How to Identify Your Final Cause and Become the Hero of Your Own Great Myth

How to Identify Your Final Cause and Become the Hero of Your Own Great Myth

A traveler meets three bricklayers and asks each what he’s doing. The first mutters, “Working for a buck.” The second states, “Making a wall.” The third proclaims, “Building a school that will educate children for generations.” Each bricklayer is doing the same work, yet the work of the third — the bricklayer working for the future — is imbued with more meaning than the work of the other two. I like to call this a final cause.

In my book, Lasting Contribution: How to Think, Plan and Act to Accomplish Meaningful Work (Agate, 2007), I suggest that you can make a contribution to the world by working or by making something happen but that you are much more likely to succeed if you think and act in terms of four different types of causes:

  • Material Cause: your resources, the stuff you use in your actions (bricks and mortar)
  • Efficient Cause: your actions, how you interact with the world (slathering on mortar and setting the bricks)
  • Formal Cause: the essence, idea, or plan of a thing (the architect’s blueprint for the school)
  • Final Cause: why a thing is, the sake for which a thing is done, your goal (educating kids)

There is an underlying spirit to your actions, and that spirit captures the essence of the final cause. The final cause of washing your baby isn’t just a clean baby; it is another way to show your love for your child.

The final cause embodies your values and because of this, it gives you motive force. The stronger the value, the greater the motive force of the final cause. The more clearly articulated the value, the better you can embody it through action. A strong and well-articulated final cause will motivate your entire process and raise your mundane actions to a higher level.

Inside-Out and Outside-In

There are two ways to view a final cause: from the outside-in and from the inside-out. Let’s start with outside-in, which is observing a problem in the world, then seeking to solve it. Noah Webster, for example, saw that the people of the early United States used very particular and idiosyncratic English grammar and vocabulary. By publishing a dictionary, he sought to create a common language that would unify the citizenry.

The inside-out approach, on the other hand, 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 seeks to apply arête to the world, like a musician who can’t get a tune out of her head, an engineer who creates a nifty device, or a teacher who loves being around kids.

Being aware that your final cause helps you to make a lasting contribution because it focuses your attention in the right places; the why to which you think and work is at least as important as how you think and work.

The Why Is the Story

Whether from the inside-out or from the outside-in, the final cause is the essentially the why of the action. Business strategist Peter Senge states, “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.”

The final cause also can be an animating force, because it provides a continuum and a horizon. As poet Muriel Rukeyser says, “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. Your final cause should stoke the fires of your soul and provoke your passions.
I like to think about ancient Greek civilization. While most people will agree that Greek philosophy gave the West a boost through the ages, I think there was also something else going on. The ancient Greeks had “skin in the game”: they personally, viscerally, gave a damn, and intangible events were not mere random 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 seduce a muse — and not just any muse. It must be Polymatheia!

Another advantage of mythologizing your actions and of giving them a heroic quality can be seen in the work of the religion scholar Mircea Eliade. He observed that for people to have meaningful lives, they must put their lives into a narrative, a story, a myth. For example, because I love my family, I want to make sure they have enough food to eat and a place to live, so I, alas, must work for a living, which involves my driving to work. This means that I have to keep my car maintained, which means that I have to call for an appointment with the service department. The receptionist puts me on hold, and I am stuck listening to music that is dull enough to lull a ferret to sleep. Even though attending to the insipid music is a fifth-order derivative from my prime motivation (taking care of my family), my putting up with it is motivated by my deepest values — and that makes it tolerable.

Become the Hero of Your Story

Nothing about making a lasting contribution should be construed as easy. The difficulty of accomplishing the task is the reason why having a final cause of mythic proportions is important; it helps you to keep on keeping on. A good final cause gives you the motivation you need to succeed. It is the key to the unseen world of supernal beauty and glory.

