in: Behavior, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: September 30, 2021

Podcast #547: Achieving Success Through the Pursuit of Fulfillment

The standard route to success in modern life goes as follows: work hard in high school, score high on your SAT, get into a good college, do well in your classes, get a good job. 

For some people, that path works, but for a lot of people, it leaves them disengaged and frustrated because it doesn’t actually lead to a life of fulfillment. 

My guest today has spent his academic career studying individuals who have bucked the standard formula for achievement and found success on their own terms. His name is Todd Rose. He’s a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the co-author of the book Dark Horse: Achieving Success Through the Pursuit of Fulfillment. We begin our conversation discussing what Todd calls the “Standardization Covenant,” including how it developed to serve institutions rather than individuals and why following the standard path often leads to frustration. Todd then explains his idea of an alternative “Dark Horse Covenant” and what it looks like theoretically and in the lives of those who’ve followed it. He then walks us through the steps that dark horses follow to find success and fulfillment on their own terms, including focusing on “micromotives” to figure out where you fit, making decisive choices, creating your own options, and trying new strategies until you find something that works. We end our conversation with how Todd would like to see the Dark Horse dynamic incorporated into our educational system. 

Show Highlights

  • What do people typically think success looks like?
  • What is the “standardization covenant”?
  • How higher education fails our search for fulfillment 
  • Successfully pivoting from the standard path to the dark horse path 
  • How to figure out what gives you fulfillment 
  • Knowing what motivates you and the power of micromotives (and how it changes over time) 
  • Balancing risk with practicality in pursuing fulfillment 
  • Picking vs. choosing 
  • Knowing your strategies 
  • Why you should ignore your destination 
  • Utilizing this approach in K-12 education environments 

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

"Dark horse" book cover by Todd Rose and Ogi Ogas

Connect With Todd

Todd’s website

Todd on Twitter

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. The standard route to success in modern life goes as follows, work hard in high school, score high on your SAT, get into a good college, do well in your classes, get a good job. For some people, that path works, but for a lot of people, it leaves them disengaged and frustrated because it doesn’t actually lead to a life of fulfillment. My guest today here has spent his academic career studying individuals who have bucked the standard formula for achievement and found success on their own terms. His name is Todd Rose. He’s a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the coauthor of the book Dark Horse: Achieving Success Through the Pursuit of Fulfillment. We begin our conversation discussing what Todd calls the standardization covenant, including how he developed to serve institutions rather than individuals and why following the standard path often leads to frustration.

Todd then explains his idea of an alternative Dark Horse Covenant and what it looks like theoretically and in the lies that those who followed it. He then walks us through the steps that Dark Horses follows to find success and fulfillment on their own terms, including focusing on micro motives to figure out where you fit, making decisive choices, creating your own options, and trying new strategies until you find something that works.

We end our conversation with how Todd would like to see the Dark Horse dynamic incorporated into our educational system. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at Todd joins me now via All right, Todd Rose, welcome to the show.

Todd Rose: Hey, thanks for having me.

Brett McKay: So you are a coauthor of a book called Dark Horse: Achieving Success Through the Pursuit of Fulfillment. So the book is all about this. It’s all about people who gain success through unconventional ways. Before that, let’s juxtapose that with how people typically think or achieve success. In the book you call this path to success that we all heard about, know about, and probably followed the standardization covenant. What does the standardization covenant look like in your eyes?

Todd Rose: Well, I mean, when I think about what success looks like in our standardized systems, it is basically you know the destination, you know what you’re going to go after. You work really hard and you stay the course, your show grit, determination. But in the end it really is about trying to compete to be the same as everybody else, only better. And it has very little to do with who you are and what you really care about.

Brett McKay: So and this is basically the path that’s been set out for almost, I would say 60, 70 years since the end of World War II probably. You go to college, you get a job, if you do really well at your job, you’ll go up the hierarchy and eventually you can retire with a gold watch and drive a Cadillac.

Todd Rose: Exactly. And by the way, we call it a corporate ladder for a reason. There’s one path and you climb as high as you can go, but you’re competing against everyone else for the exact same prize.

Brett McKay: And that corporate ladder goes all the way down to you start learning this in elementary school. You understand people get ranked in certain orders based on how well you’re. As you said, everyone’s doing the exact same thing, but they’re just doing it better.

Todd Rose: Yeah. Well, and it’s on purpose. So the idea of this standardization covenant is as a society at the beginning of industrial age, we basically gave up on our individuality and we said, look, it’s just more manageable if a few people control the system and we decide what the paths are like and what the criteria is and we can kind of manage it. We only need say three ballerinas or we need five engineers or whatever. It’s less about you and what you’re capable of and more about filling some preordained slots.

Brett McKay: Right? The standardization was developed to benefit institutions like government corporations, unit like a ballet could be an institution as well. You just need a certain slots and we’re going to look for the cream of the crop.

Todd Rose: Right as they see it. Yeah.

