A dark horse

How a high school dropout cracked the code to success

Todd Rose was no stranger to school suspensions by the time he got to the seventh grade at Sand Ridge Junior High School. Stink bombs, at the time, were much more interesting than anything Mr. Peabody was teaching during art class. By his senior year in high school, it was evident that very little — including stink bombs — could interest Rose anymore. 

The Hooper, Utah, native was kicked out of Layton High school with a 0.9 GPA. “My principal told my parents, ‘There is literally no chance he can graduate,’ so my parents were like, ‘OK fine, you got to get a job somewhere.’” He got a job stocking shelves at a department store for $4.25 per hour. Shortly thereafter, his then-girlfriend (and now wife) found out she was pregnant. 

Most people wouldn’t be surprised if the next chapter in Rose’s story included a stint (or two) in jail before concluding in a lackluster, melancholy dénouement. Instead, he ended up on faculty at Harvard University. He’s authored three books (two of them bestsellers) and founded the Laboratory for the Science of Individuality at Harvard as well as a nonprofit think tank called Populace. And he’s dedicated his life’s work to revealing how important individuality is to success and how we need to restructure societal systems to allow for individual opportunity instead of focusing on an “average” that doesn’t exist. Turns out, we all can have a chance to find success even in the most unlikely of situations. Rose believes we can all be dark horses, or someone who on paper shouldn’t succeed, but beats the odds and does.

Rose will tell you that there was no “aha!” moment that turned his life around. No touching made-for-television conversation with a mentor or teacher. No stint at a wilderness therapy program or a boarding school that “scared him straight.” There was no morning that he woke up and decided to change it all for the better. Instead, his change of fate “emerged from a series of at first seemingly random, yet always interrelated events.” It’s paying attention to these random events — and figuring out what makes them not so random — that allows a person to find a distinct pathway to success.

“It’s risky and scary to pursue what matters to you,” Rose muses. “But it’s riskier not to.” 

A good dark horse storyline is irresistible because it seems just as irreplicable as it does improbable: Oprah Winfrey being fired from one of her first jobs in television, Bob Dylan losing a high school talent show, Walt Disney being fired from The Kansas City Star for lacking “imagination” and having “no good ideas” — the list goes on. And what Rose has dedicated his now wildly successful career to is proving that while these paths are indeed irreplicable, individual success is not.

After working nearly a dozen minimum wage jobs in just a couple years after dropping out of Layton High School (the last of them requiring him to give enemas to people) and being on welfare with two kids relying on him, Rose went back to school in 1995. At the age of 22, he enrolled in night classes at Weber State University, wore fake glasses to appear smarter and did his best to play by the rules of due dates and good attendance. But even with his back against the wall and all of his responsibilities to keep his family afloat breathing down his neck, he still felt like traditional classes were a bad fit. It wasn’t until he heard about the college honors program at Weber State and the critical-thinking, debate-centric classes within it that he thought that this whole “going back to school” thing was going to work. 

“It was after my first year there and I was sitting in a large boring lecture hall when my friend sitting next to me said, ‘Let me tell you, I got into the honors program and it’s terrible, there are just debates. You can’t hide, there are no tests, you write and talk. There aren’t even right answers,’” Rose recalls. “And I thought, ‘Are you kidding me, that sounds perfect.’ So I beelined to the top of the hill where the honors program building was and asked for the director.”

Upon seeing Rose’s unfinished high school diploma, ACT score of 19 (a score of 24 is considered “good”) and current average grades, the director said there was no way Rose could be in the honors program. But Rose countered — by sitting in the honors building lobby all day after Marilyn Diamond, the honor’s college secretary, told him “If you want this, don’t take no for an answer.” By the end of the day, the director let him in on a probationary trial period. 

“I appreciated the idea of finally having a good fit,” Rose says. “We are all distinct and there aren’t smart people and dumb people — we are just stuck with the rules of a standardized system that says there are. On paper I should have been in remedial classes but if I would have just played along I don’t think I would have even gotten through remedial math. Instead, I graduated as honors student of the year in 2000 and got into Harvard for graduate school with a 3.97 GPA.

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Upon landing at Harvard, Rose kept meeting people who had the most unbelievable backgrounds — “and that encouraged my path,” he says. After graduating from Harvard with both a master’s degree and a Ph.D., Rose partnered with his longtime mentor Kurt Fischer in the Mind, Brain and Education Program at the Graduate School of Education as a researcher and professor. His desire? To finally get to study individuality and figure out just how he — and many of the people he had met along the way — found unlikely success.  

