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Defining and finding fulfillment with thought leader Todd Rose

Meet the former high school dropout whose research on success is breaking new ground

July 26, 2019

min read

As someone who always struggled in standardized educational environments, Todd Rose took an unconventional route to get where he is today. A high school dropout who worked multiple jobs to support his young wife and family, Rose got his GED and attended night classes at a local Utah university.

Now a professor at Harvard and a bestselling author of two books – including his latest, “Dark Horse: Achieving Success Through the Pursuit of Fulfillment” – Rose has harnessed the power of individual fulfillment and is helping others become self-actualized. Rose and Koch share a common vision: to help individuals discover and develop their own talents so they can drive cycles of mutual benefit. 

After a recent companywide discussion with Koch employees in Wichita, Kansas, Rose sat down with Koch News to discuss his experience, to explore the meaning of success, and to explain why he is “wildly optimistic” about the future.

Here are some top takeaways from our conversation:


Focus on the journey, not the destination

It’s a simple question: How can someone just starting their career think about success and achieving fulfillment and self-actualization – especially when all they’ve been asked growing up is, “What are you going to be when you grow up?”

Rose says that question tells children that “the system has already been built, and their job is to figure out what slot you fit into.”

For example, a child who in eighth grade decides to become a lawyer will make choices that maximize their ability to get into law school and disregard other motivations.

“Then you’re gonna find out the hard way that it wasn’t very meaningful. And usually you see that when kids get into college and are like, ‘Wow that was not the right choice.’ Right? And they end up changing majors a bunch of times,” he said.

Instead of a destination-based pursuit of becoming a lawyer or doctor, Rose recommends setting discrete, actionable goals and learning along the way.

“Make those choices in front of you every day based on who you are and what is likely to maximize fulfillment. It is the surest path to getting to an actual successful destination,” he said.


Education is a personal journey

Getting to that destination can be more daunting than it seems, especially as the current education system carries students in the opposite direction of a fulfillment path.

“It’s impossible to live a fulfilling life if you don't know who you are – if you don’t have an accurate understanding of what motivates you, what you care about most – because that’s the foundation for being able to make choices that maximize fulfillment,” Rose explained.

To change the trajectory of the system, Rose laid out a three-prong approach. First, he said, schools need to be committed to helping every student realize for themselves who they are. They must also create and nurture an environment that embraces personalized, not one-size-fits-all, learning styles. Lastly, students need the opportunity to choose what works best for them.

“Fulfillment is about converting passion into real purpose through choices,” Rose said. “Right now, we rob kids of real, meaningful choice. They don’t learn to exercise that, and it makes it hard to live a fulfilling life.”


Success is deeply personal

In conducting his research for “Dark Horse,” Rose wanted to see if there were any unifying characteristics among people who were unexpectedly successful. Imagining that there had to be some personality traits that made them able to have success on their own terms, Rose found rich human variation, but with one powerful exception.

“Without fail, they were pursuing personal fulfillment over somebody else’s definition of success. It was that commitment to pursuing what brings them meaning and purpose and allows them to make a contribution that led them to take their sort of unique path in life,” Rose said.

In short, what might matter to one person doesn’t necessarily matter the same to everybody else. That applies especially to educational environments, which, according to Rose, should help students realize who they are and who they can be, by providing different options.

“There has to be meaningful choice for them in the system because fulfillment is about converting passion into real purpose through choices.” Rose said.

For example, Rose pointed to “a lot of research looking at what parents actually want, and standardized tests are at the bottom of it.”

“Of course, they want their kid to read and do basic math. It’s not that they don’t care about the basics,” Rose said. “It’s that they don’t believe that these tests are saying enough about who their kid is and what they want for their child.”


Everybody has something to contribute

Rose’s fascination with how individuals carve their own pathways to success and fulfillment has a lot to do with his own experience as a high school dropout on welfare working a string of minimum-wage jobs.

“I really did believe, even at my darkest times, that I had something to contribute. I didn’t quite know what it was yet, but what I was sure of is that nobody – none of these systems that I was interacting with – seemed to care,” Rose said.

He understood that he had to blaze his own trail in order to get to where he wanted to be.

“My journey of having to figure out of grim necessity how to make my life better for me and my children, led me to intuitively reject the sort of one-size-fits-all strategies and I had to make my way,” Rose said. “I actually went to college at night while I sold fencing during the day. I had to get good grades to stay in college and to keep my scholarship. In that process of self-discovery, I realized that the more that I knew about myself, the more reliable choices I could make.”


Transformation starts from the bottom-up

 “There’s literally no example in history of transformative change that happened top-down. Ever,” Rose said.

The kind of change that transforms the world starts with individuals and their communities creating solutions with real value at the community level before it reaches the whole world, and it requires trust.

“Transformation really happens at the speed of trust. It can’t go faster than that, right? Because the kind of change we’re after is, by definition, sort of unknown. You may want the new outcome, but you’ve never really seen it before. You don’t have a lot of examples of it happening,” Rose said. “And what you do have is a legacy of generations of people in a system that may not be great, but it’s comfortable.”

People may want better for themselves and others, but fear of the unknown is a common barrier.

“The single strongest predictor of whether communities will move [toward transformation] is the level of trust within them. And that’s true in organizations,” Rose said. “The level of trust in an organization defines whether they’ll actually be able to transform themselves.”


Success isn’t a zero-sum game

Today, Rose explained, some think of success as “purely comparative” on a personal level, when the reality is more complex than the idea that, “for you to win, somebody else has to lose.”

“And we think about it from a status view, right? How high on the ladder do I climb? We want it to be exclusive, right? It must peak to something where only a few people can have it,” he said. “That view, it sounds awful, but if you think about the system we’ve created, this is the view of success.”

Rose found that a majority of Americans surveyed want to contribute, find a purpose, and feel fulfilled rather than be resigned to their fate. And yet, he also found that of that majority, 95% believed that others are only in it for themselves.

“The problem is that they think, even though they’re a majority, that they’re actually a tiny minority and so they think while they’ll try to live their life this way, they don’t believe they have a right to demand that our systems actually support them,” Rose said.


The challenge is great, but so is the future

Despite the disconnect between how people see themselves and how they see others, Rose has a positive outlook on what is to come.

“I’m actually wildly optimistic about the future. It feels scary right now,” Rose said, but that’s because “you have a public that wants something profoundly different.”

“They don’t want incremental change, they don’t want tinkering, they want transformative change. They want the purpose of these systems to be different,” he said.

What gives Rose hope? The majority that already believes in a society that rejects the status quo but think they’re alone.

“All we have to do is create the conditions that allow them to say out loud what they believe privately,” he said. “That kind of change can happen very, very quickly because once one person says it out loud, three more people feel comfortable saying it out loud, and then 10 more – it will just grow exponentially. So, I’m really optimistic. I think change could happen in a hurry. But it starts with understanding where the public is and what they truly care about.”