Book Review: Are you teaching a Dark Horse?

The latest book from Todd Rose, co-authored with Ogi Ogas, entitled Dark Horse: Achieving Success Through the Pursuit of Fulfillment, captured my imagination. It is not only about how individuality leads to fulfillment, and ultimately why fullfillment can lead to success, it outlines – more significantly for educators – the paradigm shift as the world changes from the Age of Standardization to the Age of Personalization. Pick this book up as soon as possible if you want to understand the world that your students are entering (and of course us too!)

“Society is transitioning from an industrial economy dominated by large, stable, hierarchical organizations to an increasingly diverse and decentralized knowledge-and-service economy populated by freelancers, independent contractors, and free agents.” (pg. 10)

This book is based on deep and extensive qualitative research and interviews about people who have chosen a different path, chosen not to ‘play the game’ of standardized institutions (like most educational institutions), to become Dark Horse success stories. A Dark Horse is “…an unexpected victor who had been overlooked because she did not fit the standard notion of a champion.” (pg. 6) And winning – or success – is something else that is being thrown under the microscope.

Finally, here in this book are stories, examples and strategies that those of us who believe that education can be something more for our students:

“…know you destination, work hard (very, very hard), and stay the course in the face of all obstacles until you reach your goal. This “Standard Formula” is confidently touted by educators, employers, parents, and scientists as the most reliable recipe for developing individual excellence…but what if we have it backward? (pg. 7)

Story after story talks about a pattern of the Dark Horses: they know that the standard path is what is causing in them tension, or a type of cognitive dissonance. One example tells of a moment where the person realized “This is not me!” And each of the stories are compelling – to say the least.

Dark Horse: First Half of the Book:

Dark Horses know that the standardized path is not for them. From their research, they have identified some key strategies to nurture Dark Horses:

(1) Know your micro-motives: embrace experiences that allow you to discover your passions and WHY you are drawn to these. “Your micro-motives are composed of strong and abiding feelings rooted deep within your unconscious self. They include subtle preferences, frank desires, and private longings.” (pg. 66) To do this, one really needs to dig deep here to know your WHY.  What systems and structures in our schools are set up to allow for these opportunities and for this deep reflection?

(2) Dark Horses know their choices: They are able to understand the differences between a choice, and picking amongst options. For example, when students are offered “choice” for, say, Day 9 – they are really picking an option that they had no say in. But for those students who have pitched an idea and run with it, that is true choice – the choice to create something of themselves. “In the standardized mindset, risk is determined by odds. But in the dark horse mindset, risk is determined by fit.” (pg. 95) I LOVE this quotation – because it makes me think of those conversations with students about post-secondary choices, career choices, and even choices for summer jobs.

QUICK DIGRESSION: This past week, two alumna came by to visit me. They are in their second year at Brown and Harvard. They both were on great tracks according to the standardized model. I talk at length with them about this book, and they really loved the idea – but saw venturing off the standardized path as way too risky – for now…

Dark Horse-ing (yes, I just made it a verb) is about mindsets.

(3) Dark Horses know their strategies: this is about figuring out how to get better at things that you care about the most. The authors use the example of becoming a Grandmaster Sommelier: “At some point, every aspiring sommelier must confront their own inadequacies and face the daunting reality that the standard strategies that carried them this far–the One Best Ways–are not enough to get them to the supreme level of excellence.” (pg. 141)

How many times have we, as educators, given a test as the only way to allow our students to show mastery? Maybe we even offer “picking from options”…but do we offer choice?

(4) Dark Horses ignore the destination: The message in this part of the book is that if you commit early to a destination and a path to get there, you close of opportunities that you may not have known were there. In other words, you don’t know what you don’t know! In the Dark Horse mindset, timelines are distractions. This is problematic for education because we have set standardized timelines for learning – and it is approximately 17 years long!

When we look at when humans learn to tie shoelaces, speak, eat on their own, etc… the timeline is wide and long. But then, in a certain grade, at a certain age, we expect major milestones to happen within 9 months across the board: learn to read, learn to write, learn algebra, etc… Then we expect that 21 years later, they know what they want to be, and get a job doing that. A Dark Horse is deeply troubled by this…

“Destinations are great for institutions. They’re catastrophic for fulfillment” (pg. 145)

Dark Horse: Second Half of the Book:

The second half of the book does an excellent job of establishing the context and why the time is now to act like a Dark Horse! In our current paradigm, there is a covenant that we follow: all people are equal – here the authors quote George Orwell’s Animal Farm: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” (pg. 212) But the Dark Horse covenant follows the belief that we all have value and talent, and that there is no standard of success. “What we really require, if we hope to build a better and fairer system of opportunity is a logical formulation that explains how everybody can have talent – and how we might design a new system around such a conception.” (pg. 197)

Currently, we put all our students together by age, give them a set of “know, understand and then do”.  Success is measured by how someone can do the same thing as everyone else only better, faster, etc… Then we put them in a pool of standardized system of talent selection for post-secondary schools. These schools have quotas to fill – therefore there could be 100 incredibly talented students, but if you can only admit 70, then it become arbitrary. Therefore, these schools are selecting talent, not developing it. So, instead of asking all our students to do the same thing – just better than anybody else:

“Now we have the chance to ratify a Dark Horse Covenant, predicated on 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.” (pg. 217)

WHAT? How is this possible? The authors do a deep-dive into two educational institutions as examples of where this covenant is already taking shape:

(1) Summit Public Schools 




(2) Southern New Hampshire University




Check these out!

As I was reading, I began asking myself: ‘who are the Dark Horses that I’ve been involved with educating? Have I unconsciously driven the Dark Horse out of them, or have I nurtured these skills and strategies. How might I shift our conversations to systems and structures to develop Dark Horse mindsets?

These are questions that hit close to home, and I hope that you can pick up this book and start asking them with me.

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