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?