Lasting Contribution: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: August 22nd, 2011 by bobmorris

Lasting Contribution: How to Think, Plan, and Act to Accomplish Meaningful Work
Tad Waddington
Agate B2 (2007)

Frankly, I did not know what to expect as I began to read this book but soon realized that, accompanied by Tad Waddington, I had embarked on a journey of discovery to learn the answer to a very important question: How can I make a contribution that lasts? Waddington asserts that “lasting contributions are caused. Simply put, you cause a lasting contribution to happen. The problem is that the way people usually think about causality does not serve them well when it comes to thinking about taking action.” Waddington notes that some 2,300 years ago, Aristotle argued that it is useful to think in terms of four causes: material (i.e. of what a thing is made), efficient (i.e. how something is made), formal (i.e. what a thing is), and final (i.e. why a thing is). “This book was written to help you not in the way a hammer helps you to build a house, but in the way a blueprint does. It prepares you for action.”

Waddington devotes a separate chapter to each of the four causes, explaining its nature and functions, citing examples of it in all manner of situations, and suggesting its relevance to human experiences shared by most of those who read his book. The “blueprint” metaphor is especially appropriate because each person who embarks on the aforementioned journey of discovery is, in effect, preparing to serve as architect of his or her own life. Here is a selection of brief excerpts that provide at least some indication of this book’s scope and flavor:

“The efficient cause is concerned with taking action to get results, particularly in a complex and dynamic world such as ours…Effective action in a complex world requires considered action – knowing when and how to take action and when not to. But on what do you base your actions? The material cause addresses the issue of your most important resources.” (Page 18)

“The material cause involves the resources that you can use to bring about a lasting contribution…In many ways, the material cause is less concerned with your material assets than with how you cultivate yourself…Consequently, it is important to cultivate yourself so that you can seize the opportunities offered…Next, you need to make full use of your arête [i.e. your virtue or excellence in terms of perception, expertise, and mastery]. The formal cause is that way.” (Page 30)

“The formal cause is the DNA of action. It is the recipe for success, the rules of the game…the blueprint that tells you how to construct the causal chain from your values to your results. It is the road map that informs how to get from here to there. But where is there and why go? The why of action is addressed by the final cause.” (Page 44)

“The final cause embodies your values. It gives motive force, because it comes from what you value. The stronger the value, the greater the power of the final cause. The more clearly articulated the value, the better you can embody it through action…As the end (in the sense of goal), the final cause is, paradoxically, the beginning of how to make a lasting contribution. It motivates the entire process and raises your mundane actions to a higher level. But how can you be sure that the four causes are a sensible way to think about making a lasting contribution?” (Page 54)

Waddington addresses this last question in Chapters VI and VII, then shifts his attention to various empirical problems that are frequently encountered, and then to suggesting why making a lasting contribution to the world is a “worthy goal” and a “self-evident good.”

For me, some of the most valuable material is provided in the final chapter in which Waddington discusses six exemplary individuals. However their lasting contributions may differ in terms of nature and impact, all of them have the four causes working effectively together in combinations that (obviously) vary in terms of their respective values, objectives, and resources.

Norman Borlaug (awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970) is of special interest to me because of his efforts to triple wheat production in Mexico and achieve a 60% increase in wheat harvests in India and Pakistan. ” He then expanded his efforts to eliminate famine in Asia and Africa. According to Paddington, Borlaug’s lasting contribution was a “hardnosed pursuit of pragmatic results. His efficient cause was to work on his crops all day every day, year after year.”

Tad Waddington urges each reader to make a lasting contribution because it can teach the value of doubting (indeed challenging) conventional wisdom that insists such a contribution is impossible; also, because it will guide and inform ethical actions and give more meaning to one’s life. Most important of all, as Borlaug and others so convincingly demonstrate, such a contribution can have substantial and enduring impact on the lives of countless others.

Those who share my high regard for this book are urged to check out Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay, Self Reliance, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden,  James O’Toole’s Creating the Good Life: Applying Aristotle’s Wisdom to Find Meaning and Happiness. Also, Michael Ray’s The Highest Goal, David Whyte’s The Heart Aroused, Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now and his more recent A New Earth, Bill George’s Authentic Leadership and True North, John Whitehead’s A Life in Leadership, and The Leader’s Legacy co-authored by James Kouzes and Barry Posner.

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