How can you uncover your best self? Start by judging other people — really

Oct 30, 2018 / +

Uncovering your micro-motives — that collection of super-specialized things that make your particular heart sing — are key to finding fulfillment and success at work, say social scientists Todd Rose and Ogi Ogas. And there’s a fun way to identify them: observing how you judge others.

Social scientists Todd Rose and Ogi Ogas (of the Harvard Graduate School of Education) study dark horses: the people who triumph against the odds, the winners nobody saw coming.

A dark horse can be an opera singer or a dog trainer, a hairstylist or a diplomat … or a sommelier, carpenter, puppeteer, architect, embalmer, chess grandmaster, midwife, art conservator, astronomer, landscape architect. (These are just some of the people that Rose and Ogas have interviewed as part of their Dark Horse project.) “The personalities of dark horses are just as diverse and unpredictable as you would find in any random sampling of human beings,” write Rose and Ogas. However, “there is a common thread that binds them all together: dark horses are fulfilled.”

So, how do you start finding fulfillment for yourself? In their work, Rose and Ogas have identified four critical elements of fulfillment — including a fascinating factor that they call micro-motives. And this small but mighty trait could be the clue to your best self. Here’s how you can find yours.

Your motives comprise the emotional core of your individuality. What you desire — and what you do not desire — defines who you are in a unique and deeply personal manner. When you do activities that match up with your true motives, your journey will be compelling and satisfying. But if you misjudge or ignore your motives, your progress will be plodding and dreary, or you may abandon the road altogether.

It’s essential to know exactly what puts the wind in your sails — not what someone else thinks should get you going. That’s why knowing your micro-motives is a crucial element of the dark horse mindset. Just ask Saul Shapiro.

When Saul encounters a wobbly wheel on a shopping cart or a tilted picture frame, his mind is drawn to manipulate the components until they are square and right.

Saul has a seemingly unusual micro-motive: he likes aligning physical objects with his hands. When he encounters something awry, like a wobbly wheel on a shopping cart or a tilted picture frame, his mind is drawn by an invisible pulley to manipulate the components until they are square and right. You will not find the urge to align things on any list of universal motives, yet for Saul, this desire is genuine, potent and deeply personal.

One of Saul’s most fulfilling memories from college was when a design professor instructed the class to carve a sphere out of a block of wood by hand. Saul became obsessed. After chiseling a rough sphere, he placed it in a bag that he carried wherever he went. All day long, he put his hand inside the bag to feel for uneven spots, then used sandpaper to smooth them. The act of eliminating imperfections filled him with gratification. When Saul turned in the sphere, it was so perfect that his teacher refused to believe he hadn’t used machine tools.

You might be thinking, that’s nice … but what profession could harness this micro-motive? One possibility is orthodontics, where the central task is aligning people’s teeth. Another possibility is electrical engineering, which is what Saul chose. He was hired as an engineer to tackle a tough technical problem: creating a physical interface that would convert an electrical signal on an old-style copper wire onto a laser signal on a newly invented fiber-optic cable. It required precisely aligning a semiconductor chip the size of a grain of sand with a fiber the width of a human hair, and the alignment had to be precise within a fraction of a micron.

Saul ended up being successful, and his interface was widely adopted throughout the telecommunications industry. It also made his employer a fortune, while Saul received only a small bonus. This disparity led him to question his role. “I would see guys with MBAs making presentations, and they were making much more money than me and getting to run the company, too,” he says. “I started to think to myself, Maybe I should be one of those guys.”

So he abandoned a fulfilling engineering career and moved into middle management. But his collection of micro-motives was not compatible with his new role; he did not enjoy supervising others and he was not interested in networking, presenting his ideas to others, or persuading them of his point of view. His most potent micro-motives — working with his hands, tinkering with gadgets and mechanisms, doing math calculations, working alone, and aligning objects — were largely neglected as a manager.

At the age of 53, Saul was working part-time at H&R Block doing people’s taxes for $10 an hour.

Saul spent the next 16 years going through ups and downs — but mostly downs — as a middle manager at media and tech organizations. By his late forties, he could no longer get hired yet he couldn’t return to his previous career because his engineering knowledge had become outdated. At the age of 53, he was working part-time at H&R Block doing people’s taxes for $10 an hour. Not only was he unfulfilled, he was not making much money, the reason he had switched careers in the first place.

One thing that still meant a lot to him was being his own boss. Since he didn’t want to start a business from scratch, he met with a franchise broker who told him about affordable franchises — such as employment agencies and elder-care agencies — that were available to purchase in New York City.

One surprising franchise caught Saul’s eye: upholstery repair. Even though he had no experience with it, he recognized that success depends on one’s ability to align fabrics and patches, a process he knew he’d enjoy. He’d be able to use his hands and immediately see the fruits of his labor. He could do jobs from home so he wouldn’t have to own a shop, and he could work by himself so he wouldn’t need to oversee employees.