Brett McKay: Well, while that’s still going on, we still hear this talk about you need to find fulfillment in your work and the standardization covenant talks about this, but they talk about it in different ways. How do you achieve fulfillment or a sense of purpose within this where you’re just doing what everyone else is doing but only better?

Todd Rose: Yeah, I mean, I think everybody wants, in an ideal world, they want to be successful and happy, right? They want to live fulfilled lives and what we’ve been taught is that if you just fit the mold, climb the ladder, and actually achieve excellence within the system, the fulfillment comes as a consequence of that. We know in some ways you can think, well, maybe that’s true. If I’m excellent, I’ll be fulfilled as well. But I think what we’re seeing now is generations of people who have actually arrived at that place and realized, “Look, I made it according to society, but I’m deeply unhappy. I’m not fulfilled, that’s why I think the game is up.”

Brett McKay: Yeah. I think everyone’s met those people who’ve achieved success in their field, doctors, surgeons, attorneys, the top of their field making lots of money and they’re just miserable.

Todd Rose: Yeah. And it’s like the worst part about it, which is to say, well that’s nice. You’re doing something that you’re obviously good at but you get one life. And in a sense we’re here, our ability to live a life and what you really want are people who are able to find passion and convert that into purpose and turn that purpose into contribution and achievement. And just what we find is that it’s just really hard to do at scale if you’ve standardized the whole system.

Brett McKay: And the other part of the standardization covenant is that you have to know, like you have to work at what you’re doing for a long time to get there perhaps. Right, and you have to know where you want to go at a really young age, when you’re 18 it’s like, when you go to college, okay, you need to pick out what your major you’re going to study. And this is where you’re going to go into your career. If you’re going to a medical school, you have to know that you’re going to be in school for seven years, even if you have no experience with medicine, you might find out, you might not like it, but if you want to do that, you sort of have to grit it out and keep doing it.

Todd Rose: You’re going to find out the hard way and either suffer through life, I actually have a friend who’s a very, very good lawyer who confided in me not too long ago that he wished he had chosen a different profession and I kept thinking but he’s got student loan debt. He makes pretty good money. So he can’t really like to start over and you think, wow, how sad is that that because you achieved, you’re sort of trapped.

And I think we do this at such an early age, those of us, I have two boys and the number of times people ask them, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And they’re like, “I’m 14 why are you asking me this?” As if somehow if you haven’t already nailed down which of these predetermined destinations you’re going to strive for, something’s wrong with you.

Brett McKay: Right. And you tightly research in our book that our personalities aren’t even really set or just not until mid to late 20s, right. So it’s like you’re asking an 18 year old who’s adult brain is still developing, “Hey, you got to pick the career that you’re going to do when you’re 40, when you might be a completely different person and you’re going to be stuck with that.”

Todd Rose: Right? You’re going to be thinking about, we’re constantly changing the things that matter to us and who we are, especially at that age. And then the reality is that the environment is changing. So if I decide, yeah, I’m going to be a lawyer or whatever, but why am I making that choice? Is it because I have an uncle that’s a lawyer or because I’m told that this is the safe sort of path and it’s respectable.

You think about all the really interesting sort of careers right now. You think about like something like an app developer. The thing that did didn’t even exist 12, 13 years ago. That wasn’t a thing. It’s like the idea that you’re somehow going to peg in your mind something 15, 20 years down the road and then go that direction. The reason it’s so toxic is that it takes your eye off of what you should be focused on, which is maximizing the opportunities in front of you based on who you really are.

Brett McKay: And another part of the standardization covenant that you write about in detail in the book, is that it rests on the premise of meritocracy, right? That we reward talent and hard work. But you and your coauthor make this really compelling case that meritocracies or at least how they are in the standardization covenant where there’s this ladder you follow doesn’t really reward talent and hard work. Explain that.

Todd Rose: Yeah. So look, the one we have right now, and by the way, it’s pretty timely given the college admissions scandal and the kind of things going on where it’s pretty clear, it’s not just simply about who deserves to be there. But when you have a standardized system, so think about right now, if you just use the college example, it’s not really how talented you are. Picasso wouldn’t have gotten into Stanford’s visual arts program unless he had great SAT scores.

It doesn’t matter what else he had to offer. So we’ve narrowed this thing down to a single dimension or a couple of things and we’re not trying to understand what people are good at. We’re just basically force ranking them. The SAT is bell curved, it guarantees half the people fail, even if they’re all qualified. When you think about most of these institutions like universities, they have a scarcity model of quality. They’re trying to educate as few people as possible and then they call that quality. And so basically we end up getting ranked on one dimension on something they’ve decided and then they pick a few people and they call that good. But the reality is we have a lot more to offer. People are deeply individual. Our talents are far more expansive than what fits on a single test. And if we were serious about helping people really develop their talents and make contributions, we certainly wouldn’t create this kind of system.

Brett McKay: So okay. The standardization covenant is this idea that we’ve all sort of been in meshed in since childhood. That you go up the ladder, you get the degree, you do all the things so you can be better than everyone else. So you can get whatever at the end, right? You talk about something called the Dark Horse Covenant. What is the Dark Horse Covenant?

