The key to attaining fulfillment and excellence is a mindset that empowers you to fit your circumstances to your unique interests and abilities. This mindset can be rendered in plain English: Harness your individuality in the pursuit of fulfillment to achieve excellence.
The goal of all standardization is to maximize the efficiency of a system of production. The prime mechanism by which standardization accomplishes this is through the elimination of individual variation. Standardization establishes fixed processes that convert fixed inputs into identical outputs, without deviation or fluctuation. In other words, the standardization mindset is committed to the principle that individuality is a problem.
Under the covenant, not everyone could attain success—you still needed to work hard and demonstrate talent—but for the first time, the ladder of opportunity became accessible to anyone. That remains its ostensible promise: whoever proves to exhibit the most merit as judged by our standardized institutions will be granted access to society’s best opportunities.
Here is the crucial point you should register about Ingrid’s mindset when she decided to stop her public relations work and go all-in on an unproven business idea. At the time, she did not “know her destination”—she had no idea how much money she would make from her new venture and had no clear sense of what her business might ultimately look like. Nor did she suddenly buckle down and “work hard”; she always worked hard. And she certainly wasn’t “staying the course” on some long-suppressed professional dream; she had never contemplated a career in floristry before. Nor was it an act of defiance against the system. Her clients were generally conservative in their tastes—corporate customers seeking reliability rather than rebellion. Instead, Ingrid made the decision to reject the Standard Formula—and the Law of Jante—once and for all and blaze her own winding path. Rather than developing her craft by taking conventional classes on floristry, she learned about the qualities of flowers through trial and error and by asking vendors for help. Instead of following the standard templates of floristry when creating a new floral arrangement, Ingrid applied the basic rules of good visual design as she understood them.
low. Generic motivation goes by many different names, including self-discipline, resolve, tenacity, perseverance, fire in the belly, and grit. But in the final analysis, all these labels are merely shorthand for “Your individuality does not matter.”
The desire to organize closets might seem too quirky and trivial to dignify it by calling it a motive at all, let alone a fundamental human motive. And yet, for Korinne this highly personal micro-motive guided her to a life of authenticity and achievement. The lives of dark horses demonstrate the remarkable specificity of micro-motives.
And if you want to attain fulfillment, it’s essential to know exactly what puts the wind in your sails—not what someone else thinks should get you going. That’s why Know Your Micro-Motives is the first and most crucial element of the dark horse mindset. When
Keep in mind, the purpose of the game of judgment isn’t to coolly assess the merits and deficiencies of other people. It’s not about them at all. You should have no pretense to objectivity or else you’re doing it wrong. The goal is to use your intense emotional response to ferret out the hidden contours of your own desires.
When judging the debt collector, try to determine which gets your heart thumping faster: the process of tracking down deadbeats, or the act of making them pay. Is there something about catching people who are trying to avoid being caught that energizes you? Or is it something about being an agent of fair play, administering justice when nobody else can? When it comes to Knowing Your Micro-Motives, the details always matter.
For dark horses, passion is multidimensional and dynamic—and, crucially, under your intentional control. Dark horses reveal that passion is not something to be followed, but something you can engineer. The key to engineering passion does not lie in following the one motive that burns hottest inside you, but rather in deliberately leveraging as many different motives as possible.
Korinne feels passion for her work because it fulfills several personal yearnings: her desire to organize physical space, her desire to help people (Korinne especially enjoys helping professional moms who work from home), her desire to do something different every day, her desire to be her own boss, and her desire to build her own enterprise that can grow and change. It is the synergistic sum of all these varied micro-motives
In most cases, you cannot choose your instructors, the size of your classes, the time of your classes, or how much money you spend on a required course. Most professions—including all of the most lucrative ones, such as medicine, science, engineering, and law—demand that you complete a fixed and compulsory set of educational milestones before they will even begin to consider hiring you. The business world isn’t much better.
