The second and third order world effects that William Danforth has had on our civilization are staggering. Although most of the 300+ million people going to bed at night in the United States have no idea who he was, it is no great tragedy except to the extent that they remain ignorant of ways to learn from his life.
By all accounts, Danforth had an internal yardstick that meant he measured his life not by the acknowledgement, praise, and validation of others, but rather, his own objective analysis of the good he caused. If you help someone else out or do something to make the world a better place, you don’t need a pat on the back from someone else for your action to be great. Sure, there’s a sweetness inherent in receiving sincere appreciation for your good works, but it’s not a necessary condition for you to know that you’ve done something great. Danforth understood that.
If he didn’t exist, there would be no pet food empire that created thousands of jobs in St. Louis, MO, and made long-term shareholders immeasurably rich, able to ensure that they would not have to spend their retirement years eating the pet food that his famous Ralston-Purina sold. If he didn’t exist, Nestle shareholders would be collecting a lower dividend, because they wouldn’t be receiving the profits from Danforth’s life work on the business side. If he didn’t exist, the book “I Dare You” would never exist, and the hundreds of thousands of people that got inspired by it would have not reached their full potential in this world. If he didn’t exist, the American Youth Foundation never would have been formed, and who knows what would have happened to those boys and girls if they did not pick up on his philosophy of mental toughness, physical strength, social skills, and religious firmness as being the keys to a harmonized life? If he didn’t exist, twenty-four chapels wouldn’t have been built across the United States.
And that doesn’t even take into account the effects that his grandchildren, instilled with his philosophy, brought to this world. Imagine what the world would look like if Bill Danforth never became chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis and build it onto a regional powerhouse institution? Imagine if his other grandson, John Danforth, never entered the U.S. Senate as a representative of Missouri.
Once you get into fourth-order effects of his life, the results are staggering. Imagine if you had a religious or libertarian right that had been protected by a 5-4 Supreme Court decision sometime in the past twenty years. Most likely, Clarence Thomas would have been one of the five voters that determined the majority. Well, Clarence Thomas never would’ve been on the Supreme Court if Senator Danforth did not exist. And John Danforth probably would not have become a senator if didn’t start Ralston-Purina in 1894 and build enormous wealth. That’s a wild part of his legacy—William Danforth’s decision to not be an idle dreamer, and mix labor and risk with his dreams, over a century ago now affects just about every decision the United States Supreme Court makes. How can you predict those kinds of things would result from the bright idea to sell goat food and dog food during the Grover Cleveland presidency?
In terms of his impact on myself, Danforth’s book, “I Dare You” gives about as good of a prescription for happiness as you can hope to find. Danforth’s answer, as a sort of daily affirmation, was this: (1) Be active and vigorous in systematically removing the things in your life that bring you down, (2) start identifying the things that bring you true enjoyment, and find ways to add more of those events to your days, (3) come up with goals that are big enough to scare you, but realistic enough to achieve, and then create a step-by-step analysis for achieving them, (4) build in a five to fifteen stretch of time towards the end of each day in which you can reflect on what happened to you that day so you can live an active rather than reactive life, (5) build 30-60 minutes of exercise into each and every day so you will look and feel better, (6) be deliberate about your socializing each day so that you are actively fortifying the relationships with the people that matter the most to you and bringing back into the fold people you care deeply about but have somehow lost touch with, (7) structure your life so you can get enough sleep and fight the tendency to add a self-inflicted weariness to your demeanor, (8) actively participate in a five minute conversation with someone you hardly know at all, and (9) train yourself so that the first and last thought you have each day is a vision of things you are grateful for, with a special emphasis on the things that are wildly huge blessings but you tend to take for granted because you have possessed them for so long.
That’s how you live life. The best thing about the general design and trajectory of life is that we can always improve our effort and shake off a little bit of our ignorance each day. Who cares if you screwed up in the past? The best success stories aren’t about getting everything you want, but having the ability to intelligently react to your circumstances and trudge ahead so that you’re further along come St. Patrick’s Day than you were on Valentine’s Day. And then, you can put yourself in a better situation come the 4th of July than you were in the third week of March. The question should always be: given my environment, what is the highest impact amount of good for others and self-improvement for myself that I can embark upon now? John Danforth gave us the roadmap to maximize our happiness as we do our work.
And if you follow it, you’ll get to become one of those people who never truly die. Sure, there will come a time when no one will know your name, but who cares about that? If you start doing good for others now, and increase your own skill set so your endeavors can have even greater impact, then imagine the second, third, fourth, and fifth order effects you’ll have on the world centuries from now.
Sure, William Danforth’s body gave out on Christmas Eve, 1955. But who in their right mind would argue that his spirit has been laid to rest, too?