Mathematics professor Tyler Jarvis told students and faculty at Tuesday’s campus devotional to aim high and work towards improving rather than being paralyzed by fear of failure.
Jarvis explained the Traveling Salesman Problem, a mathematical problem so complex that it’s near impossible to find a solution. The challenge is to map the fastest way to visit several destinations and return home. With three destinations there are six possible routes. A more realistic 10 destinations has 3,628,800 possible routes. With 20 destinations, there are 2,432,902,008,176,640,000 combinations, far more than even powerful computers can handle.
“With all these problems, as long as we insist on getting a perfect answer—the one and only, very best route—we are utterly paralyzed by the size and complexity of the problem. You could say we are paralyzed by perfection,” said Jarvis. “But despite their complexity and size, we still need to solve these problems. So let me tell you how to become unparalyzed.”
The first step, he said, is to admit and accept imperfection.
“For many of these hard problems, like the Traveling Salesman, if we really want a good answer in a reasonable amount of time, we must make a compromise; we must make do with an approximation and admit some chance of error.
“Similarly, in our own lives, to avoid being paralyzed by perfection we must admit and accept imperfection. This requires honesty and humility. We can't try to cover up our ignorance or our mistakes. We must admit them and learn from them.”
Jarvis admitted that he knows only a few things perfectly: “among those that the Father and the Son live and love me and you, that the Book of Mormon is what it claims to be, and that this church is where the Lord wants me to be.
“I also know, with a perfect knowledge, that for now, on this earth, we are all imperfect, both in knowledge and in performance, but Christ's atonement can bring us to perfection, if we allow it to.”
Jarvis also told those listening that it is important not only to admit imperfections, but also to work hard to improve those imperfections. That's the second step.
“But this is not easy,” he said. “My former neighbor, Eliot Butler, said it well: To learn is hard work. It requires discipline. And there is much drudgery. When I hear someone say that learning is fun, I wonder if that person has never learned or if he has just never had fun. There are moments of excitement in learning: these seem usually to come after long periods of hard work, but not after all long periods of hard work.”
Jarvis added, “But, like it or not, it must be done. Hard work and deep thought are the only way.”
Thirdly, he said, "It is not enough just to find an approximate answer to our problems. We must also act on that approximate, imperfect answer. This is hard, because we know our answer is not perfect. That might scare you. It often scares me. But we cannot let our fear of imperfection, our fear of making a mistake, prevent us from acting on our best approximation.”
He spoke of his experience in graduate school. He took various classes from a famous math professor who he heard had berated a student for being lazy and stupid. “I determined that I would never give him cause to criticize me like that. I decided never to ask him for advice or help until I had exhausted every other means for solving a problem. The result was that he never criticized me, but I also never learned much from him.”
Jarvis then said, “The Lord is pretty clear that he wants something more from us than this. He has given us many talents and opportunities. He wants us to face our fears and do something good with all he has given us.”
He added, “The most miraculous proof of God's love for us is the atonement of Jesus Christ. The purpose of the atonement is precisely to allow us to recover from our many failures. He knows we will fail, despite our best efforts, and he has provided a way for us to be freed from our sins, to be healed, and to return to him.”
He encouraged students and staff to not aim low in fear of embarrassment or failure. “We will make errors along the way. Aim high anyway.”
Jarvis also spoke of the importance of repeating this learning process. “Iteration is a powerful tool in our lives as well. We repeat the three steps—accept, work, act—over and over again.
“This same process, this iterative method, will bring each of us closer and closer to perfection. We will not actually reach that goal in this life, but we will be better than before. We will get better and better.”
He concluded by saying, “Stop worrying about your failure to achieve perfection—perfection is not possible in this life. Instead embrace the light and healing power of Christ that comes in through our cracks and imperfections.”
To read the talk in its entirety, visit speeches.byu.edu. The devotional will also be rebroadcast on BYUtv. Check byutv.org for schedules, as well as on demand availability.
Writer: Stephanie Bahr