Under the Standardization Covenant, these are certainly some of the most important decisions you will ever make. But it’s a bit of a stretch to call them choices. Instead, our standardized institutions replace choosing with picking. Even though you purportedly have the freedom to decide between attending, say, the University of Michigan or the University of North Carolina, this decision is entirely dependent on which colleges actually admit you. You are not choosing which college to attend. You are picking a college from the list of schools that admitted you.
odds. But in the dark horse mindset, risk is determined by fit. Dark horses evaluate how well their personal pattern of micro-motives matches up with the features of an opportunity. Thus, fit is a multidimensional interaction between the individual and the opportunity.
As long as you Know Your Micro-Motives—and have a realistic appraisal of the demands of an opportunity—then you will be a better judge than anyone else of the riskiness of a choice, because you will be a better judge of fit.
if a new opportunity provides a better fit than your present one and you can live with the worst-case scenario, then no matter how seemingly stable and satisfactory your current opportunity appears, you should still choose the more fulfilling option. The reason is simple. Seemingly small differences in fit can lead to very large differences in fulfillment and excellence.
The moment you stop trying to get better is the moment that fulfillment begins to wither on the vine. The winding path never ends. The moment you close yourself off to opportunities that will increase your sense of authenticity, you risk losing something worse than stable comfort. You risk losing your sense of purpose.
Even when all your options are good ones—especially when your options are good ones—the dark horse mindset implores us to choose the one with the best fit, no matter how hazardous it may seem to others.
If you follow the call of the Standardization Covenant and passively pick a standardized option based on the perceived odds of success instead of actively choosing the one that best fits your individuality, you are robbing yourself of your rightful sense of purpose. That’s why dark horses fully invest themselves in their choices. They do not equivocate, hedge, or treat their choice as a trial balloon. They act decisively because they are committing to a particular direction. Whenever you make a bold move, you are announcing to the world, “This is where I’m headed.”
In the dark horse mindset, a strategy is a method for getting better. Thus, every strategy involves improving yourself over time.
Micro-motives, in contrast, are enduring psychic entities wired into your brain that consistently exert their presence in any environment. Unlike micro-motives, strengths are inaccessible to introspection because with a strength there is usually no real there there.
You discern your strengths not through introspection, but through action. Strengths are also contextual. Any personal quality can be either an aptitude or a handicap, depending on the situation.
Since strengths are fundamentally different from motives, you should take a fundamentally different approach when choosing a strategy than when choosing an opportunity.
Whenever you make a choice based upon your micro-motives, you are declaring, “This is who I am!” But whenever you choose a new strategy, you are making a more provisional claim: “This is what I’m trying next!”
In the standardization mindset, choosing strategies is a matter of staying the course. In the dark horse mindset, choosing strategies is a matter of trial and error.
Failure is an essential component—perhaps the defining component—of the process of developing excellence.
He succeeded because he chose opportunities that fit his micro-motives, and selected strategies suited for his strengths. In other words, just like every dark horse, he figured out how to get better at the things he cared about most.
When a profession stops imposing a One Best Way for developing excellence, every member becomes a dark horse. Sommeliers are a perfect example. The most esteemed position in the entire hospitality industry is the coveted title of master sommelier, a credential awarded by the Court of Master Sommeliers.
When you learn to Know Your Micro-Motives, you can engineer your own passion, which endows you with energy and authenticity. When you learn to Know Your Choices, you can engineer your own purpose, which provides you with meaning and direction. And when you learn to Know Your Strategies, you can engineer your own achievement. When you do, you will experience a deep sense of pride and self-worth because you will have accomplished meaningful feats while remaining true to your authentic self.
Destinations are great for institutions. They’re catastrophic for fulfillment.
