The Message:

Reaching Our Potential

by Elder William H. Bennett

Assistant to the Council of the Twelve

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    Some years ago I was in Washington, D.C., on business, and the planes of five major airlines were grounded. It was imperative that I get back to Utah as soon as possible since I had some research that needed to be attended to, some classes to teach, and some Church responsibilities to discharge. I decided to go to the terminal in the wee hours when most people don’t like to travel. By going from one airline office to another I finally arranged for a flight to Chicago. I did the same thing at Chicago and finally got to Denver. I thought I would have no problem getting to Salt Lake from Denver because there were three airlines that had planes flying that route, but that is where the problem really became difficult. I just couldn’t get a plane to work it out. I took an airplane that was headed for Phoenix, Arizona, got off at Farmingion, New Mexico, intercepted a plane that was headed for Salt Lake City from El Paso, Texas, and I had it made.

    But you know, as I sat in those terminals hour after hour after hour, I looked out on the runways and saw those magnificent jet planes—each one costing millions of dollars, each one having a tremendous potential to do a transportation job for me and for thousands of other people who were caught in the same fix I was—but what were they doing? Nothing. Why? Because there was no one who could or would step on the starter, or step on the gas, so to speak. Thus many were stranded.

    A lot of us are not willing to step on the starter or the gas as we journey along through life. I met a student who was like that when I was dean of the College of Agriculture at Utah State University. One day I had a phone call from the Admissions Office and was told, “Dean Bennett, we have a young man here who wants to transfer from BYU to Utah State, and he wants to register in your college. His record at the Y was terrible. On the basis of his record we cannot accept him. Now, if you would be willing to interview him, put him on probation, and accept him on that basis, that is all right with us.”

    I said, “Send his record over and let me have about 15 minutes to look at it. Then send him over. I would like to talk to him personally.”

    They sent his record over. It was just as bad as they had said it was—just terrible—but I knew that this young man had just returned from a mission and that a mission sometimes helps a young man set serious goals and objectives and get control of himself. I was, therefore, interested in interviewing him.

    He came over. The first question I asked him was, “Your record at the Y was not very good, was it?” He said, “Oh, I suppose it could have been better.” He spoke in a lackadaisical manner. That told me something—something I was looking for, something about his attitude—so I began digging beneath the surface a bit and coming at him from different angles. After three-quarters of an hour I was convinced his attitude was not good, and I decided to jar him.

    “On the basis of your record at the Y,” I said, “I should not agree to your admittance. On the basis of your attitude, I am not going to admit you.”

    That jarred him, and he immediately started coming at me from different angles, trying to get me to reconsider. But I was firm. Finally I got through to that young man when I said, “Have you ever stopped to realize that to you as an individual the most important life that will ever be lived is your life, and here you are, wasting it away. You seem to be satisfied with the situation. Have you ever stopped to think that the greatest loss of power that we have in this world is the loss that results from the failure of individuals to reach their potential?” The tears started to stream down his cheeks. He arose from his chair, snapped his fingers, and said, “I’ll accept your challenge if you will just admit me. I will demonstrate that I can cut the muster.”

    I said, “Do you really mean that?” He said, “I do, and I am pleading for another chance.” I replied, “If you really mean it, I will give you that chance.” He said, “I really mean it.”

    “All right,” I said, “I will approve your admittance.” And I did.

    That young man established some goals that day, and he was serious about them. He went to work. Oh, how he worked. Winter quarter he got better than a B- average as I recall. Spring quarter he improved upon that; and he went on and on and graduated from Utah State University. I look back upon that experience as one of the choice experiences of my life—getting through to that young man, arousing him, and awakening him to the point where he established goals that were challenging.

    On another occasion I became aware that one of our outstanding seniors had failed to take one of the basic requirements in English. I contacted his department head and indicated that he would have to make up this deficiency. The next day the student contacted me and asked me to use my influence to have that requirement waived, using as justification the fact that his overall scholastic performance had been outstanding. After talking with him I was convinced that he was aware that he lacked three quarter hours of English credit but was trying to avoid the subject because he was weak in English. I said it was my responsibility to see that the requirements of the institution were met, and I could not waive the course requirement. He begged me to reconsider, but I was firm. I made arrangements for him to use a study room rather close to my office where he could study as long as he wanted without being disturbed. When he became convinced that he would have to take the class, he really buckled down, disciplined himself, and came through with flying colors.

    After graduating from Utah State University he went to Iowa State University on a fellowship, and there he earned his Ph.D. degree. Some years later he returned to Utah State University on a visit. He contacted me and thanked me for being firm and insisting that he take that English class. He said it had been one of the most meaningful experiences in his life and had paid rich dividends later, both while he was a graduate student and during his subsequent employment. This experience truly illustrates how a difficult challenge can turn out to be a great blessing.

    Illustrated by Dale Kilbourn