Todd Rose: So it’s a different social contract and I’ll just tell you as background the point of the book was as you said at the start, we just started studying people who were incredible at what they do, but who didn’t follow the standardized path. And just trying to figure out who are these people and how do they do it. Is it just like dumb luck? Nobody should listen to them at all or might there be some things we could learn? And the book is really about the fact that in fact there are some common things that really make them capable of pursuing a different kind of life. So out of that you realize, wait a minute, if it’s not just about these folks, it’s about all of us. Then we can start thinking about, wait, what kind of covenant would we make with ourselves as a people if we wanted to live more fulfilling lives?

And the Dark Horse Covenant is simply this. Instead of know your destination, work hard and just stay that standardize course. It is about harnessing your individuality in the pursuit of fulfillment to achieve excellence. And the difference there is pretty stark that it is about knowing who you are. Your individuality matters. And it’s not selfishness, it’s just your distinctiveness. And you would have an obligation to actually convert that into a fulfilling life and then make a contribution with that. And in return, our society owes you the creation of good fit. We owe that we create good educational environments that actually match who you are and help develop you rather than just batch process you. And we create contexts that work, that allow you to thrive and contribute the best. And that seems almost obvious. Of course you would want that.

But it stands in stark contrast to this idea that you really don’t matter. The system matters and you’re just a cog. And for me the important thing is, is that we just have to remember that the existing social contracts we have, the standardization covenant, we created. Nobody forced it on us. We agreed as a people, our great grandparents did that this was an okay tradeoff. And so we can remake it tomorrow if we want to.

Brett McKay: So throughout the book you give examples of these Dark Horses, people who gained success in very unconventional ways where they’ve found fulfillment and purpose with their work. What are some notable examples? Who are some notable examples of some Dark Horses that you covered in the book?

Todd Rose: So from the outset it was funny because when whenever we were thinking about these Dark Horses, the easy ones to figure out where all famous people. Like Richard Branson who I really like as a person, I think he’s a great guy and he is a classic example of a Dark Horse.

But I grew up in rural America and pretty poor. And for me, I would say, I like these people but I want to talk to everyday people who didn’t have a lot of money and didn’t have a ton of connections but still managed to do this because I thought if we focus there, would be likely to find patterns that would be useful for everyone. So that’s what we did. So we tried really hard not to find any sort of name brands, but that said, we studied hundreds of people from all walks of life as wide a range as a professions as we could find. Everything from experts at wine to embalmers, right? Like closet organizers. But some of the people that were just remarkable, interesting, they kind of break down into two kinds of Dark Horses.

The one that you’re probably imagining is the one that they struggle early, they fail early and then suddenly they just catch fire and they’re amazing. And we found plenty of those. For example, we talk to a woman who dropped out of school in high school, had a kid early on, was working in a fast food joint in her teens and early 20s? And you flash forward today, she’s an internationally respected astronomer who has discovered a planet, discovered an asteroid, and did all of that including publishing in the Journal Science, never having gone to college. She still doesn’t even have a high school diploma.

The other kind of Dark Horse that we found, which I think is even more general, where these people who were really actually fantastic at what they do, they were the people who you would say, boy, by society’s standards they’re successful. Who reach a point in their life they’re like, “I’m just not happy. I’m not fulfilled.” And they make these incredible pivots into stuff that you’re like, “Really, that’s where you went.” And then they go off and then you just do amazing things and you still don’t see them coming.

So for example, spoke to another woman who had actually, you would’ve thought was acing the standard path. She was raised by the classic tiger mom parents and she finished high school at 15, finished college at 19. And then she landed a really sweet high profile job at one of the top consulting firms when she was 20. And she had this stellar career right in front of her. Yet a few years later she wakes up and recognizes she’s living a life based on her parents’ view of success and she’s not happy. So she makes a decision to pursue what mattered to her. Makes a pivot. Today she is a chef and the mastermind behind one of the most acclaimed supper clubs in the country.

Brett McKay: That’s awesome. My favorite that you talked about, the highlight of the book is the lady Susan, she’s in a crappy marriage. She went to a concert and at that concert she decided I’m going to be a sound engineer, and she went on this path that took I think more than a decade. And she ended up being the princes, the artist formerly known as Prince or is he now just Prince.

Todd Rose: Yeah, incredible. Right.

Brett McKay: The sound engineer for him.

Todd Rose: And what I love, she’s one of my favorite people in the world. This is one of the fun things about this project is you meet people and you don’t want to be them. I don’t want to be a sound engineer, but knowing her makes me want to be a better person.

She taught us that living a fulfilling life isn’t all upside. Sometimes you have to get yourself out of really bad abusive relationships. There’s a hole you’re in and that’s the starting point. But she said, I don’t even know why… She didn’t want to be a performer. She knew that. And so she’s like, I don’t know this sound engineer, but what’s so interesting and we lay out in the book in greater detail the kind of choices she’s going to make to really live that kind of life, including being a secretary at the place where they train people because she couldn’t afford to go, but she could get enough training and convincing the military to send her some technical manuals so that she could keep getting more training and then just doing the things that needed to be done.