The single most important finding of the Dark Horse Project might be the spectacular variety of individual expertise. In every field in which we interviewed multiple experts, we discovered meaningful differences in the way they approached their craft that were traceable to the individuality of the person.
the only question you should ever ask yourself is “Is this the right strategy for me?”
individuality. More pointedly, a goal is born out of an active choice you have made. In contrast, a destination is someone else’s idea of an objective that you have acceded to.
information retrieval systems. When applied together, the four elements of the dark horse mindset function as a gradient ascent algorithm. Here’s how gradient ascent works. First, you look around at all the slopes near your starting point and determine which slope is steepest. You climb in that direction for a while, then pause and look around from your new vantage point to see whether there might now be a more favorable direction to climb—specifically, a steeper slope. By repeating this process over and over again, you steadily climb higher and higher until you reach a summit. While this process may not find the fastest possible route to the top, it will reliably get you there.
shines at its brightest when it comes to the how. It offers straightforward instructions for developing your potential to its fullest: Get better at the things you care about most. This is the dark horse prescription for personalized success. It elegantly summarizes all four elements of the dark horse mindset and converts gradient ascent into a simple set of directives: Get better consists of climbing toward a personal peak of excellence. It is the process of engineering achievement by Knowing Your Strategies and Ignoring the Destination. The things you care about most consists of choosing which mountain to climb. It is the processes of engineering passion by Knowing Your Micro-Motives and engineering purpose by Knowing Your Choices.
The design of the system of talent development is the same in every nation that abides by the Standardization Covenant because they all share the same assumption about human potential: Talent is rare.
Said another way, our foremost institutions of opportunity enforce a talent quota.
The most obvious selection criteria to use are ones that distinguish between candidates who already exhibit talent from those who don’t. That certainly makes sense—but it also means you are not developing talent. You are selecting talent. Thus, a standardized system of talent development is always a system of talent selection.
When U.S. News & World Report ranks American universities, it relies upon a set of “indicators of academic excellence” to determine which school to rank higher than another. The grades and SAT scores of admitted students are two major indicators. So is the percentage of applicants that a school admits. Which indicator is given the greatest weight of all? The opinions of institutional administrators. How much weight is given to the opinions of the students who actually attend these institutions? Zero. In fact, zero is the weight granted to all the things that most families care about: the starting salary of graduates, how long graduates take to find a job, and job satisfaction among graduates.
We take it for granted that “highly selective” means the same thing as “high standards.”
Whenever you employ a fixed threshold for evaluating talent, you can never know in advance how many candidates will make the cut.
But Ptolemy decided to cheat instead. He introduced a fudge factor, a kludge that made the math work out the way everybody wanted, with geocentric orbits and uniform speeds. Ptolemy’s fudge factor is known as an “equant.” An equant is the location in space where you should start your calculations so that the solutions will show the orbits moving the way you want. Thus, an equant is what mathematicians politely call “self-defining”—it is assigned whatever value will give you the answer you are looking for.
Our educational institutions use a deceptively simple ploy to preserve quotas while maintaining the public illusion of employing objective standards. We call this intuitively satisfying fudge factor a talent equant.
If an institution truly wanted to objectively evaluate candidates and preserve its quota, there is a rational and practical solution that is indisputably fairer than an equant: a lottery.
Earth was not the only entity with gravity came when Galileo looked through his telescope at Jupiter and discovered, to his utter surprise, that the planet was orbited by four moons of its own. The moment Galileo saw them, it was clear the proposition that the Earth was special was false. Other planets had gravity, too.
This zigzag pattern is known as a “jagged profile.” A jagged profile has a technical definition within the science of individuality. A jagged profile is any human quality composed of multiple dimensions, with low correlations between the dimensions.
One boy’s IQ score is 117, corresponding to the eighty-fifth percentile. The other boy’s IQ score is 98, corresponding to the forty-fifth percentile,
The dark horse mindset looks at things quite differently. It interprets the distinctiveness of each jagged profile as indicating that each boy has his own unique potential for excellence. Though
Let’s sum up. We have hard evidence that the standardization mindset’s assumptions about talent are erroneous: the ubiquity of dark horses. We have a logical formalism that explains how everyone can possess the potential for excellence: the jagged profile. This same logical formalism explains how to convert your potential into proficiency: by harnessing your jagged profile of micro-motives and using trial and error to find strategies that fit your jagged profile of fuzzy strengths.
