Throughout his life, Heber J. Grant worked diligently to improve himself, believing that “every individual can improve from day to day, from year to year, and have greater capacity to do things as the years come and the years go.”1 He became known for his persistence, and it was said of him that “he never criticized other men’s weaknesses but made war on his own.”2 He told the following story about a time in his youth when he displayed the quality of persistence:
“When I joined a base ball club, the boys of my own age, and a little older, played in the first nine, those younger than myself played in the second, and those still younger in the third, and I played with them. One of the reasons for this was that I could not throw the ball from one base to the other; another reason was that I lacked physical strength to run or bat well. When I picked up a ball, the boys would generally shout, ‘Throw it here, sissy!’ So much fun was engendered on my account by my youthful companions that I solemnly vowed that I would play base ball in the nine that would win the championship of the Territory of Utah.
“My mother was keeping boarders at the time for a living, and I shined their boots until I saved a dollar, which I invested in a base ball. I spent hours and hours throwing the ball at a neighbor’s barn, (Edwin D. Woolley’s,) which caused him to refer to me as the laziest boy in the Thirteenth Ward. Often my arm would ache so that I could scarcely go to sleep at night. But I kept on practicing, and finally succeeded in getting into the second nine of our club. Subsequently I joined a better club, and eventually played in the nine that won the championship of the Territory. Having thus made good my promise to myself, I retired from the base ball arena.”
President Grant later acknowledged that he had “partially wasted” the “hours and days and weeks and months” he had spent throwing a baseball against his neighbor’s barn. He said: “I am impressed with the thought that I was not … engaged in the highest employment of which my nature was capable. … There was one thing, however, accomplished by my experience as a ball player, namely, the fulfilling of a promise made to myself.”3
Young Heber J. Grant also persisted until he learned to play marbles, improved his grammar, and developed beautiful penmanship.
Having learned in his youth the power of persistence, he continued to apply the principle as he grew older. For example, he determined that he would learn to sing. He recalled: “From the time I was a child of nine, I tried to sing. I tried time and time again without any apparent success. When I was about forty-three years of age, I had a private secretary with a beautiful baritone voice. I told him I would give anything in the world if I could only carry a tune. He laughed and said, ‘Anybody who has a voice and perseverance can sing.’ I immediately appointed him as my singing teacher.
“My singing lessons started that night. At the end of two hours’ practice I still couldn’t sing one line from the song we had been practicing. After practicing that one song for more than five thousand times, I made a mess of it when I tried to sing it in public. I practiced it for another six months. Now I can learn a song in a few hours.”4
President Grant was good-natured about his struggle to learn to sing, and he did not let his mistakes or the laughter and criticism of others deter him. In an address to the youth of the Church, he said:
“When I was learning to sing, … I practiced [a certain] song one day twelve times at one sitting. There are three verses in it; so I sang thirty-six verses, and by actual count I made five mistakes to a verse, which made 180 mistakes in one practice, and I knew nothing about it. When I first began to learn to sing, it took me from three to four months to learn two simple hymns. I learned a hymn a few weeks ago in three hours—half an hour’s practice every evening for six days, and I had it all right.”5
President Heber J. Grant often quoted the following statement, which is sometimes attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson: “That which we persist in doing becomes easier for us to do—not that the nature of the thing is changed, but that our power to do is increased.”6 President Grant exemplified this truth, particularly in serving the Lord. Despite hardships such as poverty and the early death of his father, he persisted in keeping the commandments, fulfilling his Church callings, and doing all he could to build the kingdom of God on the earth.