And then what I love is there she is getting to share this moment actually back in the LA Coliseum where she left because her husband told her she had to be home in time or she was going to get beat. There she is with Prince back there enjoying this incredible success with Purple Rain and to be able to live that life. And then as you see in the book she goes on to do other things because she realizes this is a never ending process.

Brett McKay: Then she got her PhD to be a professor.

Todd Rose: Yeah. She went to school in her 40s because it was like there’s something, the next challenge and is why I love about this fulfillment orientation, which is these Dark Horses, I was always surprised. I really genuinely thought that to be a Dark Horse, to buck this standardized system, you would have to be someone like Richard Branson.

I mean, I know Sir Richard, he’s amazing and he really loves bucking the system. I think it’s just part of what really gets him off. If somebody else wants him to do it, he’s probably not going to do it. I thought that most people would have to be like that. You’d have to really be able to get it out and that’s just not what we found. Instead, without fail, every one of these Dark Horses got on their own path because they bailed on society’s view of success. They belled on the standardization idea and they to a person said, success to me is about pursuing fulfillment, accomplishing things that truly matter to me. And since we’re so individual, the second you commit to that, it’s unavoidable that you’re actually going to have to get off the beaten path once in a while. And so just what we see is time and time again, these people being able to do that and creating very reliable paths.

And so what I liked is it would be one thing to say, oh cool, pursue fulfillment. That’s the kind of life you want to live. But what you see with these Dark Horses is they reveal a set of things you need to know that when you know them, it makes it a very, very stable, reliable path to success and happiness.

Brett McKay: Well, let’s walk through how you can figure out what will bring you fulfillment. So I think one thing about making fulfilling your goal, it’s great, but also it can be a two edge sword because you’re like, man, that’s a lot of pressure. Because it’s existential. I think that’s why some people find the standardization covenant comforting. It’s like, well here’s this thing. It’s already set for me. I don’t have to really think about it. I’ll just do it. So how can you figure out what will bring you fulfillment so you don’t have that existential annex where you’re like laying in bed. It’s like, “Am I really doing the thing that I’m supposed to be doing?”

Todd Rose: Yeah. Well and the reality is, is that pursuing a fulfilling life does have more responsibility. There’s no autopilot version of this. No one can give it to you. You have to earn it yourself. But I can almost guarantee you as someone who’s a fan of what you all do, I’m going to go ahead and almost guarantee the people listening and the people are people who actually care about this kind of stuff, self-improvement and trying to like live their best life.

So here’s the thing, it in the abstract, it can feel overwhelming because absent the reliable, even if it’s not that great sort of beacons that society gives us, what do we anchor around? So what we found is that there’s really these four things that they know that make this work. And they’ll sound pretty straight forward. But look, the first thing, and it’s the most important thing is you absolutely have to know what motivates you.

And we call it micro motives in the book because it was incredible how individual they are. When you think of motives, you tend to think of these, a small number of them that are just big. Like, okay, wait, I’m competitive. Yeah, that’s true. I mean, I’m pretty competitive or I like money or I like collaboration. But in reality, the things that truly get you up in the morning can be incredibly particular and subtle and may not really apply to really almost anybody else. For example, we talked to a guy who, I mean, no kidding, his primary motive, I mean, just incredible, was aligning physical objects with his hands. I actually, when we talked to him, I thought this can’t be true. First of all, it doesn’t sound remotely motivating to me at all and it just seems so particular. Really they must represent something more general.

But it was really specific for him and it really mattered. And he had been able to convert that into some engineering work that had been amazing and then left that work and it fell apart on him. And then he came back in his life later and realized he’s now the top upholstery repair person in New York and he loves it. You got to know these things about yourself because you can be successful by society’s standards without knowing who you are and what matters. But you can’t live a fulfilling life, not systematically because it’s about making choices and a competent things that mattered to you. So the question would be like, well then how do I start to figure out what motivates me? It seems, and thinking about it, schools don’t help. We never ask kids ever about what really matters to them.

We tell them what they should care about, but what we found, and I’ll give you the simple version here and the book kind of elaborates more on it. The most, I mean, it will sound simple. I promise you, any listener that just puts this into play in their life will be shocked at how big of return on investment you’ll get. So it’s simply like this. If you think about the things that you enjoy doing right now, whether they’re at work, whether they’re home, recreation, whatever, if you start making a list of those things and ask yourself why? Why do I like this? So my example, I love football. Love it. I’m passionate about it. I played it when I could. I watch it every time. Luckily I’m in Boston, so I’ve got the Patriots for quite a few years. It’s been a good run.

