A Law of Increasing Returns

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

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

Waiting for a harvest takes more judgment in the art of living 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, by a sad voice. I have heard the same story told, again and again, about waiting or failing to wait. The details vary, but not the drama.

She said it happened on a Saturday afternoon, one summer. 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 feeling nothing good come from 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 making a decision. 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 learned she had been right about his intentions.

And in a simple choice 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; but she found quickly that the the one she chose was uphill, and a hard climb.

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

We're talking here about an application of the law of the harvest. Common sense tells you there is such a law. And here, we're talking about sowing spiritual seeds, that long list of essentials as we wind our way to eternal life.

Let us 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.

In the nature of things, our efforts, whether spiritual or practical, don't all take the same length of time to bear fruit. Consider what happens after our work produces an early harvest? Would we be expected to keep working for a harvest after our crops have already been harvested?

Now, one trouble with most of our struggles is that we can't see the seeds and the crops clearly. And we might not know much about differing maturation times. So, in real life, we are continually making this decision: "Has this particular effort yielded about all it's going to, or shall I keep working and waiting for more?"

We most naturally tend to assume we're working with early crops. Think of the last time you did your home or visiting teaching. Did you visit once, and late in the month - or not at all? Or did you reach out with extra love, and extra service? Think of the last Sunday School lesson you prepared. How many times did you rework it? 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 us, the best bet is that we stopped early. Why? Because we understand the "law of diminishing returns." Most of us use it when we cut a lawn. We cut it in one direction, then maybe cut it in the other, to get it smoother. But not many of us would cut it a third time. Why? Because it wouldn't be worth it after the first two cuts.

Most of us believe in the "law of conservation of energy," especially our own. We exert most of our efforts as if we were planting and harvesting an early crop. We expect early results, and after the first rush of rewards, we don't expect that more work will produce more results.

That makes good sense for cutting lawns and for many other things. In fact, it makes such good sense for so many of us that it's easy for us to slip into feeling pity for others who seem to be always working and always waiting. And the world around us seems to encourage, and almost demand, that attitude.


Husbands, wives, parents, and even children are familiar with deciding, "Shall I keep giving out when so little is coming back in?" Families may be the best reflection of the world's attitude toward working and waiting for late crops. Families require some of the toughest investment decisions anywhere. Statistics show a clear pattern of where we are headed.

In 1945, half of Americans thought four or more children was the ideal number for a family. 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 was a million people who were unwilling to even start the investment process in a family.

Most of you know what investments - and patience - are needed to maintain virtue, serve an effective mission, or build an eternal family. But the world seems to be in a mad rush to abandon the idea of delaying gratification long enough to do those things.

We're demanding to have our future now. One farmer said, "We're eating our seed corn."

It's no surprise that we are living in what could be called an "I want it now" generation. The world is full of scoffers. But you are believers, not scoffers. Yet the scoffers can be helpful, because they encourage you to get an answer to this first question: "What am I willing to keep giving my heart and soul for, when neither I nor the scoffers might see returns for a very long time?" And when we decide there really are potential rewards fully worth that commitment, you'll want answers to this next question: "How can I keep myself working and waiting if the scoffers are loud, and the delay is long?"

Some spiritual crops require months, years, and sometimes a lifetime of cultivation before the harvest. Among these are the spiritual rewards you want most. That shouldn't be surprising. Common sense tells us that what matters most won't come easily. Remember this 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 our first efforts yielding good returns, but with a steady decline, our early efforts may seem to yield little. But then, and even perhaps much later, the rewards begin 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 for producing 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 had watched him in private, you would have seen some unusual behavior.

He was always giving more than he received. For example, he taught every term in his years at the University of Utah, including summers. There was no extra pay for that. It wasn't even in his job description. I remember once he was going to fly out to some university to speak. They sent him a first-class airline ticket. He traded that for a tourist ticket and sent the difference back to the university. His life was about always giving first class but always taking tourist. Why? I think I know. 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 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 [and I, DVA, paraphrase lightly]:
Take heed to do your alms not before men to be seen of them: otherwise you have no reward of your Father in Heaven.

Therefore when you do your alms, do not broadcast it as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have the glory of men. Verily I say to you, They have their reward.

But when you do your alms, do them in secret: and your Father, who sees them in secret, will reward you openly, himself.
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. This will require you to see the law of increasing returns as an opportunity, not just a trial. Delayed blessings will build your faith in God as you work, and wait, for him.

The scriptures are in no way demeaning when they command, "Wait upon the Lord" (Psalm 37:9; Isaiah 8:17; 40:31). That means both with service and with patience. And that will build your faith. And yield unto you the riches of Heaven.

(edited by David Van Alstyne)
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