Success traditionally has been defined in terms of money and power. It’s reaching the top, commanding the room, buying that Rolex and moving into a big mansion on the hill. But Harvard professor Todd Rose is on a mission to get as many people as he can to stop searching for success and start looking for fulfillment. In his new book, Dark Horse: Achieving Success Through the Pursuit of Fulfillment, Rose explains how happiness is found in the road less traveled. He also makes the case that true fulfillment leads to greater innovation. Rose, who is director of the Laboratory for the Science of Individuality at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, spoke on the Knowledge at Wharton radio show on Sirius XM about finding that fulfillment.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Knowledge at Wharton: Tell us about this idea of success versus fulfillment, which has really been burgeoning over the last few years?
Todd Rose: For many years we have thought you had to choose or prioritize one and hope you get the other on the back end. What we are seeing is a lot of people who want both, and they believe they should be able to have it.
In the largest survey ever of Americans who view their success, there is a clear majority of Americans who have moved towards this view of success now. They don’t want the old sort of zero sum – it’s wealth, status, power. They want meaning and purpose and fulfillment. I think that is a really important shift. We have never seen that before in surveys since we have been surveying it, and I think it speaks to where we are going to be going as a country.
Knowledge at Wharton: We’ve talked on this show before about people who have followed a corporate path for a long time, then make a shift later in their career to follow that passion or find fulfillment. But how much of this is also occurring with younger individuals who are doing this maybe out of college?
Rose: I think most of us bought into the standardization path, where it’s like you have to just do the thing that you are doing, and maybe later you realize it’s not worth it, I’ve got to make a shift. But what is so interesting is this younger generation is saying, “Nope. You know what, it matters what matters to me, and I am going to go ahead and make that the north star for my life.” For a while, we called them spoiled or whatever, but we are realizing they are on to something.
Knowledge at Wharton: Can you already start to gauge what kind of effect this change is having on a particular country’s economy?
Rose: What is really interesting is that the positive benefits come from a country that is moving away from standardization and has a more diverse, creative knowledge economy where new ideas, where creativity, where innovation is harnessed. If we were back in the days of everyone is working on the factory line making cars, it’s not as helpful. But we see this as people actually pursue fulfillment. What it shows up as is deep engagement in their work. And we already know from all of the research that highly engaged people are far more productive.
Knowledge at Wharton: You want to see the education system focus more on personalized learning in order to help people find fulfillment. Can you explain what you mean?
Rose: We have a system that was not designed for that. It has done a good job at some things, but it is a batch processing, mass production system, and that is not really conducive to fulfillment. If you think about any of our education experience, how often did anybody ever bother to help us understand what matters to us? It’s not really part of the equation there. But the good news is that we are seeing dramatic shift towards personalization that would allow us to do this. You have to do it right, but it is possible. I think it’s important that we use that technology and knowhow in the direction of equipping people to live more fulfilling lives. I think that is key.
Knowledge at Wharton: I have seen you referred to as a dark horse — someone who doesn’t take the traditional path to success. Tell us your story.
Rose: I certainly don’t have a sort of traditional path. I am a Harvard professor now, but I also dropped out of high school with a 0.9 GPA. I got married when I was 19, and I ended up working a string of minimum wage jobs, relied on food stamps to support my wife and kids. I was pretty lost, frankly. I got lucky in the sense that my dad gave me this advice that changed everything. He said that if I wanted something better, I had to figure out what truly motivated me and stick closely to that. That advice put me on a different path. I got a GED, went to night school for college, and I eventually went to Harvard for my doctorate, where I have spent the last decade getting to study what makes people tick.
Knowledge at Wharton: Where did you get the idea for this particular line of research?
Rose: It was kind of a passion project, and I honestly didn’t know what we would find. I realized that there were all of these people that I was running into who had very interesting backstories and were successful, and people couldn’t really figure it out. They didn’t go through the sort of straight and narrow. And I thought, is this just luck? Is it just a handful of people that just got lucky and don’t really have anything to teach us? I thought, let’s just figure that out.
We ended up doing my first qualitative research. We surveyed hundreds of people from as many walks of life as we could get our hands on who were objectively successful but had these interesting backstories. I thought it was going to be maybe they have a certain kind of personality, like maybe a Steve Jobs or a Richard Branson where you just kind of like to buck the system. But that turned out not to be true at all. And this idea of pursuing fulfillment just emerges.
At first, I was like, “Oh, I don’t want that to be the answer because that seems squishy and soft.” But it just was crystal clear that what puts them on these very idiosyncratic paths is that they are prioritizing personal fulfillment over someone else’s view of success. It gets them on that path. But we found that it is also what allows them to be both happy and successful.
Knowledge at Wharton: What are the key ingredients for them to reach that ultimate level?
Rose: In the book, we laid out that there is this dark horse mindset and the four things that we thought really showed up consistently allowed them to make fulfillment actionable rather than follow your bliss off a cliff. But the one that is by far the most important — because if you don’t have it, it’s just not possible to get the fulfillment — is this idea of understanding what truly motivates you.
