest with ourselves and consider how averse we all are to [thinking]. Thinking is work. … Sloppy and inconclusive thinking becomes a habit. The more one does it the more one is unfitted to think a problem through to a proper conclusion” (After I Was Sixty, London: Hamish Hamilton, 1975, p. 106).
We can learn to be careful, fact-filled thinkers, or we can become sloppy, inconclusive thinkers. We are living in a world, in my opinion, which is crying out, perhaps like never before, for sound, solid, well-grounded thinkers.
I would like to continue with a further statement of Lord Thomson:
“If I have any advice to pass on, as a successful man, it is this: if one wants to be successful, one must think; one must think until it hurts. One must worry a problem in one’s mind until it seems there cannot be another aspect of it that hasn’t been considered. Believe me, that is hard work and from my close observation, I can say that there are few people indeed who are prepared to perform this arduous and tiring work. But let me go further and assure you of this: while, in the early stages, it is hard work and one must accept it as such, later one will find that it is not so difficult, that the thinking apparatus has become trained; it is trained even to do some of the thinking subconsciously. … The pressure that one had to use on one’s poor brain in the early stages is no longer necessary; … one’s mental computer arrives at decisions instantly or during a period when the brain seems to be resting. It is only the rare and most complex problems that require the hard toil of protracted mental effort” (p. 106). In effect, what he is saying is that if we learn to make good decisions in our youth, we will build up a bank account, “a bank of experience,” on which we can draw in later years, and decision making will become less painful. You get to a point in life where problems that might almost seem insurmountable to you today, when passed by someone as old as I am, seem relatively simple. That is because we have thought and experienced and worked through some of these problems.
There are those who become professional thinkers. I don’t want to encourage that. So that you don’t misunderstand me, I would like to quote Brigham Young:
“Some think too much, and should labor more. Others labor too much, and should think more, and thus maintain an equilibrium between the mental and physical members of the individual; then you will enjoy health and vigor, will be active, and ready to discern truly, and judge quickly. Is it not your privilege to have discernment to circumscribe all things, no matter what subject comes before you, and to at once know the truth concerning any matter?” (Journal of Discourses, 3:248).
I have met in my lifetime men who should really be out in a productive setting who are still studying. I think that there is a point at which you graduate and go on to the things that you want to try to accomplish in life.
There will be a lot of things as you go through life that you are going to be concerned about. Some of you are undoubtedly thinking about what it is you want to do with your life.
President Harold B. Lee gives some very good counsel to those of us who are thinking about our futures.
“If there should come a problem as to what kind of business a man should be engaged in, whether he should invest in this matter or that, whether he should marry this girl or that one, where he should marry, and how he should marry—when it comes to the prosecuting of the work to which we are assigned, how much more certainly will those decisions be if always we recall that all we do, and all the decisions we make, should be made with the eternal goal in mind: with an eye single to the ultimate glory of man in the celestial world.
“If all our selfish motives, then, and all our personal desires and expediency would be subordinated to the desire to know the will of the Lord, one could have the companionship of heavenly vision. If our problems be too great for human intelligence or too much for human strength, we too, if we are faithful and appeal rightly unto the source of divine power, might have standing by us in our hour of peril or great need an angel of God. One who lives thus worthy of a testimony that God lives and that Jesus is the Christ, and who is willing to reach out to Him in constant inquiry to know if his course is approved, is the one who is living life to its full abundance here and is preparing for the Celestial world, which is to live eternally with his Heavenly Father” (Stand Ye in Holy Places, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1974, pp. 102–3).
Well then, if you learn to think straight, you can begin at any point where you are today and apply some of these basic principles to help in the mighty and heavy responsibilities of life. And if you are living righteously and worthily, in such a way that you can supplicate the Lord for direction, according to President Lee, you can expect to have divine inspiration and direction.