And thus, many years later, in 2012, the Laboratory for the Science of Individuality at Harvard was founded. And soon behind it was Rose’s first big project studying unlikely folks who found success — the Dark Horse Project — in 2016. Rose decided it was time to figure out how people the world deems average — like him — flip a 180 and become exceptional. He hosted focus groups with plumbers, business owners, engineers, presidential campaign directors and a slew of others who were successful in their respective fields. He recorded countless hours of interviews. He input data, studied charts and partnered with neuroscientists. 

But Rose’s research didn’t go as he expected it would. “When we started the Dark Horse Project I thought I totally knew what we were going to find. Nope,” he says with a laugh. “Do each of these successful people have something in common? A personality trait? No. Most of them weren’t rebellious — their personalities were all over the place.”

“What kept emerging was how fulfillment and purpose was the most important value for each of these people,” he says. “I thought, ‘That can’t be the answer, this is too squishy.’ I was a quantitative researcher my whole career, but this was qualitative. Turns out, you can learn a lot from listening to people.” 

At first, each dark horse story seemed random and fantastical. There was a high school dropout named Jennie who hated math — but she was curious, patient, detail-focused, methodical and endlessly curious about what she could see in the sky. When she was 36, she built herself a telescope on her back patio, became a self-taught astronomer and discovered a previously undetected asteroid. For her work, Jennie was awarded the New Zealand Order of Merit for her contributions to astronomy. There was an MIT Sloan School of Management graduate who struggled to get hired at age 50 after an unsuccessful string of tech management jobs. His name is Saul, and he knew that he enjoyed precision, alignment and working to solve problems just as much as he disliked managing other people. So at age 57, he bought a brick and mortar storefront with his tech career savings and opened his own Fibrenew Upholstery Repair franchise and was named the best leather couch repairman by New York Magazine. Soon, Rose and his research partners began to catch on as patterns emerged. 

A good dark horse storyline is irresistible because it seems just as irreplicable as it does improbable

“There were a handful of things that led to a path in life that allowed a person to become successful in their own distinct definition,” Rose says. “They prioritized personal fulfillment over society’s definition of success. We all chase this view, like, ‘OK just be really great at what society values,’ but these people thought about who they were and what mattered to them instead. They knew what made them tick and what motivated them from a very individual perspective. It proves that there’s something to knowing who you are and then finding the right fit.”  

“People who know me best would agree that I’m happier now than with anything else I have done with my career,” Saul Shapiro says in “Dark Horse,” the book Rose and his research partner, Dr. Ogi Ogas, published after concluding their study. “I enjoy what I do almost every day and I’m financially secure. In the end, I figured out how to align my livelihood to my nature.”

Rose says he never learned more from any project in his life than he did from “Dark Horse.” “It changed my mind,” he says. In fact, it changed his mind enough to leave Harvard behind. “I don’t believe in the structure of our educational institutions — they operate on a zero-sum model and create scarcity to breed competition and create ‘success.’ It was the exact opposite of what my research — which Harvard was funding — was finding about the true nature of success.” Rose deemed it hypocritical enough to leave it all behind. “I needed to practice what I preached,” he says. “This required me to get out of academia.” 

So, again, Rose is out connecting those seemingly random events of his life and his true nature to figure out what’s next. First, it was individuality. Now, it’s how we can create new societal systems (like education) that allow for and encourage that individuality. He is currently working as the president and co-founder of Populace, a nonprofit think tank that works to find solutions to redistribute opportunity, so all people have the chance to live fulfilling lives in a thriving society. Rose is also finishing up his fourth book,Collective Illusions,” which will be available later this year. The book details how collective societal illusions become self-fulfilling prophecies. “It’s shocking that no matter what the topic is we are spectacularly wrong about the majority of America,” Rose says. “Big majorities are convinced they are the minority. For instance, almost 70% of Americans want criminal justice to be rehabilitative but think that the majority favors punitive criminal justice because that’s the model we have. The whole point of the book isn’t to answer, ‘Are we being lied to?’ It’s more about us, how we’re prone to conformity.” 

His work at Populace and the research he is taking on for his “Collective Illusions” project is something Rose says will occupy the rest of his life’s work. Based on what he knows about himself, it’s where all of these random events have led him. So, he’ll follow. “It’s risky and scary to pursue what matters to you,” he muses. “But it’s riskier not to.” 

Lauren Steele is a contributing editor for Deseret Magazine.

This story appears in the March issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.