When the richest man in the world delivered his commencement speech to graduating students at USC, he told them to “take risks” and “do something bold." But, according to a recent study, Elon Musk's blueprint to his goal-setting success was even more important than his clarion call to push boundaries. The man who brought you PayPal, Tesla, and SpaceX, did so by adopting a “strategic mindset." Researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Stanford University have found this strategy can be the difference between success and failure. 

While some people doggedly work toward a goal or respond to a challenge with a gut feeling, others are predisposed to the strategic mindset when faced with a task. Those who display a strategic mindset constantly review what they are doing and their methods. They actively analyze the task, plan, self-monitor, and revise their strategies. 

Championship basketball player Michael Jordan used a strategic mindset on and off the court, says lead researcher Patricia Chen. Jordan would come back from any failure by re-assessing how to improve his game, studying his adversaries’ techniques, and refining his own skills. After each game, Jordan would re-strategize and return to the court better than before. 

“These successful people didn’t just give up or blindly work harder whenever they were faced with obstacles or difficulties, instead they considered how else they could approach the challenge, and what they could do differently, and even better,” Chen says. 

This self-awareness can make a world of difference. Scanning the environment and your mind for new resources, information, and people allows you to direct your efforts more productively.

Self-awareness = asking the right questions of yourself

Chen’s team found that Musk and Jordan used metacognitive strategies or what could otherwise be called high-level thinking in their approach. This means not only choosing to plan, self-monitor and change methods if needed, but asking themselves strategic questions, such as “What can I do to help myself?”, “How else can I do this?”, or “Is there a way to do this even better?” 

While some people like Musk and Jordan have a predisposition to a strategic mindset, the NUS and Stanford team found that the skill can be learned. When Chen’s team shared some of the metacognitive techniques of strategic thinking with a new group who hadn’t previously displayed the technique, they instantly outperformed the control group by a significant margin. 

People who think strategically are sought out for global roles, as it shows they are able to make decisions that position an organization for the future. If you display a strategic mindset, it shows that you can stay on track during volatile times and keep a clear eye on the end goal. Many people feel as if they will be lauded if they just keep the business ticking over and the trains running on time, but this won’t put a person in a leadership position.

“The more a leader pursues a doggedly singular focus, the less likely they may be to see other things occurring. Strategic mindsets always consider there are other ways to look at a challenge,” says Sandra Shullman, managing partner of the Executive Development Group, a U.S. leadership development and consulting firm. “Stepping back creates the opportunity to view other perspectives—to look in a different direction, to view more broadly, to probe more deeply. Stepping back allows space for other opinions and other approaches.”

The strategic mindset isn't just for work

However, it’s not just a skill that you can use in business, but in your home life and with health or fitness goals too. For instance, if a woman wanted to quit smoking and willpower had not proved effective, Chen says that using a strategic mindset could work. “By asking herself, 'What can I do to help myself? How else can I do this?' she may be more likely to re-evaluate the way that she has been approaching the goal to quit smoking, and to consider changing her approach to other more productive methods such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, nicotine replacement therapy or support groups,” says Chen. “By seeking and trying out other potentially more effective methods, she will be more likely to find something that works for her.”

While using strategy-eliciting questions are important, the key to adopting a strategic mindset is to know when to stop and zoom out. If you find you have a tendency to immerse yourself in a challenge and lose sight of your goal, US psychologist and Fortune 500 executive coach, Irina Cozma says there are a few signs you can look for that will help you know when it’s time to zoom out. “Check your emotions - if you notice that you are more stressed or depressed than normal, that is a sign that you need to stop and reflect,” Cozma says. 

You should also avoid working in isolation says Cozma: “Reach out to others to ask for different perspectives. If you find yourself making a lot of decisions on your own, stop and evaluate if you might be missing something.” 

The final red flag that you’re not using a strategic mindset says Cozma is if you failed to do any planning before undertaking your challenge. “You are rapidly heading in a direction without validating if that is the best path to move forward,” she explains. “Take the afternoon or weekend off. You might be surprised by the new insights and ideas that will emerge.”

About the Data:

Thinknum tracks companies using the information they post online, jobs, social and web traffic, product sales, and app ratings, and creates data sets that measure factors like hiring, revenue, and foot traffic. Data sets may not be fully comprehensive (they only account for what is available on the web), but they can be used to gauge performance factors like staffing and sales.

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