Purity of Thought

Russian Mathematician Grisha Perelman was awarded the Fields Medal in 2006 for completing Richard Hamilton’s program (Ricci flow-Poincaré Conjecture) in 2002-2003. Poincare posed his conjecture in 1904.[1] Science named it the breakthrough of the year, but that was a sort of miraculous understatement, even though it was the first time a mathematical proof received that title. For the Poincaré proof, Perelman was also awarded the first Clay Millennium Prize (one million dollars) in March 2010. Perelman did not publish his results in the usual sense. He posted the proofs online.[2]

Perelman is a purist in a number of ways. He eschewed the established way to communicate research – through refereed journal articles. And perhaps more extraordinarily, he rejected both the Fields Medal (essentially the Nobel Prize in mathematics) and the Millennium Prize. A collaborator and friend Mikhail Gromov:

[I understand] Perelman’s logic: “To do great work, you have to have a pure mind. You can think only about the mathematics. Everything else is human weakness. Accepting prizes is showing weakness.” Others might view Perelman’s refusal to accept a Fields as arrogant, Gromov said, but his principles are admirable. “The ideal scientist does science and cares about nothing else,” he said. “He wants to live this ideal. Now, I don’t think he really lives on this ideal plane. But he wants to.”[3]

Admittedly, Perelman seems a little extreme. But does “balance” equal mediocrity?

Our society generally admires those who can multitask, if not brilliantly, at least competently.[4] We even assign titles to people who fail spectacularly (congressman) and to those who seem to succeed in spades (super mom?). “Bringing your work home” is a practice which is panned everywhere it seems, especially in Church videos (though it’s the focused overachiever who ends up on the news).[5] However, successful grad students do it all the time, if not literally, then mentally. Scholars dream about their work. But at BYU for instance, we don’t want faculty who achieve tooooo much. And so we don’t have many who really do. They go home and have family night.[6]

In the Church we make priority lists. What’s more important? 1. Family. 2. Job. 3. Church. 4. Whatever. Obsession be da*ned (*does* it damn you?). [2. and 3. got inverted a while back.]

I’ve got an obsession or two. Everything else seems to squeeze through the cracks between them. (Even Perelman plays table tennis.) Where do we draw the line? Is a pure mind necessary for *great* work? (In the link, 1:43+ esp.) The answer is yes, I think.

I once heard Neal Maxwell say “the Church priority list” applies only to non-GAs.

J. Reuben Clark came home from work, ate dinner, went up to the office and worked until bedtime.[7] The kids came into the office to say goodnight. For the rest of us, maybe it’s case by case? Quality not quantity used to be the overachiever’s mantra. Now quantity is back in vogue.

Polygamy anyone?

[1] Poincaré’s conjecture: The most famous problem in topology. Any closed 3-D manifold in which any embedded loop can be contracted to a point is equivalent (in a technical sense) to a 3-D sphere. The problem can be stated in higher dimensions, but is easier to solve in the affirmative there. [3-D = three dimensional.]

[2] A few people do this now. I do it, but not because I’m in Perelman’s class. Just because I have reservations about the process. But my resolve is fading mostly because the university doesn’t like it.

[3] The quote is from an August 20, 2006 article in The Telegraph by Nadejda Lobastova and Michael Hirst.

[4] When the fragments of P. Joseph Smith were returned to the Church in 1967, many members anticipated that President McKay, not Hugh Nibley would be having a look, maybe through an antique seer stone. You know, Joseph Smith and all. And the recent recession has (politically) hammered the POTUS, the Federal Reserve, the congress and just about every other institution in sight mainly because they weren’t savvy or plugged in enough to see it coming. I get this same kind of thing when the toilet leaks or the fridge breaks down.

[5] The negative side of focus seems to always play out in Church devotional materials (dad’s never really there and the kids go bad, nearly, until dad comes to his senses). But it would be hard to find a more focused person than Joseph Smith. (See happenings of March – April 1832.)

[6] I was going to say “any” but that seemed too inflammatory. I’m not claiming the goal is bad. But I wonder if it isn’t paradoxical in some Mormon ways. Merrill Bateman to me: “We don’t want Nobel Laureates here.” But we (I include myself) sure don’t mind the idea of a national championship.

[7] First Presidency member 1933-1959. See D. Michael Quinn’s bio.


  1. My wife and I decided that it was time for me to scale back at work, take less money, and be with the kids more. I took a job with a less demanding schedule, we moved to a less expensive city, I come home almost every night at six, and now I make barely six figures instead of mid six figures. She underestimated how happy money makes her and overestimated how happy my increased presence makes her. Too bad the kind of career change I made only works in one direction. LDS career monomania FAIL.

