Making It to the Top: When Is the Price Too High?

“Put a Mormon in the hopper,” observed social commentator Eric Hoffer, “and out comes a tycoon.” Most of us like to be seen as competent, hard-working, productive, and loyal. As a people, we prize these traits, and we teach them in our homes and schools. Indeed, Latter-day Saints have become well-known for their achievements in science, business, education, government, the arts, and athletics.

Much of our desire to achieve, I believe, springs from the inborn need we have, as children of God, to constantly improve and progress—to become more like him. We also realize that the gift of agency carries with it the responsibility to develop our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual abilities to the fullest possible extent.

I have spent my entire working life in the field of business management—as a professor helping young people prepare to succeed professionally, and as a consultant helping managers improve their performance. This work has been a source of great satisfaction to me.

But I have also been able to observe at very close range some common entrapments that those striving for success in the world must constantly avoid. The basic temptation that people encounter as they set out to succeed in their careers is that of placing excessive emphasis on temporal or material goals. Although this orientation may result in some unusual distortions and real difficulties for Church members, it is by no means a temptation unique to Latter-day Saints.

Entrapment #1: Undisciplined Competitiveness

Some of us become eminently successful in our careers by viewing life as an intense competition, a “zero-sum” game in which anyone else’s gain is seen as our loss. We begrudge others’ successes rather than feeling joy in them. In order to get ahead, we may also be tempted to resort to “organization politics”—manipulating others, controlling scarce information, distorting feedback, sabotaging someone else’s plans, exchanging favors for personal gain, and subverting authority.

Cultivating a competitive personality may bring success in the business or athletic world. But it can also take its toll in our personal lives, making us manipulative marriage partners, friends, and coworkers in the Church. We may become insensitive, even calloused, to the needs and feelings of others. And we may find it increasingly difficult to submit to authority or work collaboratively. We may find ourselves seeking position and recognition at any cost, including our integrity.

I reject the idea, widely accepted in some business arenas, that unbridled competitiveness is healthy, even desirable. It is my understanding that the gospel calls for this rejection also. Too often organizations and their managers seem to be motivated by survival rather than morality. Getting to the top through ruthless power struggles, it seems to me, is inappropriate behavior for anyone, but especially for Latter-day Saints. The scriptures contain many warnings against the human tendencies to be proud and selfish, to seek after the honors of men, and to wield unrighteous dominion. The Prophet Joseph Smith cautioned, “Now, in this world, mankind are naturally selfish, ambitious and striving to excel one above another. … And this was the case with Lucifer when he fell.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 297.) According to the Lord, the greatest of all is the servant of all. (See Matt. 20:26–27.)

Entrapment #2: Confusing Means and Ends

I am always disturbed when I hear a student say, “I want to make a lot of money so I can better serve the Church.” This rationale—a peculiar twist on Western materialism—seems oddly inconsistent with gospel principles. Although many sincerely intend to help others with the wealth they gain, I have noticed that means and ends have a strange way of becoming confused. President Spencer W. Kimball has spoken explicitly on this confusion: “Whatever thing a man sets his heart and his trust in most is his god; and if his god doesn’t also happen to be the true and living God of Israel, that man is laboring in idolatry.” (Ensign, June 1976, p. 4.) Surely, our most important commitment should be to live in harmony with divine principles; then, if circumstances and our efforts bring us wealth, we can use that wealth for a good cause.

I have heard others insist that if they are good members of the Church, they will do well financially—not realizing that the “windows of heaven” may be opened to pour out blessings other than material ones. Indeed, living righteously in order to become successful by the world’s measure illustrates the very essence of doing the right thing for the wrong reason.

Entrapment #3: Greed and Fraud

A recent spate of frauds and financial schemes victimizing—and in some deplorable cases perpetuated by—Latter-day Saints suggests that some of us may be placing temporal gain too near the top of our priority lists. But a careful reading of the scriptures and Church history suggests that some members of the Church have always been vulnerable to this temptation.

One of the Lord’s first warnings to the Saints in this dispensation enjoins them to “seek not for riches but for wisdom.” (D&C 6:7.) A year later, the Lord expressed his displeasure with some of the Saints: “They … seek not earnestly the riches of eternity, but their eyes are full of greediness.” (D&C 68:31.)

When Heber C. Kimball left Kirtland for a mission, building lots were selling for fifty cents. He returned several years later to find that they were selling for five hundred to one thousand dollars. President Wilford Woodruff remarked on the effects of the spirit of greed growing among the Saints:

“In Kirtland many of the brethren had given their time and talent to speculation and were absorbed in schemes contrary to the counsel of the Prophet. Speculations brought on jealousy and hatreds, and those evil attributes manifested themselves toward Joseph who sought diligently to suppress them.” (Before the Panic of 1837, p. 68.)

After the Saints left Kirtland for Far West, the Prophet Joseph Smith, concerned with a prevailing spirit of greed and covetousness, prophesied that they would be driven to the four winds of heaven unless their hearts were turned from the search for material gain. It was in Far West that Oliver Cowdrey was excommunicated from the Church, leaving his calling, “for the sake of filthy lucre” and for “being connected in the bogus business” while “forsaking the cause of God.” (History of the Church, 3:16.)

On the eve of the expulsion from Nauvoo, Brigham Young wrote that “the Saints were becoming slothful and covetous, and would spend their means upon fine houses for themselves before they would put it into the House of the Lord.” (Journal of Discourses, 13:1.) Once again, the Saints were driven from their homes—yet another demonstration of the temporary nature of material possessions.

