Skip to main content

Work, Grit, and Grace

Today, graduates, I want to give you some brief advice about three interrelated principles: work, grit, and grace.

Work First, Play Later

First, Work. When I was a student the President of BYU was Elder Oaks, and he taught me a lasting lesson about work. Let me share it with you today. Said he,

I know of no better words of advice on this subject than ‘work first, and play later.’ The discipline of forcing oneself to work first until the job is completed—whether it be a daily assignment, a term paper, or other needed task—and only then to enjoy the pleasure of play is a master secret of life. It bears immediate fruits in accomplishment, but its most important long-range effect is self-discipline, which unlocks the door to undreamed-of accomplishments.1

President Oaks’ simple but sage saying “work first, and play later” has resonated with me for over forty years. I have found this maxim to truly be a “master secret of life.” I commend it to you graduates today.

President Oaks attributed much of his professional success to the discipline of prioritizing work to play. He told us (although I had a hard time believing it at the time) that he was not the smartest person in his class at law school, but that no one worked harder. I could believe that! He worked circles around his classmates, often studying long into the night while others were sleeping.

He was fond of quoting these lines from Longfellow. Whenever I hear or read them I think of Elder Oaks, as a student, burning the midnight oil. Here is the quote:

The heights by great men reached and kept. Were not attained by sudden flight, But they, while their companions slept, Were toiling upward in the night.2

As a student, I learned from President Oaks the importance of prioritizing work to play. I recommend that you to learn this too. Learn not to say: I will have fun with my friends, I'll go to the beach, I'll do whatever, and then I'll do my homework, and then I'll do whatever work I'm supposed to do. Instead, learn to hold out play as the reward for work accomplished. Work first and play later. It is a master secret of life.

In following this wise counsel you will not only follow the counsel of Elder Oaks, but you will follow the pattern set by the Creator. God worked first—He worked for six days—and then He rested.

So, my first piece of advice to you today is “work first, and play later.” Can you say that with me? "Work first and play later!" Okay, remember that.

Become Gritty

Now for my next piece of advice. It is also about work. My advice is to work with grit. Grit is a concept that has recently received a great deal attention through the work of a best-selling book by Angela Duckworth. Her book is simply called Grit. Duckworth defines grit as a combination of passion and perseverance. It is the quality of stick-to-it-ive-ness, of tenacity, of determination.

She argues, with a convincing array of evidence, that grit is far more important to achievement than is talent. This may seem counter-intuitive. Most of us think that talent or genius explains great achievement. The argument that effort and hard work matter more than genius is encouraging to those of us who fear we have but little of the latter.

At the same time, however, the argument throws cold water on our excuses for not achieving. It exposes our rationalizations as just that: rationalizations.

I suspect that one reason Grit has become a national bestseller is that it offers an antidote to what many sense is a somewhat self-indulgent society, which often avoids goals that require sustained effort in doing hard things. I compliment you graduates on having the grit to achieve such a goal as this, for graduation with a college degree certainly requires grit!

If you will continue to demonstrate grit, you will see confirmed in your life an observation made by President Hinckley. He said:

I have observed that it is not the geniuses that make the difference in this world. I have observed that the work of the world is done largely by men and women of ordinary talent who have worked in an extraordinary manner.3

Graduates, however ordinary you may consider your talents to be, you can make extraordinary contributions as you become more gritty. So pursue your goals with tenacity, perseverance, and self-discipline: in short, with grit.

Complement Grit with Grace

Now finally, my last piece of advice about work. It is to "complement grit with grace." As much as you can achieve by hard work, it will not be enough to turn you into the man or woman of Christ that you need to become. We all need something more. We all need the enabling power of God’s grace. Grace is how God works within us to transform those stubborn, intractable aspects of our selves into the selves he wants us to become. It is the power that enables us to become like Him.

Becoming like Him is the grand purpose of life. As Elder Oaks has taught, the challenge of life is to become good, not simply to do good. Hence, the Lord requires us that we not only choose what is good, although this is very important, but that we come to love what is good.

This is not easy. Let me illustrate the distinction between doing good and becoming good with a homely comparison. If we compare living the gospel to eating a healthy diet, it is as if God requires us not only to eat healthy food but to actually like eating it. It is not enough to have the grit to choke down our Brussel sprouts and broccoli. We have to like them! For many of us, this means changing our spiritual tastes.

But this is possible! I want you to consider the experience of George Q. Cannon, for whom this building was named and whose statue you will pass as you exit. You may recall that as a missionary in Hawaii Elder Cannon received the gift of tongues. But did you know that he also received the gift of taste?

When he came here he hated the taste of poi. It was disgusting to him. But he knew that he needed to like it, not just for his own sake but for the sake of his Hawaiian hosts. He did not want to be a burden on the people whom he loved. Here is how he describes what happened. He says:

Before leaving Lahaina, I had tasted a teaspoon of ‘poi,’ but the smell of it and the calabash in which it was contained were so much like that of a book-binder’s old, sour paste-pot, that when I put it to my mouth, I gagged at it and would have vomited had I swallowed it. But in traveling among the people I soon learned that if did not eat ‘poi’ I would put them to great inconvenience. For they would have to cook separate food for me every meal. This would make me burdensome to them, and might interfere with my success. I therefore determined to live on their food, and, that I might do so, I asked the Lord to make it sweet to me. My prayer was heard and answered; the next time I tasted it, I ate a bowl full and I positively liked it. It was my food, whenever I could get it, from that time as long as I remained on the islands…It was sweeter to me than any food I have ever eaten.4

Brothers and Sisters, the God who made poi sweet to George Q. Cannon can make godliness sweet to you and me. As we work to overcome the natural man—and work we must—He can work in us to reform our deformed desires. You and I need not forever simply grit our teeth to obey His will. Whatever is sour poi to us spiritually, He can make as sweet as manna in our mouths.

I testify that this is true. Through hard work and grit, we can and must make much of ourselves. Through His grace, He can make much more of us. He can make us into new creatures, with new hearts and new spiritual palates. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

[1] “The Formula for Success at BYU,” BYU Speeches, 01 Sept. 1979.
[2] “The Ladder of St. Augustine” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
[3] Teachings of Presidents of the Church, p. 192.
[4] Cannon, My First Mission, 24-26; quoted in The Journal of George Q. Cannon, Hawaiian Mission: 1850-1854, ed. Chad M. Orton (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book), 56n.3.