  2. What a great post. This topic has been discussed in the bloggernacle before, especially in regards to the arts. This debate is only relevant in cultures that value individual achievement above the collective welfare. For example, an individual who receives a Nobel or Pulitzer or Oscar is admired in America, even if that individual is a serial adulterer who abandons his/her children. Some cultures – and I posit that this includes Mormon culture – look down on those who sacrifice the collective welfare for individual achievement. In other words, being “the best” is a Pyrrhic victory.

  3. Anon – wow. As the wife of a school teacher, I can’t think of a job that makes (barely) six figures and still gets home at six pm! When my husband was a high school choir teacher, he worked up to 20 hours a day, and we were thrilled when he got a raise in salary to $30,000! Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m still a little bit bitter.

    But back to the topic – IMHO, your wife is caught between two value systems. Does she want the benefits of a spouse who is pitting his efforts into being the best at work? Or does she want the perks of a husband who values the collective, his family. She can’t have both, and each involves sacrificing something. Speaking from personal experience, this kind of situation shows immaturity. I’ve had the same kind of internal temper tantrums: I want it all! I want all the nice stuff! And a husband who spends twenty hours a week helping and adoring me! And fun, well-behaved kids! And time to myself! Why can’t I have it all?!? I deserve it, I’ve been good, I’ve followed God’s commandments, etc., etc.

    Whew! That was exhausting to remember! All I can say is, God bless my poor husband for going through all that with me.

    But back to the original post – I think Perelman would agree with me. We can’t succeed at anything if we are pursuing the benefits of conflicting value systems.

  4. I once heard Neal Maxwell say “the Church priority list” applies only to non-GAs.

    Does anyone have a source for this? I am interested to read the exact quote.

  5. I think that you bring some fresh perspective to this topic, WVS. I think our most beloved and prolific figures in Church history – Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, the brothers Pratt, Talmage, Clark, etc. – were not exactly “family men.” The early Relief Society Presidents also were very focused. If everyone is balanced, I think, you are right that extremes in production aren’t available (except for the inhuman that only require a few hours of sleep).

  6. Yeah, Perelman is in interesting guy. (Although I think Paul Erdős has him beat.)

    I think you have to be an exceptionally talented person to be successful and as “purist” as these men. Society wouldn’t put up with people like this very easily if they didn’t happen to be geniuses.

  7. Stephanie, it was said in a small group. Not written down as far as I know. And possibly it never would be.

  8. WVS, do you know any other details that you could share?

  9. I now know what ADD feels like.

  10. Matthew Chapman says:

    “Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8)

    Does it take as much single-mindedness to be pure in heart as to be pure in mind?

    Or is that single-heartedness?

    (respecting General Authorities and the Priority List, job=church so things can get a little confused, I’m sure)

  11. Stephanie, I was there. It was at a stake conference between meetings discussion. I think it had something to do with the conference theme as I recall. The question that was being discussed at the moment was someone’s wayward children. I believe I also heard it somewhere else (source was another GA), but can’t place it now.

  12. I learned early on in my life as a husband that what would have been ideal for ME was not ideal for my family – and following that path has brought conditions multiple times that were not ideal in and of themselves.

    I don’t think that automatically should be the default ideal for all (in or out of the Church), since I do believe there are people whose calling in life includes shining incandescently in some way, but I have had to accept that my decisions put me in a position to have to sacrifice some things for the family those decisions gave me – and I wouldn’t change that in my own life for anything.

    “Pure” balance does require mediocrity in some areas and inhibit extraordinary achievement in one focused area, which is why BYU (hopefully) will never win another football championship – but I’ve come to believe that pure balance isn’t a good thing, either. I would much rather be well-lopsided than well-rounded, to borrow a phrase I heard in the admissions office when I was in college. I might not be everything I could have been in ALL areas, but I still can be proportionately closer to my best in at least one area that means the most to me outside my family. Ironically, the balance I have chosen that works for me also probably limits what I will be able to do in the Church – and I’m totally fine with that.

    I also believe that each and every one of has to strike whatever balance is appropriate for our own lives – and we need to stop judging others who strike a different balance than ours.

  13. I tried finding the priority list reference (Family, job, church, self) for an EQ lesson a while back. Couldn’t find it, and when I brought up the list, a more devout member of the EQ disagreed with it. Anyone know the source of that priority list?

  14. I can’t tell you where I heard it last. I remember having a discussion about it with a friend about 5 or 6 years ago. He had just heard it from L. Tom Perry in some forum, but I can’t recall where. An lds.org search didn’t lead anywhere for me, but I didn’t spend much time with it.

  15. WVS, what you say about BYU is really horrifying. What happened to “Harvard of the West”? Once upon a time (25 years ago) BYU seemed well on its way to becoming an elite university, there was actually momentum. Now that’s sadly faded away and I don’t see how LDS culture is not poorer for it, especially as it attempts – attempts! – to negotiate an ever more complex world.

  16. I had the list presented in a stake conference priesthood leadership meeting in 2005 by the West Europe Area President, whose name I don’t recall. He was quoting Hinckley from another priesthood training meeting of some kind.

    As far as purity goes, do the ends justify the means? Do we praise purity of mind when the person is wrong or never succeeds? For every Perelman, how many Duke Fightmasters are there, or people who destroy their lives for nonsense? As for me and my house, we’ll take pragmatic mediocrity.

    Oh, and very quickly:

    now I make barely six figures instead of mid six figures


  17. This is something I’ve been thinking about frequently of late—that Mormons are really good at doing the teen thing, but we seem less good doing the adult thing. At first I thought my impression on this might be based on superficial things–no wine, things like that. But I do think there is something missing in our mainstream culture when it comes to appreciating the full range of excellence achievable in adulthood. So much of our resources go back into doing the teen thing over again for the next generation.

  18. Francisco Guzman says:

    Here’s President Hinckley’s quote:

    “Each of us has a fourfold responsibility. First, we have a responsibility to our families. Second, we have a responsibility to our employers. Third, we have a responsibility to the Lord’s work. Fourth, we have a responsibility to ourselves.

    “First, it is imperative that you not neglect your families. Nothing you have is more precious. Your wives and your children are deserving of the attention of their husbands and fathers. When all is said and done, it is this family relationship which we will take with us into the life beyond. To paraphrase the words of scripture, ‘What shall it profit a man though he serve the Church faithfully and lose his own family?’ (see Mark 8:36).

    “Together with them, determine how much time you will spend with them and when. And then stick to it. Try not to let anything interfere. Consider it sacred. Consider it binding. Consider it an earned time of enjoyment.

    “Keep Monday night sacred for family home evening. Have an evening alone with your wife. Arrange some vacation time with the entire family.

    “Two, to your business or your employer. You have an obligation. Be honest with your employer. Do not do Church work on his time. Be loyal to him. He compensates you and expects results from you. You need employment to care for your family. Without it you cannot be an effective Church worker.

    “Three, to the Lord and His work. Budget your time to take care of your Church responsibilities. Recognize first that every officer has many helpers, as we have been reminded today. The stake president has two able counselors. The presidency has a high council of dedicated and able men. They have clerks as they need them. Every bishop has counselors. They are there to lift the burdens of his office from his shoulders. He has a ward council, together with others to whom he may and must delegate responsibility. He has the members of his ward, and the more he can delegate to them, the lighter will be his burden and the stronger will grow their faith.

    “Every priesthood quorum president has counselors, as well as the membership of the quorum. It is so with the Relief Society. No bishop can expect to fill the shoes of his Relief Society president in ministering to the needs of the members of this ward.

    “Four, every Church leader has an obligation to himself. He must get needed rest and exercise. He needs a little recreation. He must have time to study. Every Church officer needs to read the scriptures. He needs time to ponder and meditate and think by himself. Wherever possible he needs to go with his wife to the temple as opportunity permits” (“Rejoicing in the Privilege to Serve,” Worldwide Leadership Training Meeting, June 2003, 22–23).

  19. Thanks, Francisco.

  20. Stephanie says:

    This is something I’ve been thinking about frequently of late—that Mormons are really good at doing the teen thing, but we seem less good doing the adult thing.

    This is an interesting thought. I think you are right.

  21. I don’t know if it’s that we’re less good at doing the adult thing or just that we define the adult thing radically differently than many. I don’t want to do the adult thing the way that so many around me do it.

    For example: My wife works at a nursing home, and she was scheduled to work on Christmas (12 hours, originally), New Year’s Eve (8 hours) and New Year’s Day (today – 12 hours) – largely because she’s one of the few on whom the schedulers can count to show up on those days completely sober.

    We have a lot of adult friends who do the teen thing really well still – and we have housed temporarily some of our kids’ friends for varying lengths of time (and had MANY others spend more time in our house than in their own) while their parents try to figure out how to do the adult thing properly.

  22. My husband is a scientist who cannot be described as mediocre. Certainly not in Perelman’s ultra-elite category, but he has served in national leadership for two professional organizations, been interviewed on NPR’s Science Friday, won some awards.

    I cannot stress enough the importance of Ray’s #12 about not judging. The balancing act has been much tougher for our family because of the disparagement of church members and skepticism of his professional colleagues. We don’t “fit in” in either place.

    What the people at church don’t see is that, for example, while my husband does have to travel a lot for work, we often go with him. From the time our kids are about 6, they are trained in fieldwork techniques. So we might spend a spring break collecting data together, or travel to a conference, including some wonderful locales such as resorts in California and Florida, the Omni Shoreham in DC, etc. It is not uncommon for us to spend a month of each year away from our physical home but together as a family. Not to mention the longer-term sabbaticals. (One of our older children is a diplomat, serving in a country where she first lived because of my husband’s research.)

    I had some boring and horrible jobs when I was younger, which made me totally supportive of my husband doing work that he loves.

    I’m sure a lot of grad students want more details about how he does it, but I am not sure there is any big secret. He decided that he would accept callings while in grad school, and served in demanding positions in elder’s quorum and then as scout master of a huge troop. He is extremely focussed; when he is working on one aspect of his life, the rest simply doesn’t exist. Prior to PDA’s, we had a hard time getting him to leave the lab and come home for supper. He just didn’t feel hunger or have a sense of time passing. Now he uses a series of three alarms to get him to disengage and get home in time.

    He is home for family night, and then goes back to the lab.

    It works for us, and I trust others find their own balance.

  23. He just didn’t feel hunger or have a sense of time passing.

    I know the syndrome.

  24. Stephanie says:

    I’ve been thinking about President Hinckley’s order of priorities. It’s not a list of which people are your priorities. That would likely look something more like 1. God 2. Family 3. Self. It seems more like a “List of What Not to Neglect”. 1. Don’t sacrifice your family for anything. Your calling or job is not worth it. 2. Don’t sacrifice your job for your calling. You might need to sacrifice your job for your family, but your family is your #1. 3. Don’t sacrifice your calling for yourself. Callings are important (not more important than your family or your job, which you need to take care of your family), so don’t turn down callings to pursue your own interests. 4. Even though your own interests are not as important as your family, job or calling, make sure you make some time for them.

    Understanding it that way makes sense to me. It also would explain why Elder Maxwell said that the list doesn’t apply to GAs. Their list would likely go 1. Family 2. Church. I really don’t think the expectation is for anyone to put church above their family. Then again, I remember a quote once from Sister Monson (or Sister Hinckley) that said something like, “I always knew when I married President [] that I would be second to his church service”. I wish I could find it because it made me so sad. Has anyone else read it?

    I said something similar before getting married. I said that I wanted to marry someone who loved God more than me. I don’t think that is the same as someone prioritizing church above family. Maybe that is what Sister [] was getting at.

    I have to admit, too, though, that as a mother who grew up with the expectation that I sacrifice all of myself to my family, I am not sure how I feel about self being #4 on the priority list. I’ve spent 10 years not exercising, sleeping, reading scriptures, doing any recreation, etc. because my family (and church) responsibilities have taken up all my time. It led to health problems which led to depression which led to marital strain. Now that I’ve finally decided that I am important enough to warrant a little attention, life is so much more enjoyable for me AND my family. I really liked Elder Ballard’s talk in 2008 to young mothers saying to take care of yourselves. It would sound “bad” to say make yourself your #1 priority, but at the same time, it’s in the best interest of the family, too.

    I guess my main point of this rambling comment is that I think there is more nuance in this idea of priorities. President Hinckley was prioritizing responsibilities, not necessarily “What’s more important?”

  25. Wow, Stephanie. You hit the nail on the head.
    I really don’t like the whole “loose yourself” idea taken to any type of extreme either. Those nightmares are not worth revisiting…

  26. Stephanie @24 agree.
    The culture in which we live affects our lives whether it’s our choice or the government, employer or church, or our stage in life.

    A son in (a scientist) moved his family to Germany (from Australia) because of his work. Working conditions were very family friendly. 10 weeks annual leave, must not be in office after 5.00pm unless exception circumstance, cycled 10 minutes to work, lived in small village.
    But church was 40 min. drive away, small, and youth programme not good. No restriction on how they lived and understood life. Very liberal society and very little influence from church.

    His next contract was in California. 2 Weeks annual leave, expected to work whatever hours reqd, rarely home by 6pm. Commutes an hour each way to work. Church program is very close, very complete – especially for youth, but they have had enough after 3 years of the conservative culture that comes as part of the church. Moving on to a place where the culture is more comfortable for them – somewhere between Germany and USA as far as church and other culture.

    You have a better chance of finding harmony, peace etc in you life if you can get rid of the kids (nicely of course). I was sufficiently successful that I could retire in comfort at 55 and had visions of an idilic life with my wife traveling and just being together at home. We ve just had a discussion that she reserve one day a week for me from her schedule.
    And holidays have to be planned in advance to fit her schedule.
    Keep struggling for the ballance.

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