A “dark horse” is defined as a candidate or competitor about whom little is known but who unexpectedly wins or succeeds. Personally, I’ve always aspired to be a dark horse, though I can’t say I’ve ever truly embodied one. I recently finished “Dark Horse” by Todd Rose and Ogi Ogas (of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, not the Katy Perry song). This made me reevaluate not only how I think about personal fulfillment but also how companies can succeed by adopting the dark horse mentality.
Our world is heavily rooted in the concept of standardization—all with the purpose of creating the perfect output. You can see this in assembly lines, our education system, and how we develop careers (ever heard of climbing the corporate ladder? Puke!). Because of this, we tell ourselves that in order to get ahead in society at large, you have to pick your path and do it better than the last person if you want to succeed.
The dark horse mentality on the other hand, according to Rose and Ogas, is rooted in the idea that in order to have a fulfilling life, you do not have to “pick” a pre-defined, standard path. Instead, you need to identify your micro-motives, choose (not “pick”) your path, create a plan, and stick to it without worrying so much about the outcome. This requires individuals to move away from the “Standardization Covenant,” a world in which we all attend the same schools and perform the same jobs, and shift focus to things that motivate you.
Place your bets
After reading the book, I was immediately drawn to the parallels in business. In short, there are three areas to consider.
1. Market Level: Build and own your category
Think of Uber, Airbnb, and Narrative Science (had to do it!). Each of these companies decided to shun the status quo (or the “standard”), find a way to do things entirely different, and, in turn, unexpectedly succeed. Talk about an easy way to beat out your competition. At Narrative Science, our micro-motive is tied to the fact that not everybody loves data, but everybody needs data and everybody can understand language (welcome to data storytelling!).
2. Company Level: Free your people from mundane work
Nobody likes mundane work. By giving your people technology that gives them answers to common business problems, you can free up time to be more creative. The future of work is a world in which our people are more free-flowing and creative in their day-to-day. Companies that stifle their people with manual standard processes will be left behind, while those that find the right technology will enable cross-functional teams to be dark horses in their own right.
3. Individual Level: Help your people find micro-motives
Challenge your people to think about their micro-motives. This is management 101. Find out what motivates your people, and then harness those motivators and put your people in a position to win. It’s imperative that you know your employees’ micro-motives so they can work on things that bring them the most fulfillment in their lives, at home, or at work. And don’t be afraid if those motives are not aligned with the company’s needs. People are owed the right to choose their own path, and the more we can help each other in that journey, the better and more impactful we’ll be at your company and in your life.
The definition of insanity
The next time you find yourself doing the same thing over and over again, or doing the same thing as your peers or competitors, I encourage you to stop it. Start thinking about what truly motivates you, create a plan, and act in ways that set you apart from everybody else. Said another way, be different.
Be a dark horse.