It seems so simple, right? How can you not know what motivates you? But I think most of us are pretty terrible at really understanding what drives us. What we found is that in society we tend to talk about these very, very big motives that we are all supposed to be influenced by, like competition, collaboration, money, whatever. But dark horses have this amazingly detailed understanding of what we call their micro-motives. Some big, some small, but something just really specific to them, and they know that better than anybody. It is knowing those things that motivate you that allow you to make choices that optimize fulfillment.
You have to figure it out, and we try to lay out some ways that people can do that, but it’s like when you start to get a sense for the things that really do get you out of bed. It is incredibly empowering because you realize you do have choices in your life, and it is not about meeting the optimal choice every time, it is that you always have a choice and they are never equal in terms of their potential for fulfillment.
Knowledge at Wharton: How does the education system work into this process when it is so personal?
Rose: I think the trick is that it won’t be Lord of the Flies, it won’t be like everybody for themselves. There are some things in education that we want everybody to know. We want good citizens, we want people to read, I think those are not really optional.
But I think that there are some very subtle things that you tweak that make this possible. The first is the commitment to helping kids know who they are, on their own terms. The second is this focus on mastering things rather than just getting grades. You get a fixed amount of time, you get a grade, we rank you against someone else, and you move on. That is not really developing skill in people; that is just good for selection. The third is just giving kids a little more control in their learning. That doesn’t mean a free for all, but it does mean having some say in the kind of projects you are doing, whether it is the thing you care about or not. It doesn’t have to be a lot, but it does have to be more than we are doing now.
Knowledge at Wharton: What role do parents play in this process?
Rose: It depends on the age of the kid. If you have a younger kid, I think the most important thing you can do is help your kid discover what matters to them and what motivates them. And that really just starts with asking them. It sounds simple, but how often do we ask our kids what matters to them and why? We spend a lot of time telling them what they should care about and not letting them discover it for themselves. I don’t mean questions like, how was school or how was soccer, I mean what do you enjoy about those things and why? They need to develop that, and we can help them.
Knowledge at Wharton: You tell stories in the book about different people who found fulfillment, including a gentleman named Thomas Price. He was orphaned at 14, and now he is a master sommelier. Tell us more about him.
Rose: What is so remarkable about Thomas is sometimes when you think about pursuing fulfillment, you get a little worried. Is this selfish? I am going to care about me, and I am not going to care about anyone else? Here is someone who really never had a caring adult in his life and has to just get by. He works his way through, working in restaurants and working his way up, and then enters this upper echelon of master sommeliers. It is harder to do that than it is to go to space. There are just so few of them. It is so hard, yet he makes this incredible accomplishment.
Then what does he do? He immediately is looking for ways to give back, he is looking for ways to help other people pursue their personal fulfillment. We see this over and over again. When you are on a path of fulfillment, it is not selfish. It is so expansive, you want other people to feel the way you do.
Knowledge at Wharton: You also talk about Jenny McCormick, who was a high school dropout and ended up being an astronomer.
Rose: Not only that, she has discovered a planet and an asteroid. She has been published in the top scientific journals in the world. She was stuck, a single mom, no high school diploma, working in a fast food chicken restaurant, and she happens to go visit some relatives in rural areas of New Zealand, where you can actually see the sky.
Someone gave her some powerful binoculars, and she just was captivated. She just didn’t realize the expansive universe existed. She does these amazing things of trying to figure out, how do I get enough knowledge so I can contribute? She convinces people to give her spare parts and builds her own little observatory, and she is making amazing contributions.
Knowledge at Wharton: If we made more investment in fulfillment and this type of learning, what impact could we be looking at in the future?
Rose: I would feel very safe in saying, No. 1, you are going to get far more innovation in areas where we just need it. We’ve got to have a cure for cancer. It’s got to be in some little kid’s head somewhere. We need these people to get there and care about what they are doing. I think that you see people with a deep sense of responsibility for their work. Because this is something that shows up when you are pursuing fulfillment. You don’t take shortcuts; it is so meaningful to you.
But the other thing is, I think this is a practical necessity that we are not really talking about, which is the age of automation and AI. It’s like the majority of Americans right now are disengaged in their jobs. Are you kidding me? Those are jobs that are going to be the first to go. It will be the people who understand who they are, who know how to make choices based on what brings them fulfillment because they show up as deeply engaged in their work, and when that job goes away, they know how to make choices to get to the next one. I think this is not just a luxury, this is an absolute necessity.
Knowledge at Wharton: Are you truly fulfilled? Are there other things you want to attain?
Rose: Oh, of course. Harvard is a wonderful place. I love my colleagues, but I realized pretty quickly that the things I care about have a practical element to them. I see the world of personalization and this new rising understanding of individuality, which is my scientific training, as having a huge impact on society, and I wanted to be a part of that.
I am not a tenure track professor. I get to play a role at Harvard, and went and opened a think tank where I can actually engage more practically with the public. I never thought I would be an author, but I thought, how do you get to people, how do you try to share this in a timely way? I grew up in rural America. I would have been the last to find about this kind of stuff, and I just feel like if we can be able to get to everyone, give them the knowledge, show them what is coming, allow them to have a say in where we go, I think we will get somewhere great. For me, that is what is fulfilling.