It has perhaps never been easier to feel as if you’ve fallen behind in life. From the anxieties of comparing yourself to others online to our fetishization of success, it can seem like everyone else out there is attaining their goals and feeling happy while the rest of us are stuck.
The reality is that many people feel stuck — even those who present themselves as models of conventional success. So, what are some ways you can meaningfully work toward your goals, while also making sure that your goals are worth pursuing in the first place?
Todd Rose, the co-founder and president of the think tank Populace, offers a framework called the “dark horse” mindset. Weighing in on Rose’s strategies and answering broader questions about success are other big thought leaders including Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michio Kaku, Sarah Robb O’Hagan, and Alex Banayan.
SARAH ROBB O'HAGAN: We have a culture of success right now where all of us are putting these perfectly coifed pictures into the world. Everyone in the world is apparently crushing it except for you. And it's like, "Ugh!" It doesn't work like that. We put this pressure on this generation to be so perfect. It's really hard to believe that you can become great.
MICHIO KAKU: What are you gonna do, give up? Wrong.
NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: If everyone had the luxury of expressing their unique combinations of talents in this world, our society would be transformed overnight. Your task is to find the combination of facts that apply to you. Then people will beat a path to your door.
TODD ROSE: When people think of a 'dark horse,' I think most people think of people who were successful that nobody saw coming. In our research, we actually found that dark horses are people who prioritize personal fulfillment over conventional notions of success. Those lessons end up being viable to anybody who wants to live a more fulfilling life. And so, we found four elements that we think, together, make up this dark horse mindset that allows anybody to get on a path to more fulfillment, regardless of your starting point, how much money you have, or what your ambitions are. The first is knowing your what we call "micro-motives." When we tend to think about what motivates us, we tend to look at what society tells us we all should be motivated by: universal things like competition, money, collaboration. The truth is human beings are just more complicated than that. There's also a whole bunch of very specific things that tend to be particular to you as an individual. So for example, we actually talked to people who were genuinely motivated by organizing people's closets, or aligning physical objects with your hands. Like genuinely motivated. I can't understand that for the life of me. It has zero motivational push, but when it comes to living a fulfilling life, those specific motives are every bit as important as the big, general ones.
NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: I've had several people come up to me and say, "What can I do to be you?" And the only aspect of me that's really doable is I can tell you about the academic pedigree. The rest, you have to create what it is that you do best that layers onto the formal training that may be behind it. I think the greatest of people that have ever been in society were never versions of someone else. They were themselves. You don't think about Michael Jordan, the basketball player, and say, "Oh, he was just like this other player." You don't even say he was like this player plus that player divided by two plus this - no, he's Michael Jordan.
TODD ROSE: The second is knowing your choices. Whereas we might optimize our choices against things that society tells us are important, dark horses are really fantastic at realizing you actually do have a lot of choice every day, if you're looking for it.
ALEX BANAYAN: In every industry possible, Maya Angelou for poetry, Jane Goodall for science, Pitbull, Quincy Jones, Tim Ferriss, Larry King- they all couldn't have been more different on the outside. But as I heard their stories and started to dissect how they launched their careers, I realized there was this common melody. It's sort of like getting into a nightclub. So there's always three ways in: There's the first door, the main entrance, where the line curves around the block, where 99% of people wait in line hoping to get in. And then there's the second door, the VIP entrance, where the billionaires or celebrities go through. And school has this way of making us feel like those are the only two ways in. You're either born into it, or you wait your turn like everybody else. What I've learned is that there's always, always 'the third door.' How did Spielberg become the youngest director in Hollywood history without a single hit under his belt? He was rejected from film school, so instead of giving up on his dream, he decided he would take his education into his own hands. One day, when he was around 19 years old, he jumped onto a tour bus at Universal Studios, rides around the lot on this tour, jumps off the bus, hides in the bathroom, waits for the bus to drive away, and starts walking around the lot. And as he's walking around, he bumps into this man named Chuck Silvers who works at Universal Television, and Spielberg tells him his dream. For the next months, Spielberg goes back onto the lot, going into editing rooms, learning as much as possible, sneaking onto set, and soaking it all in, really creating his own education. He's asking producers out to lunch, talking to actors and actresses, but eventually Chuck Silvers, who became his mentor, gave him one of the best pieces of advice: Stop schmoozing and go make a quality short film that you can have in your hand and show to people. And it sort of busts that myth of 'It's not, you know, what you know, it's who you know.' It's really also what you know or what you have to show. So Spielberg takes the advice to heart, makes this incredible short film called "Amblin'." And when Chuck Silvers sees it, he's so moved that a single teardrop falls on his face, and Chuck Silvers reaches for the phone and calls the Vice President of Universal Television, Sid Sheinberg, and he goes, "Sid, I have something you have to see." Sheinberg watches the film. The next day, says he wants to see Spielberg immediately and gives him a seven-year contract on the spot. And that's how he became the youngest director in Hollywood history. So the third door isn't a prescription or a recipe. It's really a mindset, and it's a door where you jump out of line, run down the alley, bang on the door a hundred times, crack open the window, go through the kitchen. There's always a way in, and it doesn't matter if that's how Gates sold his first piece of software or how Lady Gaga got her first record deal. They all took the third door.
TODD ROSE: The third element is knowing your strategies. Whenever we think about improvement or achievement, we tend to believe that there's one right way to do that. There's one right way ready to learn math, to climb the corporate ladder. That's actually not true. For anything that you ever want to accomplish, there's always multiple ways to accomplish it.
MICHIO KAKU: Success in life is understanding the challenges of the future, to working on scenarios of the future. President Eisenhower, when he was a general, was asked about his attitude toward victory, toward fights, and toward war. And he basically said that, "Pessimists never win wars; only optimists win wars." What separates them from the pessimists? The optimists see the future- the bright side of the future- future that has opportunities. Pessimists simply says, "Ah, can't do it- not possible, end of story, that's it, folks." You have to have not just optimism, but you have to have one eye on the future. If you want to understand the future, you have to understand science. You got to pay your dues. That's what Eisenhower could do. He could see the future of a war because he understood the mechanics of the war, and how the war would progress. That's the key.
TODD ROSE: The final element for a dark horse mindset is ignoring the destination. The problem with obsessing about a long-term destination is most of that's not even in your control, right? And it takes the focus off of something you should be focusing on, which is again that getting to know who you are. In our society, we are constantly taught from a very early age to obsess about our sort of long-term destination. We ask kids all the time, "What are you gonna be when you grow up?" And we kind of expect them to have an answer.
SARAH ROBB O'HAGAN: Success is not a goal, it's just an ongoing journey. In my late thirties, I had finally, finally achieved some, what society would consider, successes in my career. I had led the turnaround of a $5 billion business as its president, which is obviously no small feat, and I started seeing, you know, articles that were written that would say, 'She did this great thing, she did that great thing, she led this company, she's being called this in the media, she's amazing.' And I literally would sit there squirming in my chair going, "Oh my God, no one's telling the truth!" The truth is I've had some really embarrassing fuck-ups along the way, and I think it's important to see that those who've become successful have had all those moments of uncertainty, all those moments of, frankly, averageness. Every successful person in the world did not start knowing that they were gonna get there. Pretty much every one of them did not start with these natural, God-given talents. It was a real story of willingness to experience and try things and then eventually figure out where you're gonna thrive. And it's okay to not know where your true greatness lies because it is a process, and I don't care which generation you come from, I believe that that path exists for absolutely everyone.