How 'dark horses' flip the script of success and happiness

What defines a dark horse? The all-important decision to pursue fulfillment and excellence.

When we first set the Dark Horse Project in motion, fulfillment was the last thing on our minds. We were hoping to uncover specific and possibly idiosyncratic study methods, learning techniques, and rehearsal regimes that dark horses used to attain excellence. Our training made us resistant to ambiguous variables that were difficult to quantify, and personal fulfillment seemed downright foggy. But our training also taught us never to ignore the evidence, no matter how much it violated our expectations.


Many dark horses explicitly mentioned "fulfillment." Others talked about their strong sense of "purpose." Some described their "passion" for their work or their "sense of pride" in their achievements. A few spoke of living a "life of authenticity." Several dark horses volunteered "this is my calling," and one informed us in hushed and reverent tones, "I am living the dream." No matter how they described it, every dark horse we conversed with was confident in who they were and deeply engaged with what they were doing. Simply put, their lives are meaningful and rewarding.

Like the rest of us, they struggled with getting the kids to bed and paying down the car loan, and there was invariably more they hoped to accomplish in their careers, but they woke up most mornings excited to get to work and went to bed most nights feeling good about their lives. This discovery led us to the most important revelation of all.

As we dug deeper, we realized that their sense of fulfillment was not a coincidence. It was a choice. And this all-important decision to pursue fulfillment is what ultimately defines a dark horse.

Dark horses are helping drive this epochal transition because their lives embody an antithetical truth that flips the script.

The fact that dark horses were choosing to prioritize fulfillment stands in stark contrast to the way we usually think about how we come by it. We tend to believe that we are granted happiness as a consequence of mastering our vocation—that fulfillment is the payoff for attaining excellence. But how many people do you know who are excellent at their jobs, yet unhappy all the same?

One of our friends is a highly paid corporate lawyer, but she never ceases complaining about how disengaged she feels from the daily grind, bitterly voicing her wish that she had chosen a different path. Another of our friends is a physician with a thriving practice, yet he remains bored by his work, finding solace in travel and hobbies instead.

The fact that excellence is no guarantee of fulfillment should not surprise us. After all, fulfillment does not appear anywhere in the Standard Formula. Instead, institutions and scholars who earnestly trumpet the Standard Formula imply that if you know your destination, work hard, and stay the course, fulfillment will be bestowed upon you once you reach your destination. Earn your diplomas, land a good job, and happiness will ensue . . . somehow.

The Age of Standardization has enforced the dictum that if you strive for excellence, you will obtain fulfillment. Yet even though this maxim has been impressed upon us for generations, we are finally starting to abandon it en masse as we realize just how hollow its promise rings in the emerging Age of Personalization. Dark horses are helping drive this epochal transition because their lives embody an antithetical truth that flips the script. The most important headline about Jennie and Alan and the other unlikely luminaries from the Dark Horse Project is not that their pursuit of excellence led them to fulfillment.

It is that their pursuit of fulfillment led them to excellence.

At first, we were puzzled. How on earth could prioritizing fulfillment consistently enable dark horses to attain excellence? But as we continued our interviews, we began to realize that the answer lay within the very reason we decided to recruit dark horses in the first place.

Their individuality.

At first, we were puzzled. How on earth could prioritizing fulfillment consistently enable dark horses to attain excellence?

The circumstances that provide fulfillment are different for each person, because each person's interests, needs, and desires are different. Dark horses were not fulfilled by being excellent at something but by being deeply engaged with their own thing. Jennie McCormick is fulfilled by gazing through telescopes at distant worlds. Alan Rouleau is fulfilled by fashioning stylish apparel. Swap their jobs, though, and neither one would be very happy.

Even within a single profession, different dark horses find purpose and pride in different aspects of their work. Some architects derive pleasure from designing the biggest and most provocative buildings, others from figuring out how to minimize the environmental impact of buildings. Some athletes prefer solitary sports where winning or losing rests entirely on their own shoulders; others prefer the camaraderie and shared responsibility of team sports. There is no such thing as one-size-fits-all fulfillment.

People often believe that when it comes to earning a living, you must choose between doing what you like and doing what you must. Dark horses teach us that this is a false choice. By harnessing their individuality, dark horses attained both prowess and joy. By choosing situations that seemed to offer the best fit for their authentic self, dark horses secured the most effective circumstances for developing excellence at their craft, since engaging in fulfilling work maximizes your ability to learn, grow, and perform. Thus, dark horses provide a new definition of success suited for the Age of Personalization, one that recognizes that individuality truly matters:

Personalized success is living a life of fulfillment and excellence.

Excerpted from Dark Horse: Achieving Success Through the Pursuit of Fulfillment

Copyright © 2018 by Todd Rose and Ogi Ogas. Published by HarperOne.

Todd Rose: Can you be happy and successful?


3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

Northwell Health
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
  • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
  • Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Keep reading Show less

An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

University of Colorado Boulder
Surprising Science
  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
  • Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.

For most of history, humans got smarter. That's now reversing.

We were gaining three IQ points per decade for many, many years. Now, that's going backward. Could this explain some of our choices lately?

The Flynn effect appears to be in retrograde. (Credit: Shutterstock/Big Think)
popular

There's a new study out of Norway that indicates our—well, technically, their—IQs are shrinking, to the tune of about seven IQ points per generation.

Keep reading Show less

Lama Rod Owens – the price of the ticket to freedom

An ordained Lama in a Tibetan Buddhist lineage, Lama Rod grew up a queer, black male within the black Christian church in the American south. Navigating all of these intersecting, evolving identities has led him to a life's work based on compassion for self and others.

Think Again Podcasts
  • "What I'm interested in is deep, systematic change. What I understand now is that real change doesn't happen until change on the inside begins to happen."
  • "Masculinity is not inherently toxic. Patriarchy is toxic. We have to let that energy go so we can stop forcing other people to do emotional labor for us."
Keep reading Show less