But then this why, right? What is it about, so is it because it’s competition? Is it because it’s outdoors? Is it because it’s collaborative? A team sport? Is it because its strategy involved? You and I could both like football for very, very different reasons. If you know the why, it’s everything. Because if you do this a couple of times with the things that you enjoy, you’ll start to see patterns and those patterns become your real motives. And now that I know if it’s because I like collaboration and strategy, well you know what? There’s a whole bunch of other things that can also be fulfilling to me and I understand how to find my way to those things.

Brett McKay: I love it. And you gave the example that I liked in the book was someone who likes birds. Well I just love birds, but, well you might like how birds look and that can take you down one path or you might like how birds sound and that could take someone down another path.

Todd Rose: In fact, it did as you were saying, it’s so remarkable because they get so specific. And I’m like, really, there are actually people who end up becoming called birders. There’s whole professions where people go out and discover birds and they actually are really interesting and important careers. I for the life of me would be like, I would rather dig ditches. I can’t even imagine that. But what we found is some people were like, “No, all that matters to me is the visual aspect of it.”

They could care less how they sound. And then some people are like, I don’t even want to see him. I need to hear him. And they can imagine the wave form of the sound. And it was funny after we wrote the book that there a more serious conversation going in Australia about someone who wanted to actually was claiming they wanted to have assisted suicide and had to leave the country.

And one of the things that gentleman said, he was like 100. And he said, look, I used to love birds. I’ve lost my sight and all I can do is hear him and I don’t care about that. You’d rather end his life than have to just hear birds. What motivates us is incredibly specific and nobody can tell you what it is, but you can figure it out for yourself. And when you start to get a hold of that, then suddenly making choices about your life becomes a heck of a lot easier. And that idea that feels scary as if you’re going to drive yourself off a cliff suddenly doesn’t feel as risky or scary anymore.

Brett McKay: Well that’s the next step, choices. And this is all about finding fit for what motivates you. And this is counterintuitive too. I mean, you kind of hear talk of this in the standardization company. You want to find a job where you fit, but it’s like you got to fit in a certain way, right. You have a predetermined for choice and you’ve got to fit there. How is choosing differ in the Dark Horse Covenant?

Todd Rose: Yeah. So there’s a couple of things that we saw with Dark Horses with the role of choice that I think is super important to appreciate. The first is just simply that actually recognizing that choice is really important. Because in the standardization covenant we’re actually actively discouraged but the number of real choices that we have in our life. I mean if I go to the grocery store, I have a lot of choice because it’s a market and people want to sell me stuff.

When you think about the institutions that are about developing who you are, you have very, very few choices and so what you end up doing is hoarding them and you get them and you hedge and it’s like, ah, I don’t want to make a mistake on this one. What college am I going to go to? What major will I have? Right? What’s my first job? Dark Horses, they just look for choice everywhere. Even small ones and they recognize that there’s never such thing as just an equivalent option. One choice is always going to be closer to fulfillment than the other and they make them, they just don’t hedge. They figure out what the thing is and then they jump in and do it. And look when they’re not always right. There were plenty of examples where people said, “Wow, that just didn’t turn out to be the right thing.”

But they learn from it and they make a better choice next time. And so what’s fascinating about that is that from the outside it looks like they’re just taking risky bets. It just really does. Even when we talked, I’m like, wow, you sold everything and went to rural England to like learn about horticulture. And you were like, wow, that seems like there could have been a better way to do that. Because from our perspective, we don’t know their motives. We don’t know their individuality. And so we’re applying this very averaged lens to it. What are the odds that someone, like if we say that you want to be a programmer, we say, well, only one in 10 people get a job in Silicon Valley and you tell me, “Hey, I’m going to move to Silicon Valley because I’m going to get a job as a software engineer.”

I’d say, boy, that seems like a really choice, one in 10. Well that’s just playing the odds across everybody and what Dark Horses do is because they know their individuality, they can accurately judge fit better. So it’s not one in 10. If you know what motivates you and what you’re good at and you understand the job that’s there, it’s not a guarantee. But you can know actually I have a really good shot at being great at this. And so we see them recognizing choices and making them. And then the third aspect of it is, and this was actually pretty cool to me and it was eye opening, is that often when we think about choice, we think about the choices that people show us that actually, okay, you can do X or you can do Y. I’m like, oh cool, that’s choice. But not really, that’s just picking.

They’ve already decided what the options are, but it’s a little bit like the first time you go to a burger joint and they’re like, oh well you can get on the menu and you realize there’s a whole off menu that they’re not telling you. But if you ask for it, you can get it. These Dark Horses show us this over and over again. In fact, it’s not just about doing what people give you, it’s actually making your own options. Like Susan Rogers if she wants to be trained as a sound engineer, well go to one of the schools that trained you, well that’s not open to her. So she’s going to work her way through to be a secretary at the place and make a deal that she can sit in on classes when they’re available. That wasn’t an on menu option, but she’s going to figure it out.

Brett McKay: I think one concern that people have that have grown up in the standardization covenant and the parents of these individuals is that if they go off this off path route, like they’re not going to be able to support themselves. They’re not going to have health insurance or it’s going to be super risky. But Susan’s great example, she found a job where she could pay the rent, pay for food, but at the same time she was learning a skill. She got her foot in the door. You made that a good point. Like a lot of these started courses, they weren’t just these careless daredevil risk taping type. They were actually just very smart about taking smart risks.

