Saturday, July 26, 2014

Lessons On Education And Preparing For A Career From President Henry B. Eyring

[Introduction: Last week I began reading the recently published biography of Henry (Hal) B. Eyring, member of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.(1) So far it is an excellent book and I recommend it, not only to learn about President Eyring, but it is filled with many stories and quotations that teach a great many lessons of life–something he has been extremely good at sharing with the Church. This also makes it an appropriate topic  for this blog devoted to "Living Philosophies." His father [Henry Eyring] was an internationally prominent scientist at the University of Utah. He had “seen manned flight move from the beaches of Kitty Hawk to the lower reaches of space.  He personally associated with the scientists who harnessed the power of the atom and with others who created the earliest electronic computers. He knew that rockets would soon fly higher and computers run much faster, and he wanted his sons to be prepared for success in such a world.” (p. 47) Therefore, he offered to pay for tuition, and for their room and board in his home if they would do two things. They must major in physics, because he felt that would prepare them best for the coming needs in the modern world, and that they work part-time while attending school and full-time during the summers. The following story contains several very important lessons about education and preparing oneself for a career, which, if you are still in school will inspire you, and if you are a parent of someone in school, may give you some perspective while guiding them through.]
Hal often sought his father’s assistance with difficult physics problems. Henry was a master mathematician, capable of solving complex equations in his head. The window of time to get his help, though, was narrow. Henry invariably stayed at the university until dinnertime, six o’clock.  And Hal had a time constraint on the back end–his goal was to have the physics homework done before pickup basketball games at the university started at seven. To hit this narrow window, he tried to solve all but the knottiest problems in the late afternoon, leaving only a few to take to his father after they had finished dinner. 
The strategy would have worked well were it not for Henry’s belief in the importance of understanding what he called the “first principles” of physics. When Hal asked for help with a particularly complex equation, one needed to solve an unworked homework problem, his father typically replied, “Hal, let’s not worry about what the textbook says; we can derive this equation ourselves, from first principles.” 
That would lead to a time-consuming trip downstairs, where a chalkboard hung on an unfinished basement wall.  There Henry would begin to write the most fundamental equations of physics. From these he would lead Hal through an exercise of deriving for himself the complex formulae in his textbook. Working from first principles was, Henry knew, the best way to teach Hal not only physics but also the broader life lesson of paying the price to really understand a problem before trying to solve it.  His willingness to spend time with Hal in front of the chalkboard reflected his belief that Hal had the capacity to be a good problem solver. 
The rub, though, was that this deep dive into mathematical fundamentals nearly always took longer than Hal hoped, making him late for basketball games that were already under way by the time he arrived. It was at one of these tense moments, with precious court time slipping away, that Henry suddenly stopped. “Hal,” he said, “we did this same kind of problem a week ago.  You don’t seem to know it any better now than you did then. Haven’t you been working on it?” Embarrassed, Hal admitted that he hadn’t been studying the problem. 
Henry stepped back from the board and looked into his son’s eyes.  “You don’t understand, Hal,” he said. “When you walk down the street, when you’re in the shower, when you don’t have to be thinking about anything else, isn’t this what you think about?” Again, the answer was no.  It was a poignant moment for Henry, who had hoped that all of his sons would become scientists.  After a pause, he said, “Hal, I think you’d better get out of physics.  You ought to find something you love so much that when you don’t have to think about anything, that’s what you think about.”(2)
Lets think together again, soon.


1. Robert I. Eaton and Henry J. Eyring, I Will Lead You Along: The Life of Henry B. Eyring, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2013).

2. Ibid, pp. 48-50, emphasis added.


  1. Great post! My wife gave me this book for Christmas. I read it in January in about 10 days (rapid for me). I found it very engaging and I have a new respect for President Eyring AND his father. This story is confirming for me in my career choices thus far. As I began studying business I was continually thinking about organizations, how they work, what makes them tick, and how you help people drive an organization best. I've ended up in Human Resources and I am learning every day as a new Employee Relations Manager.

    1. I have been pacing myself, but often at night I find myself reading more and more. I'm moving through it pretty fast. I knew nothing about President Eyring, so this has really been a fascinating read for me. As you know, I was fortunate to have a career which I loved. I told my wife and family many, many times that I never had to work a day in my life because to me it was so enjoyable.

  2. That's a great story and very true. It's also an important reminder that our children may have interests different than what we want for them, and that's okay. For example, I have a freshman who I've been advising lately who asks at every opportunity how she can take more history classes. Remember, I teach finance and financial planning. I finally asked her why she didn't change her major, and she said that her parents said that history wasn't a practical major. I would argue, though, that finance isn't practical, either, if you don't enjoy it.

    1. Thank you Ben, for your comment. It is nice to have you check in here. I agree. I taught religion for a career, hoping that one of my four children would follow suit, and my wife is a nurse. Our two sons and two daughters have chosen different paths for themselves, all doing very well I might add. One daughter told me when she was in her twenties, that she had wanted to be an attorney since she was in the 5th grade, and I never suspected such a thing. At the time, I was about to dissuade her because she seemed like the least academic of our children, but something prompted me not to do it. Four years later I was attending her graduation at BYU Law School, the first of our four children (and she is third in order of birth), to receive her advanced degree! Even when one is a parent, the talents and interests of one's children are not always evident.