A Law of Increasing Returns

Excerpts from an address
by Henry B. Eyring
given 28 March 1982
at Brigham Young University

I was riding in a car with a wise man a few years ago. We talked about some tragedies in lives of people we knew. Some had waited too long to do things, missing the chance to act. And some had waited not long enough. He said quietly, more to himself than to me, "Timing is everything."

Ecclesiastes said, with an elegance that goes beyond poetry to frame our problem:
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted.
And then later:
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away. (Ecclesiastes 3:1-2, 6)
Waiting for a harvest takes more judgment in life than it does in gardening. In your garden, you can tell if the seed sprouts.

And even an amateur can tell when the corn or carrots are ready. But I remember a story told to me long ago, far from here, by a sad voice. I remember it, not because it was unique but because I have heard the same story told, again and again, about waiting or failing to wait. The details vary, but not the feeling of drama.

She said it happened on a summer Saturday afternoon. She was tired. Tired of being single. Tired of trying to be a faithful Latter- day Saint. Not so much tired of being kind and virtuous as tired of nothing good seeming to come of it. She'd not had a date in months.

She saw no prospect of even becoming friends with, let alone marrying, a man who shared her faith and ideals. In frustration she found herself deciding something. She decided that afternoon, consciously, that years of good works and restraint had produced too little and promised no more. She said to herself almost aloud, "Oh, what's the use?"

The phone rang. It was a man's voice, a man she knew. He lived in the same apartment building. He'd asked her out before. She'd refused because she was sure he'd expect her to compromise standards she'd preserved at great effort. But, almost as if directed by a scriptwriter, he called at that instant.

She didn't say, "Yes." She said, "I'll think about it." She thought about it. He called again. And finally, she repeated to herself, "Oh, what's the use?" She went. She found she had been right about his intentions.

And in a choice about time and about waiting or not waiting, her life changed.

So she will never know what might have been ahead on the path she'd decided wasn't worth the price; she knew quickly the other one was uphill, and a hard climb.

All of us make decisions every day, almost every hour, about whether it's worth it to wait. The hardest ones are where the waiting includes working. Does it make sense to keep working, to keep sacrificing, when nothing seems to be coming from the effort?

There's a young man in the mission field who's made that choice in the last month. I heard his story, but there must have been thousands of such choices made last month. His companion would have made Job's critical friends seem like the Three Nephites. Just living and working with his companion required more contribution than the young missionary had dreamed he was going to have to make. The mission president authorized them to stay in their apartment because wind brought the effective temperature to 80 degrees below zero. So the young man had to decide, "Shall we go out? We've been tracting and it's produced nothing. For what it would cost us, what would we get? We haven't got a contact, so we'd just be hitting doors."

Well, they went. That's an odd investment decision, but they went. What they got was to meet one man, behind one of a hundred doors. In his letter about the man's baptism, my young friend said, "I've never been more happy in my life."


We're talking about an application of the law of the harvest. Common sense tells you there is such a law, and so did the Savior and so have the prophets. Remember how Paul said it:
Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.

For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting. (Galatians 6:7-8)
Here we're talking just about sowing to the Spirit. We're concerned with that long list of requirements and commandments you already know are essential along the way to eternal life.

We're going to try to understand one universal challenge: How to keep waiting and working when the harvest seems delayed.

The most important fact to note is that crops, even the spiritual ones, are not all of one kind. There are early maturing varieties and late varieties. Maybe you've noticed in seed catalogs that one variety of corn can be harvested in less, sometimes nearly half, the time it takes for another to be ready. You may not pay attention to that, but I do because I've lived in Rexburg, Idaho. It freezes there just before the Fourth of July, and sometimes just after.

Efforts, spiritual or practical, don't all bear fruit in the same length of time. You know that, but you may not have noticed something about your behavior that makes sense only if most of your experience is with early crops. Those are the ones where effort produces fast results. What happens after the early harvest? Would you expect an intelligent person to keep cultivating a field that had already produced its crop and been cleared? No, at least not in the hope of getting more harvest.

Now, one trouble with most of our struggles is that you can't see the seeds and the crops clearly. And you may not know as much about maturation time. So, you have to make this decision frequently: "Has this effort yielded about all it's going to, or shall I keep working and waiting?"

Most people usually assume they are working with early crops. Think of the last time you went home teaching or visiting teaching. Did you visit once, and late in the month—or not at all? Or did you reach out with extra contacts, extra love, and extra service? Think of the last Sunday School lesson you prepared. How many times did you rework it? Did you try another approach to the subject once you felt you had a workable plan? Did you read some additional chapters in the scriptures, beyond those assigned? How much time did you spend on that last lesson? Twenty minutes? An hour? A day? Several days?


The answers will vary, but not much. For most of you, the best bet is that you stopped early. Why? Because you understand something called the "law of diminishing returns." Most of you use it when you cut a lawn. You cut it in one direction, then may cut it in the other, to get it smoother. But not many of you would cut it a third time. Why? Because you'd say, "It isn't worth it. I've gotten about all the smoothness I'm going to get. And more than that, cutting it a third time will take nearly as much time as it did the first."

