How does one achieve success? Conventional wisdom states: go to school, study hard, get good grades, and work your way up the ladder over time. But, increasingly, that’s not the only way. The world is filled with dark horses, people who’ve taken unconventional paths, flown under the radar, and achieved great success. Think Richard Branson, Mark Zuckerberg, and Steve Jobs, to name a few.
Todd Rose is a dark horse. He dropped out of high school and was married with two kids working a minimum wage job at age 20. Today, he’s the director of the Mind, Brain, and Education Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a bestselling author. When he and his co-author Ogi Ogas, a computational neuroscientist who once supported himself selling used books out of his car, set out to learn more about dark horses, they discovered a dearth of information. So, they started The Dark Horse Project at Harvard to research why and how these people were so successful.
The project became fodder for their new book, “Dark Horse: Achieving Success Through the Pursuit of Fulfillment.” The book posits that a one-size-fits-all approach is keeping millions of children from reaching their full, unbridled potential. Rose recently talked with Make It Better about why that is and what we should be doing instead. (The interview has been edited for brevity.)
Make It Better: Tell us more about your impetus for telling the story of dark horses and their nontraditional paths.
Todd Rose: It was a passion project. I was super curious about successful people who no one saw coming. I wondered how they got good and why didn’t we know that they were good? We talked to hundreds of people from all walks of life, everyday people who didn’t have connections or wealth but live a successful life in the way they want.
I was wrong about what I thought we would find. I thought that to be a dark horse you’d have to have a Steve Jobs or Richard Branson-type personality — either you wouldn’t care what people think or you would like bucking the system. That wasn’t true at all.
So just how did the results differ from your expectations going in?
I kept wanting the people we interviewed to tell us how they got good at things, and they kept wanting to tell us how they discovered what they care about. They kept using words like “fulfillment,” “meaning,” and “purpose” and truthfully, I didn’t want to hear it at first. But then I realized, this is the difference.
They are prioritizing fulfillment over someone else’s view of success and that’s going to take you off the beaten path sometimes. With that established, we learned some pretty practical insights about how anyone can do this.
You’ve said that in the future, individual happiness and fulfillment will be more important than ever. How so?
I think the world is changing dramatically and will based on personalized systems. That can be good and can be bad and it can be manipulative. I’m obsessed with how we get information to the public to say, “This is what’s coming and this is what you need to know to stay in charge of your own life.”
Are we dropping the ball when it comes to staying in charge of our own lives?
The systems we have now allow us to cede control of our own lives. We don’t really focus on having people, especially kids, take more responsibility in their own lives. The problem is that when you think about personalized systems that have more choice in them, the only way that’s better is if you know how to make choices and take responsibility for those things. Otherwise, it just seems chaotic. The consequences are going to be profound if we don’t do something.
The first thing I would change would be the broader mindset of human capacity. I find it really surprising how far away from our ideals we have gotten in American society. We should be a society that believes deeply in individuals, and not as selfishness or a political statement, but the integrity and dignity of individual people. People are far more capable than our systems have convinced us they are.
The other thing I would change immediately is education. It is unacceptable that we educate kids the way that we do. It’s out of date. We know way too much about what good systems need to have in them for kids and we can do those things, but we do not. It takes differing amounts of time for kids to learn what we expect them to know, but we give everyone the same length of time. That’s not good for anyone as shown by 40 years of research on mastery learning. Most kids are going to a school where the goal is to test and rank them rather than ensure that they are equipped with the tools and knowledge needed to thrive in our society.
For my third change, I would want people in the silent majority in this country who believe this view of fulfillment fits their own view of success to know that they are actually in the majority. Those people think they are a tiny minority but in our national survey, 60 percent of Americans hold this more fulfillment-based view.
What advice do you have for parents who want to guide kids to discover their passions but not exhaust or overschedule them in the process?
Exposure is nice, but overscheduling is ridiculous. Our research is clear that, while exposure is important, the first step is noting what it is that you care about and what motivates you. That’s not the same as the activities that you do. We as parents, myself included, don’t spend a lot of time having the conversation about what it is you enjoy doing and why. The “why” is what gets at the underlying motives and what’s really driving you.
When figuring out passion, there’s a role for serendipity that comes when kids are allowed to go out and play and have time to themselves. Some of that won’t be productive, but you’d be surprised what kids figure out and learn when they have a little bit of free time.
What about for adults who are trying to engineer their passion but are overwhelmed and unfulfilled by daily life?
The sense of a lack of fulfillment almost always comes back to not having a good sense about what motivates you. It is worth putting the time in. It’s actually not all that complicated to think about the things you enjoy and why. You’d be shocked at how fast you can figure out the constellation of things that really do motivate you.
If you don’t have the luxury of quitting your job, that’s OK. Taking on new tasks or responsibilities in your existing job may allow you to test what’s really important to you. Some people expand their hobbies to determine what really matters to them. A job doesn’t have to be your sole source of fulfillment. Be in touch with what motivates you and then think of low-risk ways to introduce and test that out.
So you don’t have to take one big flying leap into the unknown?
(Laughter) In fact, that almost never works out. Most of the important choices you make are not huge bets. Often it’s the small choices that make up your day to day that become really important.
When life isn’t fulfilling, you’re looking for the big, huge passion theme you got wrong, but actually it’s about tweaking the things you have. The more we get in tune with the mosaic of the big and small things that motivate us, we’re able to see our choices for what they are.
Education doesn’t teach our kids to think about or understand themselves. I watched kids in high school go from selecting classes because they were interested in them to picking classes based on what looks best on a college application. That’s toxic. We need to focus on knowing what truly matters to us and not play by an external view of success.
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Shannan Younger is a writer living in the western suburbs of Chicago with her husband and teen daughter. Originally from Ohio, she received her undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Notre Dame. Her essays have been published in several anthologies and her work has been featured on a wide range of websites, from the Erma Bombeck Humor Writers Workshopto the BBC. She also blogs about parenting at Between Us Parents.
Shannan is the Illinois Champion Leader for [email protected], a campaign of the United Nations Foundation that supports vaccination efforts in developing countries to ensure life-saving vaccines reach the hardest to reach children. “Vaccines are one of the most effective ways to save the lives of children in developing countries and I’d love nothing more than to see diseases eradicated,” Shannan says. “We are so close to getting rid of polio for good!”