I believe that we can accomplish any object that we make up our minds to, and no boy or girl ought to sit down and say, because they cannot do as well as somebody else, that they will not do anything. God has given to some people ten talents; to others, he has given one; but they who improve the one talent will live to see the day when they will far outshine those who have ten talents but fail to improve them.7
Trustworthiness, stick-to-it-iveness, and determination are the qualities that will help you to win the battle of life.8
I believe unless we have ambition to accomplish things and to do things that we amount to but very little in the battle of life. I know of nothing at the present time that seems to me sadder than to find the number of our people who are losing the spirit of integrity and devotion and ambition to do things. It seems to me all wrong. Every individual should have a desire to grow and increase in capacity and in ability to do things. Certainly by mere exertion of the will, by mere desire, we accomplish nothing. We must put with that desire the labor to accomplish the things we desire. I am sure that a young man who is perfectly satisfied with what he is doing, although he may be doing very little, and has no ambition to do more, will stand still. But I am convinced that every individual can improve from day to day, from year to year, and have greater capacity to do things as the years come and the years go. I believe in that with all my heart.9
It is by exercise and by practice that we become proficient in any of the vocations or avocations of life, whether it be of a religious or of a secular character.10
I know of no easy formula to success. Persist, persist, PERSIST; work, work, WORK—is what counts in the battle of life.11
I realize that it requires a constant effort on the part of each and every one of us to make a success of our lives. It requires no effort at all to roll down the hill, but it does require an effort to climb the hill to the summit. It needs no effort to walk in the broad way that leads to destruction; but it needs an effort to keep in the straight and narrow path that leads to life eternal.12
I feel that we should learn never to become discouraged. … I believe when we determine within our hearts that by and with the blessings of God our Heavenly Father we will accomplish a certain labor, God gives the ability to accomplish that labor; but when we lay down, when we become discouraged, when we look at the top of the mountain and say it is impossible to climb to the summit, while we never make an effort it will never be accomplished.
Nephi said to his father that he would go and do the things which the Lord commanded [see 1 Nephi 3:7], and when his brethren failed to get the plates and they came back discouraged, he was not discouraged. … He said to his brethren: “As the Lord lives and as we live we will not go down unto our father in the wilderness until we have accomplished that which the Lord has commanded us.” [1 Nephi 3:15.] Now we as Latter-day Saints should remember that Nephi succeeded; we should remember that in the face of obstacles he secured the plates containing the precious words of God; that he secured the record which was beyond price; that was invaluable to his descendants, and without which it would have been difficult for many of them to have found the straight and narrow path that leads to life eternal.
If there is one character more than another in the Book of Mormon that I have admired and whose example I have felt to emulate, that character has been Nephi of old; never discouraged, never disheartened, always ready, always determined to labor to the best of his ability for the accomplishment of the purposes of God.13
If you want to know how to be saved, I can tell you; it is by keeping the commandments of God. No power on earth, no power beneath the earth, will ever prevent you or me or any Latter-day Saint from being saved, except ourselves. We are the architects of our own lives, not only of the lives here, but the lives to come in the eternity. We ourselves are able to perform every duty and obligation that God has required of men. No commandment was ever given to us but that God has given us the power to keep that commandment. If we fail, we, and we alone, are responsible for the failure, because God endows His servants, from the President of the Church down to the humblest member, with all the ability, all the knowledge, all the power that is necessary, faithfully, diligently, and properly to discharge every duty and every obligation that rests upon them, and we, and we alone, will have to answer if we fail in this regard.14
Faith and knowledge without practice are of no value. All the knowledge in the world would not amount to anything unless we put that knowledge into actual practice. We are the architects and builders of our lives, and if we fail to put our knowledge into actual practice and do the duties that devolve upon us we are making a failure of life.15
By the assistance of our Heavenly Father there is no obligation and no law in the Church that we cannot fulfill. The Lord will give us the strength and the ability to accomplish every duty and labor that rests upon us in an acceptable manner in his sight. The only question is, have we the disposition? I heard yesterday of a [man] who said that he could not give up drinking coffee. I do not believe that that man tells the truth. I think he lacks the disposition to try and give up the habit.16