Todd Rose: It’s exactly right. So once you see their path through the Dark Horse lens and you start to know about who they are and then you look at the choices they’re making, you go, oh, that’s really, really smart. That’s a very clever… You’ve minimized actual risk. The riskier thing is to put yourself in a situation that is a terrible fit for who you are and then hope that things turn out but to your point, I think it’s really important that when we think about things like fulfillment, if we’re not careful, it can be interpreted as like, this is very selfish free riding, kind of like do your thing. And it doesn’t really matter. It’s just, it was never the case. Not only is it not okay, you have a responsibility to be responsible. And when you look at the way that Dark Horses made choices, what was interesting is you’re trying to maximize fit. That’s first thing.

But then what was really cool, and I think this is really valuable for all of us, is you can play a little game of can I live with the worst case scenario of this choice? So nowadays I have two kids, which means I have some financial responsibility.  There are things that are no longer options for me because of the life I chose to live and I want to live. So if I have a chance to make a jump, but one of those worst case scenarios is losing everything and my family suffers, then I’m going to pass on that one because I’m unwilling to live with the worst case scenario. And then what you do is you go to the next best fit and what they keep doing is saying, how do I get to that place where I can live with the worst case scenario and I have a good fit?

And so a parent, I look at that as well now and I think so how do I know that my boys who are college and since graduated, how do I know the things they’re doing right now are actually a path of fulfillment or just screwing off? And for me it always comes back to that idea of taking responsibility for the choices. So when I think of the classic case of moving to Los Angeles to be an actor and parents were like, “Oh my goodness, this is going to be the end.” What I would ask them is, okay, wait it’s one thing if they’re in LA, they’ve got seven roommates, they’re busing tables in the evening and they’re making it work. Even though for you, you go by, that just seems like you’re struggling.

That’s a sign that this is a fulfilling path. Either they’re going to learn something or it’s going to work out. If on the other hand, they’re like, “Mom, dad, can you pay my rent? Mom, dad, can you get me a car?” That’s not fulfillment. Right? And it won’t turn into it. So this idea of knowing who you are and being willing to take responsibility for the choices is a really important sign that you’re on the right path.

Brett McKay: All right, so Dark Horse, they don’t pick, they choose. And choice means sometimes coming up with your own choice that no one never saw before. So look for micro motivations, choose occupations that fit you and your market motivations and also your current circumstance. If you have kids you might have to, job might not fit you anymore because the obligation to them. The next step is know your strategies.

Todd Rose: Yeah. I get excited about this because this one just confronts head on this ridiculous myth in our society about the nature of talent. And the way we’ve been taught in our existing system is you try things and when you’re not good at them, the response is, well, maybe I’m not cut out for that. Maybe I’m not that good at it and I’m going to move on. I mean, that’s a simplistic explanation, but I think it’s close. What we saw with Dark Horses, and it was just so remarkable, is once they figured out what they care about and they’ve made a choice, well, you still have to accomplish things. It’s not passive. So now you’ve got to get good at stuff. You got to get good at things that you care about. And what they would do is they know they care about this, so they’re not going to let go of it.

And what you’d see is they’ll try a strategy and then it doesn’t work. Does this keep cycling through strategies and from the outside it looks incredibly inefficient, but they’re not doing the same thing over and over again. They’ll just keep swapping out new strategies until the one that clicks and it clicks and they go. And what they teach you is that real achievement is not about some innate talent. It is about the right fit between your individuality and the strategy. And there are always multiple ways to get to that finish line, always. What I love about it is it completely changes how I think about how I’m going to make progress as an individual. And it was just, we saw it in everything from like Rubik’s cubes to master Psalms how you’re going to pass the hardest test in the world basically. Almost nobody does it the same way. It’s just incredible.

Brett McKay: But one thing I’ve noticed particularly since I’m online, I kind of interact with online business world, online entrepreneurs or you have these people talking about living an unconventional life and whatever. But they’re often, they’re still looking for a strategy that sort of fits the standardized covenant. They’re looking for the thing that’s like, it’ll work no matter what. They buy courses like pay thousands of dollars for this online course. “Follow these 10 steps and you will be successful in your unconventional life.”

Todd Rose: No, I mean, look, that’s why when we see that happen, it’s always an indicator that you’re actually lacking a deeper understanding of who you are. Because as you truly understand that, that becomes the anchor that you can say, look, I know this isn’t going to work. And if you don’t really have a good understanding of yourself, then you will fall back on. Let me just see how society tells me to do this because what’s your substitute? If you find yourself relying on the tried and true because you’re hoping you’re just playing the odds at that point. It’s okay, just step back and realize you’ve got more work to do on understanding what truly matters to you and what you’re good at. 