In 2013, Saul opened an upholstery-repair franchise in Manhattan. He mastered the trade, and now he does repairs for Broadway shows, TV personalities and Times Square hotels. “People who know me best would agree that I’m happier now than with anything else I have done with my career,” he says. “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.”

Saul discovered his micro-motives by enduring years of jobs that didn’t suit him. For better or worse, most of us won’t have such trials to inform us. Fortunately, you can take advantage of an instinctive activity that you perform every day to grab hold of the micro-motives buried inside you and hold them up to the light. We call it “the game of judgment.”

Your goal in playing the game of judgment is to use your instinctive reactions to others to zero in on these live wires and attempt to trace them to their source.

How many times over the past week have you judged someone — a colleague, a talking head on cable TV, a stranger in the checkout line? Well, you’re going to use these unfiltered reactions to learn something about you. Your micro-motives are composed of deeply rooted feelings, which include subtle preferences, frank desires and private longings. Your goal in playing the game of judgment is to use your instinctive reactions to others to zero in on these live wires and attempt to trace them to their source.

There are three steps to the game of judgment. First, become aware of the moments when you’re judging someone. We all do this all the time. It’s human nature to react to others, whether it’s a mail carrier, police officer, massage therapist, neighbor, store clerk or someone on a magazine cover. Develop an awareness of when you’re doing it, so you can consciously attend to your reaction.

Second, identify the feelings that emerge as you judge someone. How do you know when you’re on the scent of a micro-motive? When you have a vivid reaction. It doesn’t matter whether it’s positive or negative, celebratory or condemnatory, the feeling just needs to be strong. Remember, you’re trying to get in touch with your authentic emotional core.

Third, ask yourself why you are experiencing those feelings. Remember: be honest. The physicist Richard Feynman said it best when he warned, “You must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.” Focus on what you would like if you had their life … but also what you would hate. For instance, if you watch a celebrity interview and find yourself thinking, “How can anyone be truly happy when they are chasing riches or fame?” then you know that money and acclaim are probably not powerful motivators for you.

On the other hand, if you reacted to the story of Saul Shapiro by thinking, “Come on . . . the guy’s an upholstery repairman. Let’s not pretend he’s successful!”– you’ve learned something valuable about your micr0-motives. Status and acclaim matter greatly to you. That’s fine; own it. To attain fulfillment, you must be true to what lights your fire — whatever that may be.

When you’re judging a debt collector, try to determine which gets your heart thumping faster: the process of tracking down deadbeats, or the act of making them pay?

The most difficult part is resisting the sense that there are some motives we should be driven by — such as money, or helping other people. This can cause us to suppress or downplay our own micro-motives. The game of judgment can help you break the spell, as long as you are attentive and specific. If you are favorably judging a park ranger, you may initially think, “Being outside and around nature all day would be great.” Or, judging a debt collector, your reaction might be, “Oh boy, I’d love tracking down deadbeats and forcing them to pay up.”

Don’t stop there. Keep sifting through your feelings until you’ve gone as far as you can. For example, with the park ranger, you might also realize, “Even though being outside would be great, it does seem like a lonely job. I don’t think I could handle the daily isolation.” Now you’ve identified two potential micro-motives: the desire to be around nature and the desire for steady social engagement.

Or, when judging the debt collector, try to determine which gets your heart thumping faster: is it the process of tracking down deadbeats, or the act of making them pay? Is there something about catching people who are trying to avoid being caught that energizes you? Or is it something about being an agent of fair play and administering justice when nobody else can? When it comes to knowing your micro-motives, the details always matter.

Keep in mind, the purpose of the game of judgment isn’t to coolly assess the merits and deficiencies of other people. It’s not about them at all. The goal is to use your intense emotional responses to ferret out the hidden contours of your own desires. You’re both the player and referee in the game of judgment, and only you can know for sure when you’ve traced one of your micro-motives to its fullest depth.

The game of judgment can take some time to get the hang of, but it’s far more reliable and effective than standardized tests of motivation. There are hundreds of career tests that employers and guidance counselors use to evaluate the motives of employees and students each year. Despite what their creators may insist, these tests are not designed to help you identify your unique pattern of motivations, but rather to determine how closely your responses resemble those of the “average professional” in a given field.

Standardized assessments of motivation are doomed to misinterpret or ignore one of the most important facets of your micro-motives: the presence of contradictory motives, such as the desire to interact with other people and the desire to be alone, or the desire to conform and the desire to rebel. When you are committed to embracing the diversity of your micro-motives, the most antithetical of them can be reconciled, harnessed and consolidated into a unified sense of purpose.

Excerpted from the new book Dark Horse: Achieving Success Through the Pursuit of Fulfillment by Todd Rose and Ogi Ogas. Reprinted with permission from HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright © 2018 by Todd Rose and Ogi Ogas.

Watch Todd Rose’s TEDxSonoma talk here: