Tyler Jarvis talks about decision-making strategies at devotional

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Tyler Jarvis, a mathematics professor offered advice for solving life’s difficult decisions at Tuesday’s university devotional.

Jarvis began his address by describing a common problem that he called the traveling salesman problem, in which a traveler must visit a variety of destinations on his or her route but doesn’t know which way will be the fastest.

Jarvis explained that with only a few destinations, it’s easy to map each possible route and determine which is faster. But as the number of destinations increases slightly, the number of possibilities increases dramatically. With 20 destinations, the number of possible routes grows to 2,432,902,008,176,640,000 — a number so large that Jarvis said it would be virtually impossible for a computer to calculate each route.

Jarvis then explained how this applies to real problems people encounter.

“The bad news is that in many real-life situations, we have a lot more destinations than just 20,” Jarvis said. “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.”

Jarvis then offered four steps to overcome this perfection paralysis.

The first step is to admit and accept imperfections.

In the traveling salesman problem, the best solution is the imperfect solution.

“If we really want a good answer in a reasonable amount of time, we must make a compromise,” Jarvis said. “We must make do with an approximation and admit some chance of error.”

Similarly, he suggested that people cannot solve life’s toughest challenges with perfectly calculated solutions. Instead, people have to make a guess about the best solutions and recognize that their solutions aren’t perfect.

“The realities of living in our limited, imperfect world mean that we have no choice but to make do with an approximation,” Jarvis said.

The second step in Jarvis’ solution is to work hard to get your best approximation.

Jarvis explained that although some problems, like the traveling salesman scenario, may only be solvable with an approximation, that approximation still requires effort.

“Hard work and deep thought are the only way,” Jarvis said. “As the Lord said to Oliver (Cowdery), you must ‘study it out.'”

Third, Jarvis suggested that people need to act on their best approximations.

To illustrate this step, Jarvis explained how he had avoided going to one of his graduate school professors for advice because the professor was known to harshly criticize his students. He saw another student meeting with the professor often and being criticized just as often, and Jarvis determined never to do the same.

“It took me several years after graduation to realize that I had wasted the opportunity of a lifetime — this other student wasn’t so crazy after all,” Jarvis said. “He got many hours of personal tutoring from one of the greatest mathematical minds, and I got through graduate school safely — without being criticized.”

Jarvis suggested that even though acting on imperfect approximations is scary, people cannot let fear of making mistakes prevent them from acting.

Jarvis’ final step is to do it all again.

He explained that repeating this process — admitting and accepting imperfection, working hard to get the best approximation and acting on that approximation — gives people the practice they need to get better.

“This same process, this iterative method will bring each of us closer and closer to perfection,” Jarvis said. “We will not actually reach that goal in this life, but we will be better than before.”

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