You can think of the myth-making aspect of the final cause in the way that screenwriting teacher Robert McKee talks about the “Principle of Antagonism” in his book Story. He writes: “A protagonist and his story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotionally compelling as the forces of antagonism make them.” Think of Odysseus’ greatness, rising to the level of the challenges he faced. Or Frodo, made great by the depth of Sauron’s evil. Now, see yourself as a hero in your own story, and every obstacle, rather than bringing you down, will draw out greater qualities of your character.

Such mythologizing gives the heroic quality that British art historian Kenneth Clark wrote about in Civilization: “I suppose that this quality, which I may call heroic, is not part of most people’s idea of civilization. It involves a contempt for convenience and a sacrifice of all those pleasures that contribute to what we call civilised life. It is the enemy of happiness. And yet we recognise that to despise material obstacles, and even to defy the blind forces of fate, is man’s supreme achievement; . . . in the end, civilization depends on man extending his powers of mind and spirit to the utmost. . . .”

In their book Built to Last, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras write about their own version of a final cause — a BiHAG, or a “big hairy audacious goal.” A BiHAG, a final cause of mythic stature, gives you the moxie, the chutzpah, the pluck you need to get a difficult job done. It shifts your focus from playing while hoping not to lose to playing to win — and from only conserving resources to maximizing the quality of the contribution you can make. This shift is important but subtle, so I’ll explain it in four different ways:

1. The best defense is a strong offense.
2. Think in terms of cultivating your perception. You are more likely to see an opportunity if you are looking for one.
3. Wouldn’t you rather chase a muse than be chased by a fury?
4. When you are on the offense (seeking to win), a failure is nothing but one less victory, but when you are playing defense, a failure is defeat.

To be clear, I am suggesting a conscious mythologizing of the causal process, an exaggerating of intentions. I do so to give you the “avatar’s advantage” and to help you impart a heroic quality to your actions.

Calling Your Avatar

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.

Ideas enter the world as hatchlings. They cannot live without care and feeding. They feed on sacrifice and action, and you give life to them through your efforts. Referring to this process, Confucius reflected, “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 this, 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: they externalize, objectify, and internalize.

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 cubes and them stick them together.

Objectify: the idea becomes solid objects — bricks and mortar.

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

Of course, this process works with things more abstract than brick and mortar. Once upon a time, the concept of socialism was just words on paper (externalization). Then it became a form of government that imposed its logic on millions (objectification), 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 embodies the spirit of the contribution we seek to make. We give ourselves fully 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 vicious circle if you are empowering the wrong idea, such as slavery. It becomes a benevolent circle if you are empowering the right idea, such as human rights.

How does this work? In a sense, it works because you say it does. It works through constitutive rules.

Say It Is So

Constitutive rules describe a way in which lower-level entities count as higher-level entities, simply because you say they do. The philosopher John Searle contended:

Some rules do not merely regulate, they also create the very possibility of certain activities. Thus the rules of chess do not regulate an antecedently existing activity. It is not the case that there were a lot of people pushing bits of wood around on boards, and in order to prevent them from bumping into each other all the time and creating traffic jams, we had to regulate the activity. Rather, the rules of chess create the very possibility of playing chess.

The rules are constitutive of chess in the sense that playing chess is constituted in part by acting in accord with the rules.

Marriage, says Searle, is another example of constitutive rules. Saying certain words under certain conditions counts as making a promise, which under certain conditions counts as a contract, which under certain conditions counts as a marriage, which is an institutional fact. Moreover, “institutions are not worn out by continued use, but each use of the institution is in a sense a renewal of that institution.”

How does this relate to the way in which people like you and me can make a lasting contribution? Searle gives us the answer: “One way to impose a function on an object is just to start using the object to perform that function.” Cooking dinner for somebody is an act of courtship — if you say it is (and it isn’t if you say it isn’t). You impose a function (meaning) on an object (dinner) and begin to use your actions as the institution of courtship. In short, your actions can count as contributing, in part, because you say they do.

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