Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, March 25, 2019
Success v. fulfillment. (That has the ring of the famous Miller Lite commercials — Tastes Great, Less Filling). My question is if I can have both of those features in a single beer, why can’t I have both success and fulfillment in my life?
This issue is prominent today among the younger generations. What do I have to give up to get it, and more to the point, how do I know when I got it? And so we turn to Harvard Professor Todd Rose who has written a book, “Dark Horse: Achieving Success Through the Pursuit of Fulfillment.” His theme is that happiness is found in the road less traveled.
This “can I have it all” puzzle is universal across all categories and ages and genders, but it is particularly virulent among our beloved entrepreneurs. If you set out on the road less traveled and your GPS fails and you run out of water, telling yourself you are happy, even though you turned down a job offer from Goldman Sachs or Google, will definitely test the limits of personal resolve.
On the other hand, the pursuit of happiness is not a straight road and your priorities morph and reappear at uncertain times. Often, it is the “when you least expect it” moment that changes your life. “The new paradigm for happiness is no longer the zero sum game of wealth, status and power,” Rose says. And I cannot help myself — the college admission scandal is beyond words. We either live in interesting times or in a world gone mad.
Rose is an interesting fellow. He teaches at Harvard, but he didn’t get there in a straight line. He writes, “I certainly did not have a traditional path. I dropped out of high school with 0.9 GPA. I got married at 19, I worked minimum wage jobs and relied on food stamps, I was lost.” His father “had a talk with him” and the advice changed his life. He got his GED and ultimately his doctorate from Harvard. Let me tell you — I don’t know what his dad said to him, but I want to bottle it and take it public.
In the specific, Rose wants “the education system to be more focused on personalized learning.” This is right in the crosshairs of the whole education discussion. Individual pursuit v. you need to take algebra, because you think you will never use it, but trust me you will. Your life is a quadratic equation. Seek mastery of the material, not the grade on the test.
What puzzled Rose was that he kept “running into people who had interesting back stories and also were very successful.” He wondered if it were just luck. Instead what he had tapped into was a growing pool of people who did not follow the “proper path” — the straight and narrow, good grades, extracurricular activities, feed the poor, travel to Costa Rica to build houses in the rainforest and then get into an Ivy League college and then find themselves divorced at 45, contemplating blowing their brains out. By contrast the nontraditional folks seemed to have prioritized personal goals over someone else’s view of the world. (Parents, beware, your children may grow up to be cowboys.)
Rose calls out the dark horse mantra — find out what motivates you. He says, “dark horses have a very detailed understanding of what I call micro-motives.” In other words, the search for fulfillment is granular and unique, and often not related to the big motives of competition and money. To find true happiness, you need to sweat the small stuff.
What floats your boat is an interesting question, but you also need to ask, what kind of boat do you want and where do you intend to sail it? Rose says “we do have choices, but not every choice is optimal.” His book is filled with personal stories of triumph. But, let’s be careful here. There are real limitations of health and money and family and geography — but within that circle, perhaps, maybe, our educational system can try to empower and support personal choices. I am not naive. The road less traveled may be fascinating and hold deep allure, but options expire over time and not all of us can pick another road if things don’t work out as planned.
Rule No. 602
Gratitude is a choice.