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The New Formula For Personal Fulfillment

Want to achieve happiness? Author and Harvard Professor Todd Rose, who has spent years studying success, has the secret.

Todd Rose has an unusual resumé. He’s a high school dropout who stocked shelves instead of getting a diploma; he’s also a Harvard professor and director of its Mind, Brain, & Education Program. His 2015 book, The End of Average, shattered conventional notions of how people thrive in a world that exalts, well, convention, arguing for a new (and more practical) focus on success and individuality. Last week he published his new book, Dark Horse — co-authored with neuroscientist Ogi Ogas — which takes the argument even further.

Dark Horse is the culmination of the Dark Horse Project, a years-long study Rose and Ogas conducted at Harvard’s Laboratory for the Science of Individuality. Through interviews with unusual success stories in a variety of fields, from mycology to astronomy to bespoke men’s tailoring, the team developed a new paradigm for success — one that suggests people can find success by doing what fulfills them, as opposed to finding fulfillment through conventional models of success.

Dark Horse tells the inspiring, unpredictable stories of the dark horses Rose and Ogas studied, and uses their stories to outline strategies you can use to achieve your own version of success — even if you don’t know what that is yet.  Fatherly spoke to Rose for a glimpse of these strategies and 

What, in your view, is the problem with conventional understandings of success, or how people achieve success? 

I think the biggest problem with our conventional success is that it’s largely comparative. It’s almost always defined as being better than somebody else. And that starts early in school. While comparison’s not always bad, when that becomes the driving way you think about success, it turns out that it’s not so much that you could achieve something, it’s just that you’re better than the person standing next to you. And I believe that limits not only what the best people can accomplish, it ends up creating a picture of society where success is pretty rare and the rest of us are just expected to being mediocre.   

How did this come about, historically?

My read on it — and maybe historians have a different take—but my read on it is, I see this closely related to the rise of eugenics and other things, where we really had a deep belief in the social Darwinism of, like, Francis Galton, where the idea was: “Wait a minute, People are innately better or worse than each other,” and you basically needed a way to actually figure that out. If you believe that, how are you going to figure out who the better people are? So people like Francis Galton end up inventing things like percentiles to figure out a way to put people in an actual number. And I think it’s just grown from there. And I think when you live in economies and societies that have a lot of scarcity, it also contributes to a sense of comparison. The problem is, that doesn’t really describe our society very well at all. 

What does the “dark horse mindset” suggest differently about success?

One is the idea that dark horses really get super focused on just being the best version of themselves. No matter how quirky that is, no matter how different that is from anybody else, this is what they do. So it’s about constant self-improvement rather than relative comparison. And one step down from that is that they’re focused on the pursuit of personal fulfillment, right? Which is just accomplishing things that matter to you. And that’s what ends up driving them. 

It’s funny — I really did think, when we were studying all these dark horses, that they probably were like Richard Branson personalities or Steve Jobs: “Who cares what people think of me?” But it’s actually not true. They just deeply care about the pursuit of fulfillment. And if you live in a standardized world, that’s going to take you off the beaten path more times than not. 

What are some strategies people can take to reorient their mindset?

The first thing is actually knowing yourself. And I know that sounds almost stupidly simple, but dark horses actually teach us something here too. Because for most of us, when we think about who we are, we often talk about what we’re good at or the job we do. That’s how we define that. And what we found in dark horses is that they focus incredibly on what matters to them and what motivates them, and use that as a basis for their identity. And I think that when you anchor around what truly motivates you, that is getting you on the path of fulfillment. It’s not everything but it’s a start. 

How can people try to identify those micro-motives?

It’s funny, because you’d think it would be pretty simple, right? It’s like, wait, the things I care the most about? But our society is built around a handful of motives that we’re all supposed to be moved by it, whether it’s competition or money or whatever. The reality is we are just more complicated than that. 

So in terms of how to do it, I actually do it this is a simple approach that, when you try it, it’s kind of surprising how revealing it is. Just start by thinking about the things you enjoy doing and ask why. And the reason I say that is, we sometimes confuse the things we enjoy with our actual motives. I recently used the example of football: I like football, but I’m not motivated by football. It’s not the same thing. I do like the strategy of it, I like the competition, I like the fact that it’s a team sport — you can’t do it by yourself, you actually have to rely on other people. 

As you ask the “why” question, it quickly reveals something about what truly motivates you. And what we found is, if you ask that question of yourself enough, pretty soon you do reveal a broad range of things that really matter to you. And then you can start using those in how you make decisions. 

Can you talk a bit about the difference between picking and choosing?

So choice really is the heart of fulfillment. It’s how you’re going to convert passion to purpose. And in our society, especially in the United States, we think we’re drowning in choice — and it is true from a commercial standpoint, we probably have more choice than we know what to do with it. But in most of the bits of our life that matter, we actually don’t have a lot choice. Think about all the way through education up to your career, the number of real choice points you have are pretty limited. So we end up having a lot of picking, right? Someone else is going to decide, “here are the options, you can pick from them,” versus the ability to actually say. “based on what matters to me, this is what I actually want to choose.”

And what we see in dark horses time and time again is their ability to create their own choices out of what looks like is not there to begin with. Which is pretty fascinating. To me, the difference is, choice is when you actually care about the difference. Like, “one of these things is definitely better for me, and it might be something I have to create all by myself,” versus “here are some institutional options that are available, I can pick one.”

Can anyone do this? What do you say to like a 45 year-old dad who’s sick of standardization and wants to be fulfilled? What considerations should they take?

I know that’s kind of an easy answer, but I sincerely believe this is something anyone can do. For a couple of reasons: One, fulfillment doesn’t necessarily require some massive upheaval of your life. Quite often what you’ll find is that people have focused too narrowly. Say, for example, they think their job is going to bring them all this fulfillment when in fact what they really had to focus on was, “I need a better connection with my family,” “I need a better social life,” “I need new hobbies,” things like that. So the ability to even maneuver like that is quite possible. The other thing is, we talked to plenty of people who actually didn’t have to change jobs, they just had to tweak the way they were doing their job in the same company. Taking on different tasks and stuff like that.

The other kind of concern is that maybe this is just a rich person’s game. Like, it’s nice to talk about fulfillment but if you don’t have a lot of money, you just gotta do what you gotta do. I strongly believe that this kind of dark horse mindset is probably more important to people that don’t have a really broad safety net. Like when I was growing up: I had a wife and kids and we were on welfare. I didn’t have a high school diploma. I had to make every choice really matter. For people that have to hit home runs all the time with these choices — your ability to know who you are and know what really matters and motivates you, and know how to use that to make good decisions, is really important. And I think it’s really [important to] make sure fulfillment doesn’t become a luxury item for the rich or just for a small group of people.