Will intelligence help you get ahead in life? Sure. Will determination help you reach your goals? Absolutely. But as we all know it’s possible to be both smart and gritty and still end up banging your head against a wall of failure year after year. So how do people keep going? A new study says the answer is a strategic mindset. 

The mindset all successful people have in common. 

The study, which was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academic of Sciences and highlighted on BBC Worklife, identified ‘the strategic mindset’ and as the key difference between those who succeed in reaching all their goals and those who fail. As the BBC’s David Robson explains, this mindset essentially comes down to what researchers call “metacognition.”

The name is a little unclear, but metacognition itself is actually straightforward. It’s the practice of thinking about your thinking, for example by reflecting on the flaws in your process and actively searching out more effective strategies. It’s the opposite of plugging along head down on a fixed course relying on sheer will to plow through all obstacles.


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Metacognition means having your head up and your mind alert for easier ways to reach your goal. “Suppose you are an expat learning French,” Robson offers as an example. “Metacognition would help you to recognize that something like self-testing is a better way of learning new words than simply reading vocabulary lists. You might recognize difficulty in following dialogue and decide to spend more time watching French films to improve your ear for the language (rather than, say, fruitlessly focusing on the grammar).”

As the name implies, the strategic mindset supplements hard work with a careful attention to strategy. And whether researchers monitored people trying to lose weight, followed students’ academic progress, or even asked volunteers to figure out how to best separate egg whites from yolks, having a strategic mindset led to vastly greater success. 

Do you have a strategic mindset? 

And the best part of this research for those of us deep in the trenches of life’s struggles is that a strategic mindset isn’t something you just have or you don’t. “What we know now is that adults seem to naturally vary in their strategic mindset, and that a strategic mindset can be taught,” study author Patricia Chen tells Robson. 

But before you can improve your mindset you need to figure out how good you are at metacognition now. Handily, Robson’s article includes a quick quiz to gauge whether you have a strategic mindset along with more details about the research. Check it out here