The Formula for Success

By: hawkgrrrl
December 4, 2012

The story is often told of a person who complained to a friend that she couldn’t see well.  The friend took of her glasses, handed them to the friend, and said, “Try these – they work well for me!”  I suspect we have all had a boss or a friend that fits this description.

When people have been successful, they look back at events in their path and imbue those events with meaning and significance.  Those events become their personal “formula” for success.  Often people tell others how to succeed based on their own narrative.  Even when success is mixed, people do this.  We seek a pattern to understand what random events contributed to that success.  For example, sports fans observe that their teams do well when they wear a specific article of clothing or eat a certain food.  They become devoted to following this formula for success to ensure their team does not lose as a result of their actions.

Just last week, Jeff Spector discussed how the Mormon formula leads to success (and how that success can ironically lead to not wanting to be Mormon anymore).

Belief and Success

I recently had a dream that was very frustrating.  I was confined to a wheelchair, and I was trying to get to the place I wanted to be, but it was slow going.  The road was bumpy, night was falling, and up ahead was a chain link fence.  When I got to the fence, I ran into it, and I was frustrated that I couldn’t get through it.  Then I thought to myself:  “You just have to believe you can get through it, and you will.”  I tried again, but to no avail.  I stopped and tried harder to believe I could just slip through that fence.  I knew I had always had the power to go through chain link fences before, but I couldn’t get myself to believe I could now that I had been stopped.  I had a nagging fear that my “specialness” was gone.  Suddenly I was just like everyone else.  My mental formula for success was broken.  A formula for success only works so long as you believe it.  Without that confidence, that inate belief in my ability to go through barriers, I couldn’t get where I was going.  So it is in life.

hell-bank-note-hungry-ghost-moneyAnother name for this kind of belief is superstition.  Living in Asia, I’ve been exposed to a lot of superstitious thinking.  There is an entire month in which the ghosts are free to bother humans, and people burn paper items to send to the ghosts to keep them at bay.  As an outsider, a non-believer, I see that as a superstition.  Yet if I believed in it and I ignored my belief, I would be nervous all month that the ghosts would cause me trouble.  Fear is the enemy to success.  And as humans, we often keep fear at bay with superstitious actions.  They provide us the illusion of control, a belief that we can influence what is beyond our control.  The fundamental key to success is belief in our ability to succeed.

The Mormon Formula

If you are a Mormon, your formula for success might include following the Word of Wisdom, attending church, paying tithing, wearing your garments, or any other behavioral standards we have in the church.  Some of those behaviors also have an instrinsic rational value, unlike burning paper cars and money to send to dead people to bribe the guards in hell; until they start giving receipts, I’m not convinced it worked.  For example, since alcohol is a depressant, it changes your mood and can directly affect your state of mind; avoiding alcohol may preserve your mental clarity and ability to keep doubts at bay.  Doing things like praying, reading scriptures, or attending church can likewise alter your mood or act as a touchstone, a time for reflection and “white space” in which your thoughts can rejuvenate.  They can help you retain a thoughtful, composed demeanor when confronted with stressful circumstances.  Attending church and engaging with your fellow Mormons can give you a sense of social acceptance and a network of supporters who can be a safety net (like an extended family) if you need assistance with your children, your finances, or even just a shoulder to cry on.

Even though some superstitions are more rational than others, that doesn’t absolve them of being superstitious on some level.  For example, if you normally avoid coffee, but this week you decide to drink one coffee just to see what it is like - it will probably have no detrimental impact to you physically.  You may feel ripped off because coffee is expensive.  You may not like the taste, which is normally acquired over time.  Depending on what you have added to it (sugars, creams, caramels), it might ruin your diet for the day.  But all of these possible impacts are insignificant.  The only real detriment is mental:  you will know that you did it.  Knowing it has an impact on your “formula for success” belief (if Word of Wisdom adherence is your norm).  Your confidence may be eroded.  You have broken your own taboo.  You are in uncharted waters (for you), and “There Be Dragons!”

