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What If the Pursuit of Fulfillment IS the Path to Success?

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Dark Horse by Todd Rose is my new favorite book. I’m recommending it to everyone I know, especially parents and educators. I promise I’m not getting a dime from promoting the book, although I wish I were.

What I love about the book is that Rose blows up all of our accepted beliefs about how to achieve success, be happy, earn a living AND give back to your community.

What’s the catch?

We have to set aside a whole bucket of beliefs we currently have about the path to success and fulfillment. Forget about the common prescription: go to good elementary and middle schools, excel in high school, college, and after a couple years of working, go back to graduate school, get a “good job” for a “good company” with “good pay” and slave away until retirement when, finally, we can think about fulfillment. Forget about GPAs, SATs, IQ tests and any other measure of intelligence or success that we commonly accept as a society.

The heroes in Rose’s book all appeared to be unlikely candidates for achieving success.

In story after story, he explains how people from very unlikely beginnings—everything from abusive relationships, high school dropouts, and stark poverty—followed fulfillment, pursued excellence, achieved professional recognition, earn the living they need and are HAPPY.

At every turn, they chose fulfillment. First, they had to know what was most important to them; and secondly, what things motivated them intrinsically and what they were endlessly curious about. They made choices based on those motivators and created their own path for achieving mastery and success. It’s critical to note that they understood that they had choices outside the traditional path. By knowing what was important to them and what motivated them and why, they engineered the necessary passion and energy to follow the road less traveled. As you can imagine, that road was bumpy. They persisted in finding a strategy and path that suited them in terms of learning style, life situation and environment.

Rose himself was a hyperactive high school dropout who attended Weber state (where the hell is Weber State?) because he realized he needed an education, and Weber state didn’t have any entrance requirements. His motivation? Getting a better job so that he could be able to provide for his family. He knew he needed a degree and found a way to obtain one without finishing high school or getting a GED. Once there, his curiosity about how education had failed him, the psychology of motivation and brain science took him on a path to … Harvard. He earned a doctorate in education and is now on the faculty at Harvard.

Rose shines a very bright light on the dark side of standardization and how the assumptions we’ve made about standardized education, standardized tests, and standardized career paths, are costing us plenty. If you want to know more about his opinion on education, check out any of his other books, The End of Average and Square Peg.

Here’s why I care about this book and why I believe it can be helpful to you. First, the people he spoke to prioritized fulfillment. Every choice they made checked more of the boxes in terms of what was truly important to them and what motivated them, which ultimately led to mastery and success.

According to Rose, “Fulfillment is the satisfaction that comes from accomplishing the things that matter to you.”

The things that matter to you. Regardless of what your family thinks or high school guidance counselors told you or what the latest survey shows are “top jobs” or “booming industries.”

Figuring out what truly matters isn’t always easy. It requires us to be really, really honest with ourselves, and we probably stopped listening to our inner guidance in elementary school. What’s most important to us might not fit with how we were raised, or the culture we find ourselves living in, whether that culture is family, community or work. By following a non-standard path, we risk rejection, ridicule and failure.

The second step, after getting honest about what’s most important is to thoroughly examine what your intrinsic motivators are. For many of us, fear is at the root of our decision making, so for these questions, try to set aside fear and consider these:

  • What kinds of problems do you enjoy solving? Why? What’s your favorite part of the process? Why?

  • What energizes you? Why? What drains your energy?

  • When are you at your best? What are you doing? Who is with you (if anyone)? Where are you—geography, physical environment? Why?

Once you know what’s important to you and what motivates you, it opens up multiple pathways and choices. The dark horses Rose interviewed tried multiple paths to get where they wanted to go, but they only made one choice at a time. Rather than mapping out a five-year-plan, when they had a choice to make, they simply considered what was important to them and whether it checked more of the motivation boxes. Given what’s important to you and what motivates you, where are their opportunities in front of you right now? What could you do right now that moves you closer to fulfillment?

I’ll leave you with this last thought. Thomas Jefferson and our founding fathers, in draft after draft of writing the Declaration of Independence, left “the pursuit of happiness” untouched. It was a core component of the DoI, and Jefferson himself felt it was our duty as citizens to pursue fulfillment. If it were your duty to pursue happiness, what would you feel compelled to do?

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