Brett McKay: Well, I get asked quite a bit like, “How do I start a podcast and make it successful?” I was like, “Man, I don’t know, I started 10 years ago because the Internet was clearly different when I started. And I don’t know what works for me is probably not going to work for you. It’s just, I don’t know”

Todd Rose: But think about what you did. So this is what I think is so remarkable. So you obviously have a lots of success, but I’m going to go ahead and wager that this was not like there’s not a blueprint. You knew you cared about it and you got started and you make choices and you learn from people, you look at other folks and you think this… You always want to take advice and then you got to do stuff that you know works for you and try it out and let go of stuff that doesn’t. And that sort of authenticity to who you are becomes fundamental to your ability to be as good as possible at what you’re doing.

Brett McKay: Well, another part of the start course covenant sort of tactic is you have to ignore the destination, which is completely counter from the standardization covenant where you had to know, like you said, your kids when they’re eight years old, they’re getting asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” They know their destination with a Dark Horse, they typically don’t.

Todd Rose: I think what’s really important here is destination isn’t the same thing as goals. You should have goals, but goals when they’re useful we call them like smart goals, specific, measurable, actionable, right? Whatever. Yeah. It’s one thing to say like, “Okay, I want to start a podcast. Well, there’s certain things I need to get better at. I’m going to do these things. I’m going to learn how to interview. I’m going to learn how to whatever.” Okay. But yeah, if you start talking about things that are 10, 15 years out that are contingent on a bunch of other things, first of all, that destination, I guarantee you won’t look like that by the time you get there. The other thing is it may be an actual terrible fit for who you really are. And so what Dark Horses do and I think is, I mean, just profoundly important is by ignoring.

You’d never heard them say, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Say that’s just a dumb question because it will corrupt your decision making process because the second I’ll latch onto something far in the distance and I don’t really know why I’m doing it. I lose sight of the fact that every single day I have choices to make every day, we all do big and small and they need to be made based on a real understanding of who you are, what matters to you, what motivates you.

And it is that consistent ability to make those kinds of choices that will carve out your path, that’ll give you the best chance to be excellent because you are fulfilled. The quickest way to wreck that is to pick what society’s telling you to be 10 years from now and start making choices based on that.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I think you quoted Paul Graham in the book. He says a lot of the successful entrepreneurs that he’s encountered, they don’t have 10 year plans. They’re just, they’ve got a goal. They’re looking at the next goal. That’s pretty much it.

Todd Rose: Of course, right? The truth is, is anybody that’s been successful, this is how you become really successful. And it’s only in hindsight that it all looks like it’s stitched together in some perfect preordained plan. But the reality is the most important choices most of us make when we feel like we’re leading successful lives are these incredible twists and turns that you just never would have thought would be there for you and you would have been blind to you had you not been looking for them.

Brett McKay: Right. You used the concept of gradient ascent. It’s like how people can climb mountains, right?

Todd Rose: We couldn’t help them. They were scientists and we’re going to slip back into what do we think about how we model complex problems that don’t have solutions? It feels intractable, but actually I think called great in the sense in computer science, that’s it turns out you can find the answer to anything. You just have the algorithm, take a few steps in a direction, look around and say, look, am I making progress toward the peak or am I going down? And if you’re making progress, go forward again. You can make that step by step process and actually maximize a mathematical solution. And it actually, I think is a good metaphor for life. You don’t actually have to already know the peak you’re aiming for in order to get there. You just don’t.

Brett McKay: And what’s nice about these sort of four ways to figure out the thing that’ll bring you fulfillment. It’s very fluid, right? Your micro motors could change as you get older. That’s where your micro motors were when you’re 20 might be different when you’re 35.

Todd Rose: For sure. And what’s nice is that and I hope they are, what a boring life if the exact same thing. What I think is really powerful about this is I have a colleague and friend who I was just with a couple of days ago who was explaining that forever, she was in love with spreadsheets. That was her thing. And she said she woke up one day after a decade of being awesome at this stuff and her work and was like, I can’t touch another spreadsheet. I literally just hate it. It was like her spreadsheet moment. Now had she not understood that it wasn’t about spreadsheets, it was actually about, there’s a logic to what is doing.

It was the logic that she liked. So she was able to immediately like, “You know what? Great, so I’m going to move on, I’m going to do something different.” So she was able to engineer this consistent fulfillment even though the environment’s changing. And so this sense of understanding that’s how fulfillment works allows you, like if you’re in a job and they’re like, “The job’s done.” You loved it, you thought you’d find a perfect fit. Guess what? If you have a good understanding of these basic principles, you can make the next move. Similarly, if suddenly I’m just like, “You know what, I’m not as competitive as I used to be.” Okay, well I can be aware of that because I’m feeling it. I can fill it in my day to day experience. I can reassess and I can make a new choice.

So to me, this understanding of pursuing fulfillment to achieve excellence, put so much control in an individual’s hands, regardless of circumstances, you can carve out a fulfilling life.

Brett McKay: And it sounds like you can even apply this in professions that have that more standardization, covenant hierarchy, like a doctor or attorney or a corporate suit.

