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The Dark Horse Path to Happiness

There's a lot to learn about the good life from sommeliers and hot-air-balloon pilots

What would it mean to focus on the process of living? (Eric Ward/Unsplash)

There's a lot to learn about the good life from sommeliers and hot-air-balloon pilots

A common maxim in the world of peak performance is “process over outcome.” It means that you shouldn’t worry about the outcomes of your efforts, which are generally subject to all sorts of factors outside your control. Instead, you should focus on your efforts themselves, on executing a process. If you nail your inputs over and over again, the results tend to take care of themselves.

It’s somewhat easy to see how this mindset manifests in a specific activity. If you’re a runner, for example, you should concentrate on your training, sleep, and nutrition, all of which you can control. It doesn’t make sense to worry about your race time, which is subject to things you can’t control such as course conditions or cramping. But how might this play out on a far broader scale? Let’s say the outcome you desire is a good, fulfilling life. What would it mean to focus on the process of living?

Identify What Matters Most to You, Even If It Means Going Against the Grain

A good place to start is the Dark Horse Project, a long-term study out of Harvard University that explores how men and women across diverse and often unusual fields—from musicians to dog trainers to sommeliers to air-balloon pilots—develop unique processes to achieve their own personal versions of fulfillment and life satisfaction. The findings, which were recently published in the book Dark Horse, written by human-development researcher Todd Rose and neuroscientist Ogi Ogas, center around two major themes followed by people who chart untraditional paths to good lives (affectionately called dark horses): they focus on accomplishing the things that matter most to them, and they don’t compare themselves to others or conventional definitions of success.

“The first thing is actually knowing yourself,” Rose said in an interview with the website Fatherly. “For most of us, when we think about who we are, we often talk about what we’re good at or the job we do….What we found in dark horses is that they focus incredibly on what matters to them and what motivates them and use that as a basis for their identity. And I think when you anchor around what truly motivates you, that is getting you on the path of fulfillment.”

Importantly, these people also don’t worry about what others think of them. “When we were studying all these dark horses, [I thought] they were probably like Richard Branson personalities or Steve Jobs: ‘Who cares what people think of me?’” said Rose. “But it’s actually not true. Dark horses just care deeply about the pursuit of fulfillment. And if you live in a standardized world, that’s going to take you off the beaten path more times than not.” In other words: it’s not that dark horses are rebellious for the sake of being rebellious; it’s just that they care so much about their work and their values that they don’t take—or as they’d probably say, waste—much time or energy paying attention to what others think. They do their work, and live their lives, because it is right to them.

Make a Practice Out of Living Your Values

Knowing what matters most to you and having the courage to pursue it is a good start, but it’s not enough. You’ve got to act on those values over and over again. In the words of philosopher Terry Patten, you’ve got to “make a practice” out of living.

In his latest book, A New Republic of the Heart, Patten writes that life satisfaction is a byproduct of transitioning from being a seeker, or someone who wants a certain lifestyle, to a practitioner, or someone who lives that lifestyle day in and day out. “Practice,” Patten writes, “is about waking up again and again, and choosing to show up in life in alignment with one’s highest intelligence,” or what matters most.

Unfortunately, there is no quick fix. “A whole life of regular, ongoing practice is necessary,” writes Patten. “We are always reinforcing the neural circuits associated with what we are doing. Whatever way we are being, we’re more likely to be that way in the future. This means we are always practicing something.” It behooves us to live more and more of our lives taking actions that are in alignment with our core values—to make a practice out of living.

Though this may mean a change in lifestyle, it doesn’t necessarily require a complete upheaval. According to Dark Horse Project research, a common trap is that people focus too narrowly. “They think their job is going to bring them all this fulfillment when in fact what they really had to focus on was better connection with family, improved social life, new hobbies, things like that,” said Rose.

Apply a Process of Outcome Mindset to Your Own Life

  • Reflect on what motivates you. Try to come up with three to five core values or things that matter most to you, the guiding principles in your life.
  • Think about how you can turn these core values into daily practices. What actions work in service of your core values? How can you adjust your life to ensure you are taking these actions regularly? How can you incorporate these actions into your current routines? How will you measure whether or not you’re taking them?
  • Whenever you find yourself seeking, or wanting a certain outcome out of life, note what you’re doing and then refocus on practicing your core values. “When it comes, happiness is most often caused indirectly,” writes Patten. It’s the result of repeatedly practicing the actions that work in service of your core values, a lifestyle that compounds with consistency and over time.

Brad Stulberg (@Bstulberg) writes Outside’s Do It Better column and is the author of the bestselling book Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success.

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