That’s all well and good in practice, but how does it work in theory?

It is not enough to know that a thing works: you should also understand how and why it works. The rules of the road, for example, exist to keep people safe, but it is acceptable to break the rules under certain circumstances, such as when the only way to avoid getting ?attened by an oncoming train is to run a red light. This is obvious, because drivers have a thorough understanding of the rules of the road and of the limits of the rules.

According to General Clausewitz, just like a good plan, theory is a guide to action. It accompanies you on the journey and helps to point the way. It helps to organize action. Creative-thinking expert Edward de Bono offered an example: “A two-finger typist with hundreds of hours of practice is still a two-finger typist. A few hours learning touch typing would have made a huge difference. It is the same with thinking.”

But how do you evaluate a theory? Philosopher of science Larry Laudan explained that a theory should be evaluated by both the number of empirical problems it solves and how well it fits with existing theories. The theories of evolution and creationism can both explain the empirical problem of why men have nipples. But there is a glaring difference in how the two explanations fit with other theories. Evolution’s explanation does not cause problems for the theory of evolution, because it fits seamlessly with other theories of biology and human development, which fit with theories of chemistry and physics, and so on. Human embryos start out as females; only after several weeks does the Y chromosome kick in. With creationism, however, you should wonder: since man is created in God’s image, why does God need nipples?

As you make progress toward a goal, it is not necessarily true that the next step will be similar to the previous steps. The last step can be unexpected. In the book In Pursuit of the PhD, William Bowen and Neil Rudenstine calculated that fewer than 65 percent of people who start PhD programs finish them. I think this result is partly because students don’t understand the formal cause of earning a PhD. The last step of the process is to contribute to knowledge, which is unlike the previous steps. Elementary school is like learning to ride a tricycle. High school is like learning to ride a bicycle. College is like learning to drive a car. A master’s degree is like learning to drive a race car. Students often think that the next step is more of the same, like learning to ?y an airplane. On the contrary, the PhD is like learning to design a new car. Instead of taking in more knowledge, you have to create knowledge. You have to discover (and then share with others) something that nobody has ever known before.

Bowen, W. and N. Rudenstine. 1992. In Pursuit of the PhD. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Clausewitz, C. 1968. On War. Translated by F. Maude. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.
deBono, E. January 25, 1997. “Away with the Gang of Three.” The Guardian. London.
Laudan, L. 1977. Progress and Its Problems: Toward a Theory of Scientific Growth. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Excerpted from Lasting Contribution: How to Think, Plan, and Act to Accomplish Meaningful Work by Tad Waddington. To find out more, go to

Author's Bio: 

Dr. Waddington is the author of Lasting Contribution: How to Think, Plan, and Act to Accomplish Meaningful Work, a book that has won seven prestigious awards.