Todd Rose: Yeah. Even when the gate-keeping aspect is really rigid, it’s super hard. You’re not becoming a doctor without going through some specific things. We see it all the time is when you get into the profession, you realize it’s almost crazy that we call it the same thing. The range of things you could do and still be a lawyer is remarkable. And so the ability to still say even though I’ve come to the straight and narrow because I had to, I can still keep optimizing even within that profession in ways that can be everything from completely unsatisfying to incredibly fulfilling.

Brett McKay: And what’s nice about that, I think this idea is it takes pressure off young or can’t take pressure off young people. They really understand it. It’s like, okay, you’re 24 you don’t have to have this all figured out now. You have a long time to figure this out. It’s a lifetime process.

Todd Rose: It is a process. I mean, and that almost seems cliché, but it really is. And the thing is that I feel like, and with my own kids, I mean this is always the litmus test for me is what I do, I really want them to live by this book. And I can honestly say yes, I feel extremely confident that this is a way for them to live the kind of life they want to live. It’s empowering. It can be a little scary. Like I said, you lose sight of the things that you’ve been told all your life are the sure signs of how you have success.

But once you get into the habit of this, of being true to who you are and learning how to make choices and learn from them quick, not only is it do you end up places that are just super interesting and successful, but the journey is actually interesting. It’s actually enjoyable. And I think nowadays, what more could you ever want as a person or as a parent than to have yourself or your children be able to have a life that is that rich and meaningful.

Brett McKay: So we’ve got the standardization covenant. It was created to benefit institutions. It allows us to educate a lot of people at once, hire a bunch of people at once. But then you have this Dark Horse Covenant that’s very focused on the individual. It’s personalized. So there’s sort of this conflict there. How do you think we can resolve that? Particularly in the world of education where you grow up, you get put into a system where you’re sitting in the desk, the teacher lectures the same thing to all the kids. How can you develop a Dark Horse education within that system?

Todd Rose: Yeah, look, I mean it’s pretty simple. I mean under this new covenant, the truth is what we’re changing now is the purpose of these systems. You take something like education, the purpose of education is actually to batch process kids and sort them into predetermined outcomes that society has said they want. I mean at the end of the day, that’s what we do. It doesn’t mean that we do have amazing teachers, doesn’t mean to have caring adults, but it is the purpose of the system. If you now want a system who sees its job to understand and help develop each kid to their full potential and more importantly, help these kids figure this out for themselves, that’s a very different system.

And now you could almost think like, well that seems impossible. But the good news is with my think tank, I mean we actually engage in this kind of systems change work every day. There are some remarkable things going on. And at the core of this big change in the purpose of education is actually a focus on more personalized systems that care about individuality. And this is almost crazy to me because what’s odd is we figured out how to personalize almost every other aspect of our lives. But when it comes to our kids and their education, we seem shockingly content with the status quo, but we shouldn’t, our education system doesn’t match our capabilities for personalization. And frankly we’re letting our kids down right now.

Brett McKay: So what are some things that have been done to, I mean just sort of a highlight some of those things?

Todd Rose: I am wildly optimistic about where our public education system will be in a decade or so. We know the purpose is wrong. We’re trying like crazy. We have the tech to be able to do something different. So here’s the handful of things that have to shift that are shifting. Actually, I’ll tell you the one that I think is must have and is already happening, which is you have to shift toward what we call mastery learning, which means allowing kids to learn at their own pace until they truly understand the material rather than just passing kids from grade to grade as long as they don’t fail. And the good news is that mastery learning is already taking hold all around the country. In fact, there’s actually, you think about something like Khan Academy where basically anyone can do that online and schools use it all the time.

But you go to something like the State of Idaho, which is literally committing to making mastery learning the core of how things happen. And what’s so great about it is when you shift away from a fixed amount of time and then you just rank kids with a grade to mastery learning. What we see without fail is that kids will turn out to be just far more capable than we ever imagined that with just a little more time and support what one kid can do academically, most kids can do.

And so for me, that’s not only good for the individual. When you think about the kind of talent we’re about to unleash with a system that’s focused on mastery, it makes me pretty hopeful about the future.

Brett McKay: Well, Todd this has been a great conversation. Is there someplace people can go to learn more about the book and your work?

Todd Rose: Sure. You could go to or follow me on Twitter @ltoddrose.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Todd Rose thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Todd Rose: Yeah, thank you.

Brett McKay: Like I said, it was Todd Rose. He’s the coauthor of the book Dark Horse. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. You can find out more information about his work at his website,, that’s Todd with two D’s. Also check out our show notes at Where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM Podcast. Check out our website at where you find our podcast archives. There’s over 500 episodes there, as well as thousands of articles we’ve written over the years about money and career, physical fitness, how to be a better husband, a better father. And if you’d like to enjoy ad free episodes of The Art of Manliness Podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to sign up, use code manliness, get a month trial for free. After you signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS, and you start enjoying ad-free episodes of the Art of Manliness podcast.

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