Many people I have met have said, “Mr. Grant, how do you account for the fact that many of those who have borne witness of their knowledge of the divinity of the work called Mormonism, and of the divinity of the mission of the Prophet Joseph Smith, have afterwards turned away from the Gospel of the Latter-day Saints and become its bitter opponents?” I simply answer that there is no promise made to any man, woman or child, no matter what testimony they may receive, or what light and intelligence may come to them from God, that they shall remain firm and steadfast in the straight and narrow path that leads to life eternal, only as they shall keep the commandments of God. I know of no individual among the Latter-day Saints who has been faithful in attending to his family and secret prayers, in attending to his public and his quorum meetings, who has been ready and willing to pay one-tenth of his income annually as a tithing to the Lord, who has observed what is known among us as the Word of Wisdom—I know of none such, I say, who has fallen by the wayside. But I know of many who, notwithstanding many great and marvelous things have been manifested to them, have fallen by the wayside, because they have neglected the duties and responsibilities which have rested upon them as Latter-day Saints.17
One of the big things that [the adversary] has to work on is the fact that we are all poor, weak mortals and fully appreciate our own weakness, and he tries to take advantage of our knowledge on this point to inspire us with the idea that we are no good and what we are doing is not worth the time that we are taking to do it. But we can be assured that if we press on in the little duties which are from day to day resting on us, we will be on hand for greater ones, when, in the kind providences of the Lord, there will come to us greater work to do in the interests of his work.18
I desire to impress upon the minds of the young [people] that because they have not succeeded in the past, or have failed to live proper lives, they should never feel that there is no hope for them in the future. There is no teaching of our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, which is plainer than that laid down by him to the effect that there will be none of our past sins held against us, provided we repent and forsake them, in the future laboring diligently for the right.19
I have often related an experience of Doctor Karl G. Maeser. He told how a poor widow had come to him with her son. She announced to Brother Maeser that this was her only son; that she had gone out washing to save the necessary money to send him to Brigham Young University because she had heard that Brother Maeser was able to reform wayward boys. She told Brother Maeser that she could not handle the boy, and that the bishop and his counselors could do nothing with him and that they all looked upon him as a bad boy.
The boy started school and was soon in trouble. Brother Maeser told how he violated all the rules of the school. The teachers could do nothing with him, and his influence was bad in the school. Brother Maeser hesitated about expelling him because he thought of that poor widow who had gone out washing in order that her only son might come to school; so he put up with this careless, wayward boy until he could stand it no longer. Then he finally expelled him from school.
The next morning at eight o’clock, as soon as Brother Maeser had reached his office, there was a knock at the door. When he opened the door, there stood this boy. Brother Maeser said that when he looked at the boy and thought of all the trouble he had caused in the school, he felt “just like hitting him, right between the eyes.” That was his first thought with reference to the boy who had been expelled the day before.
The boy said: “Brother Maeser, give me just one more chance.”
Brother Maeser [later recalled]: “I stood there paralyzed to think that boy would ask for another chance. He did not think I would give him another chance; and he said: ‘Brother Maeser, Brother Maeser—give me one more chance.’”
Brother Maeser’s voice broke, as he rushed into the extended, pleading arms of the boy and embraced him and kissed him, and promised him a hundred chances.
“Now,” said Brother Maeser, “what do you think—that boy is a bishop’s counselor in the very town where once he was a spoiled egg!” …
These are the kinds of dividends that count—dividends of human values. The patient, untiring, prayerful labors we devote to our young people who need help, and to those generally who for some cause or another have withdrawn themselves from us, often return to reward us in unspeakable joy and satisfaction in the years to come.
What experiences have you had in which the Lord has blessed you for being persistent?
What motivates us to be persistent in doing our duty to the Lord?
What obstacles should we be ready to face as we persist in developing our talents and abilities? in living the commandments? in helping others?
President Grant expressed great admiration for the prophet Nephi. What similarities do you see between Nephi and President Grant? What can you do to follow their examples?
In what ways can we serve those who have “withdrawn themselves from us”?
In what ways have you been blessed through the persistent efforts of others?