Dark Horse: Achieving Success Through the Pursuit of Fulfillment

October 09, 2018


Todd Rose and Ogi Ogas have written a book "premised upon the conviction that we are entering a new epoch demanding a very different formula for success."

Todd Rose's first book, The End of Average, was a revelation. He opens the book discussing an unusual number of crashes occurring during Air Force training in the 1940s—most of them being chalked up to human error because, although the pilots were trained very well, the planes themselves were not found to be malfunctioning. But it turned out their was a fundamental flaw in the design. The cockpits were designed for an average sized pilot, based on the physical dimensions of hundreds of male pilots measured in 1926. That average hadn’t changed since 1926. The literally fatal flaw was that the average pilot doesn’t exist.

“If you’ve designed a cockpit to fit the average pilot,” Todd Rose tells us, “you’ve actually designed it to fit no one.” 

Rose's larger concern in The End of Average is whether we've designed our society, our organizations and educational institutions, with that same fatal flaw. His new book, Dark Horse, authored with Ogi Ogas, tells the story of the those who don't adhere to the average, who don't follow the standard formula, and achieve great success anyway. The story begins with themselves. Both have added the prefix "Dr." to their names, authored books, and are currently on the payroll of Harvard, but neither followed a standard, linear path to get there. As they write in Dark Horse:


We did not choose dark horses as subjects because of some kind of academic tradition of using them in success research. There is no such tradition. In fact, when we surveyed the scientific literature, we could not find any major investigations of experts who pursued unconventional pathways to success. No, the reason we decided to study dark horses was personal.

We had both struggled through life, always swimming upstream. Todd dropped out of high school at age seventeen, married his teenage girlfriend, and had two children before his twentieth birthday. He supported his family by selling chain-link fence across rural Utah. Ogi dropped out of four different colleges five different times and could not hold down a nine-to-five job, at one point supporting himself by selling used books out of the trunk of his car. We both had a long rap sheet from our transgressions during the Age of Standardization, languishing through long stretches when we tried our best to conform to the standardized institutions of work and school, yet were never able to fit in.

Maybe we only managed to claw our way to professional proficiency through dumb luck, but one thing we knew for sure was that whatever success we had scraped together was the result of breaking the rules of the game. Not out of defiance or hubris. Out of grim necessity. All of our attempts at following the Standard Formula resulted in failure.

That realization provided us with our hunch that dark horses might present a special opportunity for investigating how to achieve excellence on your own terms. If there were in fact principles for attaining mastery that could be adapted to any person—no matter who you are or where you are starting from—we thought the best place to look for them was in the lives of experts who succeeded outside the system.

That’s why we launched the Dark Horse Project.


Beyond that, they explain that the literature on the topic of achievement itself is not one-size-fits-all—and often not even relevant past the generation it was written. That is the topic of the excerpt below, provided by our friends at HarperCollins, about why one of the primary objectives in writing Dark Horse was… 


Breaking the Mold

Humans have been offering each other advice about success for a very long time. Precepts for the good life—what scholars often call “success literature” but which is more popularly characterized as “self-help”—are as old as philosophy. Aristotle, Confucius, and St. Augustine all authored tip sheets for prosperity. We might imagine that most of the counsel dispensed by these ancient gurus has endured as timeless words of wisdom, but that’s not quite true. Success literature has a shelf life.

The most useful kind of advice is actionable and specific, and therefore tightly bound to the time and place where it originated. The recipe for success in third-century Polynesian society (learn to build and pilot canoes) was different from that in the thirteenth-century Mongol Empire (learn to ride and care for horses). The formula in the fifteenth-century Aztec Empire (avoid becoming a human sacrifice) was different from that in the eighteenth-century Russian Empire (avoid becoming a serf).

The general tropes of success literature are fairly consistent within any given epoch, but they frequently go through dramatic shifts whenever society transitions into a new era. One such inflection point is illustrated in the 1775 pamphlet The Way to Be Rich and Respectable: Addressed to Men of Small Fortune. Author John Trusler was writing during the final stages of England’s conversion from a feudal economy into a merchant economy. He observed that in the emerging epoch, opportunities for wealth and status were no longer limited to hereditary dukes and barons: “Men were [previously] happy to be the vassals or dependents of their Lord, and prided themselves in little but their submission and allegiance … but as on the increase of trade, riches increased; men began to feel new wants … and sighed for indulgences they never dreamed of before.” What was the formula for achieving success in this new era? Trusler suggested a strategy that at first seemed fanciful and impractical but that eventually came to define the new age: “independency.” Not the tried-and-true practice of obedient allegiance to an aristocratic patron, but the unprecedented pursuit of personal autonomy.

The epoch that you yourself were born into commenced in the early twentieth century, as Western society transitioned into a factory-based manufacturing economy. That epoch is often dubbed the Industrial Age, but it would be more apt to call it the Age of Standardization. The assembly line, mass production, organizational hierarchies, and compulsory education became commonplace, leading to the standardization of most fixtures of everyday life, including consumer products, jobs, and diplomas.

As with every epoch, the Age of Standardization spawned its own definition of success: attaining wealth and status by climbing the institutional ladder. This new conception gave rise to modern self-help books, including such perennial bestsellers as Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936), Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich (1937), and Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking (1952). This upward-looking generation of success literature emphasized habits and techniques designed to help individuals ascend the organizational hierarchy. As Hill advised, “The better way is by making yourself so useful and efficient in what you are now doing that you will attract the favorable attention of those who have the power to promote you into more responsible work that is more to your liking.”

The Age of Standardization also marked the first time that self-help and mainstream science converged into the same recipe for obtaining success. As the twenty-first century rolled in, New York Times bestsellers and blue-ribbon social scientists were touting variants of the Standard Formula. For generations, the message “know your destination, work hard, and stay the course” has been impressed upon us as the most dependable stratagem for securing a prosperous life. This advice appears so unassailable that disregarding it seems perilous and foolish. Indeed, many recent books even go so far as to claim that the Standard Formula rises to the level of timeless human wisdom.

Not this book. Dark Horse is premised upon the conviction that we are entering a new epoch demanding a very different formula for success.


Excerpted from Dark Horse: Achieving Success Through the Pursuit of Fulfillment
Copyright © 2018 by Todd Rose and Ogi Ogas.
Published by HarperOne.
All rights reserved.



Dr. Todd Rose is the director of the Mind, Brain, and Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he leads the Laboratory for the Science of the Individual. Todd is also the co-founder of non-profit The Center for Individual Opportunity, and is the author of The End of Average and Square Peg. His talks have been featured at TedX, the Aspen Ideas Festival, SXSW, Google, Microsoft, Pixar, Costco, JP Morgan, Chevron, and Colin Powell’s America’s Promise.

Dr. Ogi Ogas is Project Head for the Dark Horse Project at Harvard, where he is a visiting scholar in the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He received his PhD in computational neuroscience from Boston University and was a Department of Homeland Security Fellow, conducting biodefense research at the MIT Lincoln Laboratory. He is the co-author of A Billion Wicked Thoughts and Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry, and contributed to The End of Average. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal, Glamour, Wired, The Guardian, Fortune, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Fast Company, and Seed.

Rose and Ogas both live in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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