Taboo Breaking

Taboos are essentially shared superstitions, prohibitions a community has agreed on as formula for success – or at least the boundaries for acceptable behaviour.  There is a tribe in India called the Aghori.  Their entire religion is based on taboo breaking as a means to achieve higher consciousness.  Because they believe that the gods created everything (they specifically worship Shiva, the destroyer god), and the gods are perfect, they conclude that everything we do is perfect and therefore nothing should be repulsive.  They deliberately do what others consider repulsive to break those taboos and show their faith in the perfection of the gods, including urine drinking, sex with dead animals, eating human flesh, and (rumored) human sacrifice.

Obviously the Aghori are taking this idea of breaking a taboo or superstition to an extreme that most of us would find counter-productive as it would put us outside the boundaries of the societies in which we live.

I am reminded of a mission experience from my first area.  The sisters and elders were making a break-the-fast meal together.  One of the elders spilled some vanilla crystals, and to clean them up, he pressed his fingers on them, then put the crystals on his tongue.  He suddenly remembered he was fasting, and he ran to the bathroom to wash his tongue off.  He wanted to obey with exactness.  He was devoted to his fast.  Was this a sign of his faith or was it superstition about a few crystals of vanilla?  It’s a fine line.  It’s even more fine when you consider we were all technically breaking the rules, cooking together in the sisters’ apartment, and to make it worse, I realized a few minutes later that my companion was only wearing her slip:  “¿Hermana, donde esta tu falda?”  Sometimes we are arbitrary in our exactitude; we break the rules we break.

How do we tell if something is a superstition or actually part of a good formula for success?

  • What superstitions are part of your formula for success?
  • Are there common Mormon superstitions that people talk about at church?  How do you know the difference between a personal superstition and having faith?  (Before you say “faith in things unseen that are true,” bear in mind how hard it is to ascertain truthfulness; most faith is unfalsifiable.  For example, we can’t prove that the guards of hell didn’t receive the paper money people burned.)
  • For Mormons who are prone to superstition, is taboo breaking a healthy way to check their superstitions or will it ruin their “formula for success”?
  • Is “taboo breaking” just an excuse for people to do what people want to do anyway, something easier than following their stringent religion?


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12 Responses to The Formula for Success

  1. mh on December 4, 2012 at 8:20 AM

    When these taboo breakers drink urine and get sick, do they decide that taboo has meaning and is not a superstition?

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  2. Howard on December 4, 2012 at 10:02 AM

    Obedience for the sake of obedience (following a formula) is an elementary lesson in discipline that is well worth learning and practicing for awhile in the beginning but beyond that continuing to follow in rote fashion restricts one’s personal growth potential. It will win you points on Santa’s naughty or nice list when you’re a child or the Bishop’s or SP’s when you’re an adult but I don’t believe Christ or HF keeps such a list, it is actually kept in our own minds and a good portion of the concept of repentance is dedicated to releasing ourselves from these pharisaical guilty obsessions. Taboo breaking (without damaging anyone) is often the next step in growth because by breaking them we begin to contrast and compare their significance or lack of it enabling us to put them in better perspective. How bad can a cup of coffee be compared to a can of Coke? Jesus set this example for us by breaking some of the pharisaical taboos of the time. But these are just baby steps compared to the mighty change of heart, communing with and following the Spirit or ego reduction (I don’t mean being reverent or humbling oneself which is largely temporary condescension from ego) and becoming one with others whereby love, connectedness and empathy through the consciousness of oneness dictates loving respectful behavior.

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  3. Mike S on December 4, 2012 at 12:23 PM

    #2 Howard:

    They must be ice skating in Hell. I agree with most of your comment. :-)

    You sound very Eastern influenced. It’s something I’ve studied a lot over the past few years, and I’ve expanded my spirituality greatly.

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  4. Howard on December 4, 2012 at 1:25 PM

    Mike S,
    Yes I’ve been influenced by enlightenment in the eastern sense not by study as much as by the lessons that result from a spontaneous kundalini awakening. Interesting that they generally agree. I believe the process of enlightenment is a major step beyond current Mormonism which remains unnecessarily but firmly pharisaically grounded in mortality despite it’s expansive spiritual doctrine and it’s supernatural beginnings. Today lip service is given to gnosis in the form of Moroni’s challenge and we are encouraged to seek personal revelation but not much is taught beyond that and there is so much more!

