A traveler meets two bricklayers and asks each what he’s doing. The first mutters, “Working for a buck.” The second proclaims, “Building a school that will educate children for generations.” Both bricklayers are doing the same work, but the work of the second is imbued with more meaning, because it embodies a greater value. It thus gives greater motive force. This embodying a value through action is how people raise their mundane actions to a higher level.

There are two ways to do this: from the outside in and from the inside out. With the outside-in, you observe a problem in the world and seek to solve it. Noah Webster published his dictionary as a way to create a common language that would unify the people of the early United States. The inside-out approach starts with some form of what the Greeks called arête, meaning virtue or excellence. The more arête you have to work with, the more you can achieve. The inside-out approach to action seeks to apply arête to the world. A musician can’t get a tune out of her head. An engineer creates a nifty device. A teacher loves being around kids.

Whether from the inside out or from the outside in, the value is the why of the action. It is future-oriented. Business strategist Peter Senge said, “In every instance where one finds a long-term view actually operating in human affairs, there is a long-term vision at work. The cathedral builders of the Middle Ages labored a lifetime with the fruits of their labors still a hundred years in the future.”

Your values are your animating force, because, according to the poet Muriel Rukeyser, “The universe is made of stories, not atoms.” In other words, in the realm you care about — the human realm — the nature of the world matters less than the stories you tell yourself about the nature of the world. For example, you wash your baby not just so you have a clean baby; it is another way to show that you love your child. Your values should stoke the fires of your soul and provoke your passions.

Much is said about ancient Greek civilization and how its philosophy gave the West a boost through the ages. While this may be true, there was, I think, also something else going on. The ancient Greeks had skin in the game: they personally, viscerally, gave a damn. Intangible events were not mere abstractions. Discord didn’t just happen: it was the goddess Eris causing trouble. And watch out for her brat, Strife. You didn’t become wise with age: wisdom was a gift from Metis. You did not merely have second thoughts: Athena grabbed you by the hair and forced you to reconsider. For the ancient Greeks, it was personal. As for me, I do not merely exercise: I battle Sloth. I do not weed dandelions: I lead a safari. I don’t struggle with self-doubt: I fight a fire-breathing, lion-headed, serpent-tailed chimera. My vorpal blade sings, “I think I can, I think I can.” I don’t just wish to be creative: I want to bed a muse, and not just any muse; I want Polymatheia! (Editor's note: Fat chance.)

To be clear, I am suggesting a conscious mythologizing of the causal process, an exaggerating of intentions. I do so give you the avatar’s advantage.

An avatar, from the Sanskrit avatara, is the incarnation of a deity in human form. An incarnation, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is the fact of being “made flesh.” In the Bible, John 1:1 says, “In the beginning was the Word. . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. . . .” The final cause entails embodying the goal of the thing you seek to cause. You manifest its essence. You become your goal’s avatar. How?

Ideas enter the world as hatchlings. They cannot live without care and feeding. They feed on sacrifice and action. You give life to them through your efforts. Referring to this process, Confucius reflected that “It is not the Dao that makes people great; it is people who make the Dao great.” Socrates died for Law. Millions have bled for Freedom. Artists have toiled for Beauty. Thousands of scientists have labored for Truth; millions of teachers, for Education. “Martyrs create faith,” held philosopher Miguel de Unamuno; “faith does not create martyrs.”
And yet Confucius and Unamuno are only half right. To understand why they are only half right, to demystify what I mean by the avatar’s advantage, and to show how your actions can take on a life of their own, I draw on the research of sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann. They explained that people often engage in a three-step process: people externalize, objectify, and internalize.

1. Externalize: in an effort to improve the sturdiness of buildings, somebody put forward the clever idea that instead of just piling up mud and straw, we could bake clay into handy blocks and them stick them together.

2. Objectify: the idea becomes solid objects, bricks and mortar.

3. Internalize: once the brick and mortar has been around a while, it can impose its logic on people such that they always think of building structures using them and no other way even occurs to them.

This process works with things more abstract than plows. Once, the concept of socialism was just words on paper (externalization). Then it became a form of government that imposed its logic on millions (objec¬tification), some of whom could not think outside the bounds set by it (internalization). The 2001 Tour de France provides another example. Lance Armstrong and his closest rival, Jan Ullrich, were riding shoulder-to-shoulder. In such a tightly contested race, I expected these ferocious competitors to take advantage of every opportunity to win. Then Ullrich crashed. Armstrong pulled over and waited for Ullrich to get back in the race. When asked about this, Armstrong said that he couldn’t imagine taking advantage of the situation: the etiquette of the sport demanded that he wait. Later Ullrich, in the lead, reached back to shake Armstrong’s hand. On the one hand, Sportsmanship inspired their actions. On the other hand, their actions gave added life to Sportsmanship itself.

In short, the avatar’s advantage involves creating an effect that takes on a life of its own, an effect that em¬bodies the spirit of your values. We give ourselves to an idea and it returns the favor. This is how ideas take wing. The dangerous part is that this process can work for good or ill. It becomes a vi¬cious circle if you are empowering the wrong idea, such as slavery. It becomes a benevolent circle if you are em¬powering the right idea, such as human rights.

Berger, P. and T. Luckmann. 1980. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. New York: Irvington Publishers.
Confucius. 2000. Confucius. Translated by D. C. Lau. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press.
Oxford University Press. 1999. The Oxford English dictionary on CD-ROM. New York: Oxford University Press.
Senge, P. 1990. The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. New York: Doubleday/Currency.
Searle, J. 1983. Intentionality: An Essay in the Philosophy of Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Searle, J. 1995. The Construction of Social Reality. New York: Free Press.

Excerpted from Lasting Contribution: How to Think, Plan, and Act to Accomplish Meaningful Work.

Author's Bio: 

Tad Waddington says he achieved literacy while getting his MA from the University of Chicago’s Divinity School where he focused on the history of Chinese religions. He achieved numeracy while getting his PhD from the University of Chicago in measurement, evaluation and statistical analysis and as a research director for the Gallup Organization. He achieved efficacy as Director of Performance Measurement for Accenture. As for achieving a legacy, well, that is a work in progress, but his book, Lasting Contribution: How to Think, Plan, and Act to Accomplish Meaningful Work, has won six prestigious awards so he’s off to a good start.