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?


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