Most of us believe in the law of conservation of energy, particularly our own. We treat most of our effort like planting and harvesting an early crop. We expect early results with little more to come from keeping up the effort after the first rush of rewards.

That makes good sense for cutting lawns. And it makes good sense for many other things. In fact, it makes sense for so many that I think you may find it easy to say in your mind, "I pity some of those people who just seem like losers, always working and always waiting." Something going on in the world around you encourages, almost demands, that attitude.


Husbands, wives, parents, and even children are familiar with deciding, "Shall I keep giving when I'm getting so little?" Families may be the best place to find out how the world feels about working and waiting for late crops. Families require some of the toughest investment decisions of all. Statistics show clearly which way the decisions are going in this country.

In 1945, half the people in America thought four or more children was the ideal number for a family to have. By 1980, only 16 percent thought so. From 1960 to 1977, it's estimated that the number of unmarried people living together doubled, from half a million to a million. That's a million people who are unwilling even to start the investment process in a family.

Most of you know what investments—and patience—are required to maintain virtue, serve an effective mission, or build an eternal family. But perhaps many of you haven't given enough attention to how much the world is moving away from the idea of delaying gratification long enough to do those things.

Here's some grim arithmetic to let you see it. An economist named Henry Kaufmann has added up the wealth in America and subtracted all the debt. In 1964, that showed us about $400 million in the hole. By 1980, the hole had increased, or, since it's a hole, I should say sunk, to $3 trillion. Even if his figures overstate the problem, they make clear the direction we've chosen. That tells you something about how much more we're demanding to have our future now. One farmer heard those numbers and said, "Why, we've been eating our seed corn."

You shouldn't really be surprised to be living in an "I want it now" generation. A prophet, Peter, saw it long ago. He said,
There shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts, and saying, Where is the promise of his coming? for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation. (2 Peter 3:3-4)
You are believers, not scoffers. Yet the scoffers can be helpful, because they encourage you to get an answer to this question: "What am I willing to keep giving heart and soul for, when neither I nor the scoffers may see returns for a long, long time?" And when we decide there are potential rewards worth that commitment, you'll want answers to another question: "How can I keep myself working and waiting if the scoffers are loud and the delay long?"

There are spiritual crops that require months, years, and sometimes a lifetime of cultivation before the harvest. Among them are spiritual rewards you want most. That shouldn't surprise you. Common sense tells you that what matters most won't come easily. But there is another reason suggested in the scriptures. Remember this from the Book of Mormon?
And now, I, Moroni, . . . would show unto the world that faith is things which are hoped for and not seen; wherefore, dispute not because ye see not, for ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith. (Ether 12:6)
And from the Doctrine and Covenants:
Ye cannot behold with your natural eyes, for the present time, the design of your God concerning those things which shall come hereafter, and the glory which shall follow after much tribulation.

For after much tribulation come the blessings. Wherefore the day cometh that ye shall be crowned with much glory; the hour is not yet, but is nigh at hand. (D&C 58:3-4)

If you wanted to give this idea a name, you could call it "the law of increasing returns." Instead of first efforts yielding returns, with a steady decline, it's the reverse. First efforts, and even second efforts, seem to yield little. And then the rewards begin, perhaps much later, to grow and grow.

Most of us need encouragement to work and wait for rewards. But not everybody. I knew one man who lived his life pretty much as if everything he did was working on a late crop. He was my father. He died one Christmas after a life filled with getting rewards, from the National Medal of Science in this country to the Wolff Prize in Israel. But if you'd watched him in private, you would have seen some unusual behavior.

I remember him arm wrestling my Aunt Rose once. She was visiting us in New Jersey, and we'd driven to the ice cream store. You'll know how old I am when I say a cone cost a dime. Aunt Rose tried to pay for our cones. Dad wrestled her for it. I remember being afraid he'd break her arm. He was determined he'd give, not receive. And she was going to receive a broken arm if that's what it took. They laughed, but Dad won.

He won that fight all his life, giving more than he got. He taught every term in his years at the University of Utah, including summers. There was no extra pay. It wasn't even required as part of the job. I remember his trading a first-class ticket for tourist and sending the difference to the company that had provided the ticket. His life was to give first class but always take tourist. Why? I've got an idea. He believed in the law of increasing returns. Give more than you take; invest in the future; cast your bread upon the waters.

You might think he was extreme. He probably was. My guess is that he left more of everything of this world's goods than he consumed in a lifetime, despite all the awards heaped on him. I don't recommend that to you, partly because it might drive your spouse slightly bonkers. But there is a scripture about behavior like that. It's in Matthew 6:1-4:
Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in Heaven.

Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth:

That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.
I pray that you won't let the world nudge you toward spending your futures now. There are some things you should work for and expect results now. But along with getting early harvests, I hope you'll work for the late ones. That will take seeing the law of increasing returns as an opportunity, not just a test. Delayed blessings will build your faith in God to work, and wait, for him. The scriptures aren't demeaning when they command, "Wait upon the Lord" (Psalm 37:9; Isaiah 8:17; 40:31). That means both service and patience. And that will build your faith.

(edited by David Van Alstyne)
Home / For Latter-day Saints