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  5. GBSmith on December 4, 2012 at 10:52 PM

    I think that because we come to expect blessings by obedience we expect punishment or at least the withholding of blessings if we don’t obey. Many years ago when just home from the service I decided not only to skip church but to go to a movie. I knew that I had to go out the next day, Monday, to look for a job and believed that because I’d purposely broken the sabbath, I wouldn’t find one. I got hired at the first place I went to. A valuable lesson I’ve never forgotten.

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  6. Hedgehog on December 5, 2012 at 1:27 AM

    I do think we are expected to grow up and make our own decisions rather than cling to the ‘safety’ of what we’re told. I do think very often we can be treated like children at church. I also think that too many members are expecting to be told what to do, asking what to do, when it is well within our grasp to work it out ourselves.

    I’m not so sure that breaking all taboos is necessarily a good thing (especially to extreme), but certainly we need to consider the ‘why’ of the taboo, and act accordingly. And some people can get very hung up on the minutiae to the detriment of the bigger picture.

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  7. Hedgehog on December 5, 2012 at 1:39 AM

    Also, wanted to add in: Romans 14:1-4 and 1 Corinthians 8:7-10. Which, moving past the eating analogies, give opposing view points – don’t judge others for their actions, but be aware how your actions may affect others. It’s a difficult thing to balance. Especially when there are so many nit-picky things many people seem to believe are rules, when they aren’t. For myself, those nit-picky things I ignore, but so far as WoW, or the basic commandments go, then those I endeavour to keep.

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  8. MH on December 5, 2012 at 7:09 AM

    I’ve thought about this some more. Joseph Smith’s introduction of polygamy was a big taboo breaker. Was this his attempt at increased spirituality?

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  9. Howard on December 5, 2012 at 7:43 AM

    Yes, I think introducing polygamy was an attempt to evolve humankind toward enlightenment. I believe polygamy is a higher law but much harder to live than monogamy. I believe humankind is largely selfish, jealous and possessive and offer the global popularity and success of greed based capitalism as evidence of how wide spread this selfishness and possessiveness really is. Polygamy (both polygyny and polyandry) had it continued would over several generations have taught selflessness and ego reduction evolving it’s participants toward enlightenment (greater spirituality). In this case I think the taboo of all sexual relationships other than married monogamy was created to accommodate the selfish unenlightened immature emotional level of humankind to keep the peace and social order. Many taboos are in place for these reasons, as the natural man is transcended and humankind matures taboos may be relaxed.

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  10. FireTag on December 5, 2012 at 5:15 PM

    I think most taboos were once (and may be still) heuristically established survival mechanisms. If they really spread widely enough to become taboos, rather than mere superstitions, it has to be because they do work often enough (or at least not fail self destructively often enough) to persist.

    As the football game commercial goes, “It’s only weird if it doesn’t work.”

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  11. Hawkgrrrl on December 5, 2012 at 6:08 PM

    “It’s only weird if it doesn’t work.” Scuze me while I go embroider this on a pillow! Do I see a new tagline for the site?

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  12. Douglas on December 5, 2012 at 10:15 PM

    If only SUCCESS were “formulaic…”. Well, MOST times, be honest, work hard, be punctual, follow through, keep your commitments, and, most of all: Be Nice! (Until, as the Fictional John Dalton advised in “Road House”, it’s time not to be nice anymore). Not ALWAYS guaranteed, but the odds are in your favor.
    As for looking at higgling details of “obedience”, we LDS can take it to extremes. I recall in “Arid-Zona”, where it can get a tad warm at times, a sister went practically into a fit when she saw a missionary take a drink from the water fountain on a Fast Sunday (never mind that he and his comp biked there in 105° F !). Some would think that “Gawd” would punish said Elders in their missionary efforts because some kid slakes his hard-earned thirst. The Heavenly Father that would give us His Son to atone for our sins wouldn’t play games like that. He’d accept the “broken heart and contrite spirit” and leave it at that.

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