In 1958, the British sociologist Michael Young wrote the book The Rise of the Meritocracy. This satirical work of fiction was no celebration of the test-based system of standardized talent selection sweeping through Britain. Instead, Young contrived the word “meritocracy” as a mocking rebuke, drawing a contemptuous parallel with “aristocracy.” As Young wrote, “We have our modern society: by imperceptible degrees an aristocracy of birth has turned into an aristocracy of talent.”
By insisting the new system of opportunity would identify, select, and nurture talent wherever it lay hidden, advocates of the “meritocracy” confidently assured us that it would even maximize excellence in society. But a system that only makes opportunity available to an arbitrary quota is not a true meritocracy. It is a quotacracy. And in a quotacracy, excellence is always a negative-sum game.
Instead, it consists of a small minority of winners and a large majority of losers. For every applicant who gets into Yale, fifteen others will not. For every applicant who gets into Stanford Medical School, forty-two others will not.
In a quotacracy, the opportunities of the many are sacrificed for the opportunities of the few. This is worse than a zero-sum game. This is a negative-sum game.
Incredibly, a smaller percentage of the US population attends name-brand universities than the percentage of the population who were nobles during the peak periods of aristocracy in Britain, Spain, Italy, and Russia.
At Harvard, legacy applicants are six times as likely to be admitted as merely “talented” applicants. This is not an “-ocracy” of merit. This is an “-ocracy” of privilege.
In a quotacracy, the well-endowed schools that don’t need money inevitably get co-opted by bloodlines, while the schools that do need money sell themselves to the highest bidder.
For the first time, we finally have everything we need to build a meritocracy that is worthy of the name. A democratic meritocracy.
We have a gig economy populated by contractors, freelancers, and other free agents. We have a long-tail economy, where it’s possible to target small consumer niches on a global scale.
We need robust, low-cost, and ubiquitous personalization technologies to provide the kind of personalized learning and individual choice necessary for a democratic meritocracy.
The blooming fields of personalized medicine, personalized nutrition, personalized genomics, personalized training, personalized learning, and personalized manufacturing draw upon the principles of the science of individuality and are advancing every day.
Now we have the chance to ratify a Dark Horse Covenant, predicated upon the belief that everyone possesses the potential for their own variety of merit and endorsing a core value of fulfillment, leading to a system of opportunity where anyone and everyone can succeed. This democratic meritocracy will be enforced by individuals, with the consent of individuals.
The supreme institutional obligation under the Dark Horse Covenant is to provide Equal Fit. The supreme individual obligation under the Dark Horse Covenant is Personal Accountability. These two obligations—when conjoined together—are necessary and sufficient to inaugurate a democratic meritocracy.
Equal Access is certainly a noble and necessary effort. But Equal Opportunity as Equal Access leaves the fundamental unfairness of a quota-based system of opportunity unaltered and intact.
Equal Opportunity as Equal Access is the best we could hope for in a quotacracy. But the fact that it was necessary and decent doesn’t eliminate the reality that Equal Access is a standardized solution to a standardized problem. It’s using one equant to fix another equant. Its ultimate aim, and ultimate achievement, was to help ensure that anyone—but not everyone—had a chance to attain excellence and fulfillment.
Under Equal Fit, every person is given their best opportunity to succeed, according to their individuality. It’s not concerned with adjusting the talent equant, because there is no equant—no mold you must fit, no judge you must please. Instead, Equal Fit adjusts to accommodate your unique jagged profile. In a system with Equal Fit, we are not competing with each other to ascend to the next narrowing rung of the ladder; we are each performing our own gradient ascent.
Under the principle of Equal Fit, institutions become obligated to personalize all human-facing systems that support how we learn, work, and live. More pointedly, institutional systems and services should accommodate the jagged profile of any individual, of any background, of any age. The design mandate for institutions under the Dark Horse Covenant is flexibility rather than efficiency. In a democratic meritocracy, personalization is not some kind of perk, upscale add-on, or after-market frivolity. It is the only possible way to ensure Equal Fit and the universal right to fulfillment.