I have a very good friend who was the chief executive officer and manager of a very large corporation. The call came to him to preside over a mission, and like so many of our wonderful men who have great skills and capabilities and responsibilities, when the call came from the Lord, there was no question. He had thought enough through his life that it was instantaneous in his thought process to accept the call. What was to happen to the business? What was to happen to this great enterprise? Well, situations were worked out, and management was worked out to the best degree. But in three years lots of things can happen to a business when the guiding light is not there to lead on a day to day basis. Ultimately, some of the assets of the company were sold. But toward the end of the mission of this great man, an opportunity arose. Within days after his release, he was back in business with a program far bigger than anything he had before he was called to be a mission president and is presently managing and, I believe, bringing about one of the major corporations to be based in the state of Utah.
Now how did he do that? Well, I suppose by the mistakes he had learned through his life, but most importantly he had learned to think straight so when this second opportunity came up it was easier for him to define, to determine, to make decisions, and to move forward.
I would like to just share one more statement from Lord Thomson as it pertains to this manner of thinking. “It was at least partly due to my discovery over a fairly long period, but more than ever during these latter years in Edinburgh and London, that experience was a very important element in the management side of business and it was, of course, the one thing that I had plenty of. I could go further and say that for management to be good it generally must be experienced. [I’d like to pause for just a moment and ask you to think of the implications of Mr. Thomson’s statement for Church leadership.] To be good at anything at all requires a lot of practice. … The more one is exposed to the necessity of making decisions, the better one’s decision-making becomes. …
“… I was entirely convinced that, through the years, in my brain as in a computer, I had stored details of the problems themselves, the decisions reached and the results obtained; everything was neatly filed away there for future use. Then, later, when a new problem arose, I would think it over and, if the answer was not immediately apparent, I would let it go for a while, and it was as if it went the rounds of the brain cells looking for guidance that could be retrieved, for by next morning, when I examined the problem again, more often than not the solution came up right away. That judgement seemed to be come to almost unconsciously, and my conviction is that during the time I was not consciously considering the problem, my subconscious had been turning it over and relating it to my memory; it had been held up to the light of the experiences I had in the past years, and the way through the difficulties became obvious. I am pretty sure that older men have had this same evidence of the brain’s subconscious work.
“This makes it all very easy, you may say. But, of course, it doesn’t happen easily. That bank of experience from which I was able to draw in the later years was not easily funded” (pp. 104–5).
I would suggest to you that you are funding your bank. You are funding it in many different ways. Some of you young women will become mothers, and maybe you will never work actively in the field that you graduate in, but I’ll tell you that when those children come and climb on your lap and start asking you some of the questions that children ask as they are trying to get through grade school, junior high school, and high school, you will be grateful that you got this bank that you are presently funding at school.
Now I would like to add one other dimension to this business of thinking. How do you develop the inherent, native ability to have good judgment, just good common sense? As I look about me and see men whom I admire, who I think are successful in their fields, most generally they just know how to respond with good judgment and good common sense. Lord Chesterfield is quoted as saying, “Common sense (which, in truth, is very uncommon) is the best sense I know of: abide by it, it will counsel you best” (in A New Dictionary of Quotations, ed. H. L. Mencken, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1942, p. 1084). Benjamin Franklin said, “Where sense is wanting, everything is wanting” (in A New Dictionary of Quotations, p. 1084). Not using common sense can be fatal. I don’t know the odds of this. Consider the pharmacist who was compounding a prescription that called for as much strychnine as you could put on the face of a dime. He didn’t have a dime so he used two nickels. We don’t need that kind of common sense. I could tell you story after story after story here of those kinds of exercises of common sense and what I would hope would happen in your thinking process as you study and try to become the very best you can, that you learn to think straight with the foundation being the building of a bank from which you can instinctively draw good judgment and common sense.
Now in all of this the Lord has given us some very wonderful counsel. That counsel is that the problems of life—whether they be in business, government, society, or church—those problems can best be solved by following this little formula that he gave to Oliver Cowdery in the ninth section of the Doctrine and Covenants.
“Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.
“But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right” (D&C 9:7–8).
Now you all know that, you have read it, you have quoted it to each other in your various teaching relationships, and I call on you to practice it.
At the risk of having all of you lose your faith I am going to tell you a story about my own life. When most of you were still in the spirit world, I signed an Edsel franchise with Ford Motor Company. Some of you may not know what the Edsel was. The older brethren know that that was probably the most disastrous national marketing mistake that was ever made in the United States. Ford Motor Company had spent over two hundred million dollars pulling together an automobile. Henry Ford II was then the president of Ford Motor Company. The car would carry his father’s name. The promotion, the anticipation, the excitement were just unbelievable.
You could appreciate what it was like for me, being a relatively young businessman and having all the power of Ford Motor Company being brought about to encourage me to become the Edsel dealer for Salt Lake City. I wrestled with that. I said to my father, who was a great man in my life, “Before I sign the franchise, I want to see the car.” They made a special arrangement for us to fly to California to view the car. Now, I am wrestling about this, I’m talking to the Lord about it, I’m asking for direction, it’s a big decision, it involves a lot of money, a lot of commitment on my part. We walked in, my father and I, and saw that line of automobiles, and the minute I saw them, I had the distinct impression not to go ahead with the franchise.
I got away from that circumstance, and then the powers started to work on me again, influential sales techniques, all the promises of what this line of cars was going to do. It was going to be the greatest thing that ever came into the automobile industry. And I allowed myself to drift from that mooring. I had followed the counsel of the ninth section of the Doctrine and Covenants, but I wavered from the impression that the Lord had given me, and I made the decision to sign the franchise, then went through the torments of the damned, almost. If we had more time, I could tell you that it’s not fun to lose a lot of money fast. And regardless of what I did, I couldn’t stop it. Ultimately, the franchise was sold, and this was, I suppose, a learning experience that causes me to now be able to sit down with just about anybody who wants to talk about the automobile business and almost instinctively draw from that bank of experience over those years and give pretty good counsel.
I think I can think straight when it comes to those kinds of things because of the things which I suffered, and perhaps we need to understand that failure is part of life. We are not going to be successful in everything we do, but we never need to fail to learn the lesson. We can place in the bank of our memories and our existence those things that will cause us to become increasingly more powerful and most importantly increasingly more helpful to the building of the kingdom of God.
Well, we have so much that we look to you for, the youth of the Church. You just can’t imagine the conversations that go on at the Church headquarters about you. We worry about you, we pray for you. Not that we don’t trust you. That is not the case at all. We just want you to be ready. We want you to be prepared. We want you to be able to think straight in a very crooked-thinking world. There are many things going on all about us at almost every level—international, national, local—that are going to require the soundest, the best, the most solid-thinking generation that our Father in Heaven has ever raised. We believe you can be that generation. We want to do our part as your leaders. We want to sustain you and to help you. We want you to become the very best you.
I would ask our Heavenly Father to bless you with the instinctive desire to plead with him in prayer that you might come to the point in your life that you are thinking straight. For straight thinkers, my brothers and sisters, do not make serious mistakes in life. One who is thinking straight does not have moral problems. One who is thinking straight really does not have problems with the Word of Wisdom. He doesn’t have problems paying tithing. He doesn’t have problems with being righteous and good.
As you build your bank while you are here at this great university, be willing to struggle, and really struggle if necessary, and ask your Heavenly Father to bless you to be a good thinker, a straight thinker. Then when you are called upon to be the bishop of your ward or to be a member of the high council of the stake or to be the president of your elders quorum or to preside over the Relief Society or the Primary or the Young Women organization, you will be able to bless those who will look to you for leadership.
God bless you then to struggle with this, make it part of you, that you will be the great source and the great power for the building of the Church in the future. I leave my witness and testimony with you that I know that Jesus is the Christ, this is his Church, he does preside over it, and we are on his errand. I leave this testimony humbly in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, amen.