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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?


Neom, Saudi Arabia's $500 billion megacity, reaches its next phase

Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.

Credit: Neom
Technology & Innovation
  • The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
  • The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
  • It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
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Human brains remember certain words more easily than others

A study of the manner in which memory works turns up a surprising thing.

Image Point Fr / Shutterstock
Mind & Brain
  • Researchers have found that some basic words appear to be more memorable than others.
  • Some faces are also easier to commit to memory.
  • Scientists suggest that these words serve as semantic bridges when the brain is searching for a memory.

Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

An odd find

Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

Why understanding memory matters

person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

Party chat

Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

spinning 3D model of a brain

Temporal lobes

Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

Seek, find

Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

Does conscious AI deserve rights?

If machines develop consciousness, or if we manage to give it to them, the human-robot dynamic will forever be different.

Videos
  • Does AI—and, more specifically, conscious AI—deserve moral rights? In this thought exploration, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, ethics and tech professor Joanna Bryson, philosopher and cognitive scientist Susan Schneider, physicist Max Tegmark, philosopher Peter Singer, and bioethicist Glenn Cohen all weigh in on the question of AI rights.
  • Given the grave tragedy of slavery throughout human history, philosophers and technologists must answer this question ahead of technological development to avoid humanity creating a slave class of conscious beings.
  • One potential safeguard against that? Regulation. Once we define the context in which AI requires rights, the simplest solution may be to not build that thing.

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