Entrapment #4: Paying Too High a Price

Of course, not all of us will fall into greedy attitudes or fraudulent scheming in our efforts to succeed professionally. But many overachievers pay for their success with damaged health, a narrow range of interests, loss of contact with spouse and children, even divorce. These “price tags” are difficult to see because our day-to-day decisions are, to coin an economic phrase, “always on the margin.” In other words, it always looks as though the decision is “Should I work just one more weekend?” rather than “Should I stop spending time with my family?” The first demand may seem reasonable; the second clearly is not. Yet we can easily become so consumed in our pursuit of professional advancement, academic achievement, or business expansion that we neglect basic responsibilities—spending productive time with spouse and children, getting sufficient rest and exercise, and truly renewing our spirits through study and prayer that comes from righteous living. When this happens, we lose balance in our lives and slow our eternal progression.

Many have noted that Latter-day Saints sometimes feel obliged to be “supermen” and “superwomen.” Often, we look for role models in those who have achieved great success in their professions and also serve in visible Church callings. As we chase after these seemingly attractive examples, we may fail to recognize that success is measured in different terms for each of us. It is much more important to find out what God wants us to do and what makes us happy than to try to imitate someone else. Success to the Lord is not measured as man-measured success, but in terms of how well we accomplish the central purpose for which mortality was designed. Many of those who have achieved remarkable professional successes do so by very uncommon ability, opportunity, circumstances, etc. Others may be less balanced in their personal lives than they would like to be—perhaps always feeling wound up tight or having unsatisfying relationships with family and friends.

Entrapment #5: Loss of Identity

Those who seek for worldly success tend to look to organizations for rewards which give them a sense of worth. We may feel like more successful people when the organization promotes us, increases our pay, or honors us in some other way. We do not always realize that human organizations always tend to disappoint us. They are managed by human beings who, by definition, make mistakes. Further, corporations and other organizations are not designed to meet our deepest needs, and the expectations we place on them are often unrealistic.

Another subtle danger lies in making an organization our repository of virtue or responsibility. “I do what I am told,” goes one line of reasoning. “If it’s wrong, the person who told me to do it must bear the responsibility.” But an employee who is asked to do something morally objectionable or unproductive can never abdicate his personal responsibility by claiming organizational loyalty.

I know that organization loyalty can be a positive virtue. But, if we are not aware, it can wrongly seem to free us from the burden of individual moral choices. Thus, in our efforts to get ahead, to not “make waves” in an organization, we can find ourselves compromising our integrity. We must never give up our responsibility for living honestly and uprightly in our personal and our professional lives.

Am I suggesting that professional excellence and eternal progression are mutually exclusive? Not at all. In fact, notice that I used the word excellence, not success, which may or may not come in a worldly sense. For the pressures we encounter as we build our careers are real and sometimes confusing. They are particularly strong in the first half of a person’s professional life. To effectively deal with them, we must do several things.

1. We must remember that we are personally responsible for the way we respond to life’s challenges. In his compelling book Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl describes the behavior of concentration camp prisoners. He argues that many of them—and many of us—need a fundamental change in attitude toward life. The question is not, says Frankl, “What do I expect from life?” but, “What does life expect from me?” We must realize that we are being questioned by life—daily, even hourly.

We give our answers to life’s questions not simply through our talking and sermonizing, but through our conduct and actions. The prophets remind us that no worldly success can compensate for failure in our basic responsibilities to God, family, and self. The most important work we do is becoming Christlike in all aspects of our lives and in loving and helping others to similarly do so. As we embark on careers, we must keep clearly in mind that we are responsible for responding appropriately when we are faced with temptations to lose perspective.

2. We must define our priorities firmly and be very clear about our commitments as we choose how to spend time and resources. Prophets have suggested priorities that will bless the lives of all who follow. For me, the following list seems consistent with their counsel:

* Daily nourish your spirit and your relationship with God.

* Spend time nurturing family relationships.

* Serve others; joyously serve in Church callings.

* Meet the requirements and needs of your profession.

* Enjoy hobbies and personal interests.

3. Probably the major prescription for the problems I have discussed is to develop a rich relationship with divine sources—through scripture study, personal prayer, and service to others. As we engage in that process, we come to more surely know the Father and the Son. And this knowing enables us to keep our perspective and make decisions in keeping with our divine purposes.

I am convinced that our Heavenly Father is more concerned with our growth in character and spirit than he is with our temporal success. Nevertheless, we are faced in this world with the necessity of sustaining ourselves temporally. The challenge of balancing our professional and personal lives is certainly not an easy one. But in the balancing can come real strength of character.

Let’s Talk about It

After you have read “Making It to the Top: When is the Price Too High?” individually or as a family, you may want to discuss the following questions and ideas.

1. Each of the traps discussed in this article has its source in a positive principle. In each case (undisciplined competitiveness, for example) what positive principle is involved and how is it turned into a trap?

2. Is it wrong to be wealthy or successful by the world’s standards? When does it become wrong, and when does it not?

3. Is it possible to live righteously and not be successful by the world s measure? By what standards should we judge our success in life? By what standards does the Lord say he will judge our success?

4. Are there present in your family (or yourself) attitudes and habits that could eventually lead to the kinds of problems mentioned in this article? If so, what do you need to do to live more in harmony with divine principles?

Illustrated by Larry Winborg

Robert H. Daines, a professor of business management at Brigham Young University, is the father of seven. He serves as Young Men president in the Provo Utah Edgemont South Stake.