Thinking Through, Figuring Out, and the Strategic Mindset

By Roberta Attanasio, STEMM Leadership Editor

The world is changing rapidly—megatrends such as digitalization, globalization and demographic shifts impact all of us, as individuals and as societies. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, these megatrends “transform the way we interact with our friends and families; how and where businesses operate; what goods and services we consume; what dreams we dream. Our education and health, the distribution of income and wealth, the jobs we have and how we work are all particularly sensitive to these changes. It is a transformational era. Disruption is the new normal.” Think of the impacts that COVID-19 is currently having on everyone’s life at the global level, or those caused by the wildfires that currently rage in the Western region of the US, scorching millions of acres.

A transformational era presents as many challenges as opportunities, and one way to be prepared for both is to acquire a new set of skills that can help you to succeed in the evolving workforce and life in general. What are these skills? Think—for example—of learnability. Alvin Toffler, the celebrated author of “Future Shock,” famously said:The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” Although the term learnability was originally coined to indicate the formal study of language acquisition in a mathematical and computational setting, it’s now also used to pinpoint the idea that being employable no longer depends on what you know, but rather on what you are likely to learn. The list of skills goes on and on, from resilience to emotional intelligence.

What else can help you to succeed in the current environment? Is there a way of thinking—in addition to the growth mindset—that can guide you in pursuing and reaching your goals? I invite you to explore the “strategic mindset”, which has been recently described by Carol Dweck and her collaborators in a research article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

When confronted with challenges or insufficient progress, people with strategic mindsets ask themselves strategy-eliciting questions, as for example:

  • “What can I do to help myself?”
  • “How else can I do this?”
  • “Is there a way to do this even better?”

What motivated Dweck and collaborators to carry out research on the strategic mindset? The observation that, currently, many attractive jobs require well-developed “thinking through” and “figuring out” abilities. Notably, the study findings indicate that people can learn how to adopt a strategic mindset.

“There are key points in any challenging pursuit that require people to step back and come up with new strategies. A strategic mindset helps them do just that,” said Dweck in a press release. In addition, Patricia Chen, lead author of the study, advised: “As you approach whatever challenging goal you are pursuing, you can ask yourself: how might I go about this differently?”

Copyright © 2016-2020 STEMM Leadership


  1. I agree that it is a transformational era; this era has many challenges because globalization and digitalization made many changes that have affected different aspects of people’s lives. Good leaders are those who look at these challenges as opportunities and try to adapt to new situations through learning new skills. As has been said, one of these important skills during a transformational era is learnability. Learnability would be different from the knowledge, so being knowledgeable does not express learnability because a person would have high knowledge, but no desire to learn. Therefore, learnability or having a desire to learn new things is especially important in times of current crisis. For example, during this pandemic, the way of teaching changed and became much different than before, so those who had more desire to learn how to use technology would cope more easily with this crisis. As has been said, another important skill is a strategic mindset; those with a strategic mindset look for different ways to do something better, and they help themselves through improving their skills. Those with a strategic mindset try to determine how to use available resources and their knowledge most effectively to succeed. So, having a strategic mindset is important because people with a strategic mindset are skilled at thinking with a strategic purpose and making a visioning process. In addition, other skills that would help to succeed during this time includes adaptability, having effective communication, and developing a positive attitude as well as having a growth mindset. As has been said, it is a transformational era, and people would experience different situations and challenges at this time more than before, so having a growth mindset is an essential skill that helps them to see these challenges as opportunities and stay motivated. 

  2. I believe I employed Learnability and the Strategic mindset during the pandemic but I had not idea about it. I love to explore new technology. I got to own my first computer and smart phone when I was in level 200 in college and guess what; it was very difficult locating the keys on my keyboard. I managed to learn some basic word processing to type my assignments but that was all. I got into graduate school during the covid-19 and it was inevitable that most things will happen online. Also, I realised that coding and bioinformatics are valuable skills that will help me immensely in the graduate program and my career as a research scientist. So, I used four months during the period of being at home to learn Python Programming language and data analysis. This is one of the best decisions I have ever made and the potential of this skill is huge and I look at things from a different perspective now. Personally, I navigate complex systems with ease and I keep learning as I use my skills to solve problems. Do not put limitations to what your mind can do.

  3. The topic of learnability couldn’t be any more of an important topic right now, especially because of the racial, environmental, and political climate we are currently. Like the ability to unlearn racial prejudices and bias, and the ability to learn ones’ privilege.
    In terms of the work aspect, I do believe learnability is a beneficial skill to have. It is also important to realize that ones’ knowledge and their learnability two completely different things! One can be extremely knowledgeable, and lack in the learnability department. This was such a great read as well, and is very familiar to me because I have heard of the concept plenty of times, especially through my past jobs.

    • Hi Nkechiyem,

      I like how you made a point to differentiate between learnability and knowledge. I agree with this as well. Theres a difference between being able to learn something versus knowing something that you can just sputter out. However, I do wonder if the two should be consolidated to some extent. Wouldn’t you agree that learnability can facilitate the formation of knowledge to a point? I believe that the two terms are different, but I also feel one’s learnability also has the possibility to affect knowledge. What are your thoughts?

  4. Learnability is a trait I actually excel in. I find it important to have that ability to learn something easily, regenerate it, and be able to delete it and learn another concept. This is a major component and it is the strategic mindset I contribute to my success in school. The great part about being in a major that builds on similar content is that it helps me to quickly relearn any concepts that I may have learned in the past. I feel like the down side of this is that there will be a lot of times where unused information will get deleted in my mind. I like to think I have a secretary in my mind that deletes any file that isn’t used within three months of storing the information. Another positive thing about the strategic mindset is that even when I learn concepts outside of science, its easy for me to learn due to my mind wanting to grasp and understand as much information as I can so that I can do something correctly the first time. It allows me to quickly find the solutions to my problems and in a way motivates me to do better and help myself.

  5. Learnability is a significant trait that individuals should have but often neglected, as it may seem that it is not necessary. However, it is a trait that contributes to being a good leader. It allows leaders to adapt quickly to the ever-changing society, such that leaders can improvise the situation due to unexpected hindrance. Success doesn’t rely on knowledge alone but also the effort put forward to learn. To be successful in an innovative world, one must expand their set of skills that knowledge cannot provide. For starters, identify what type of mindset do you have and then begin nurturing your mindset progressively. If you have a growth mindset, then improve on it and share it with others. But if you have a fixed mindset, then start with Dr. Dweck’s concept of “Power of Yet” and train your mindset into a growth mindset. With this understanding of mindsets and the willingness to learn, success is assured.

    • It is interesting how you correlated learnability with fixed and growth mindset. Indeed it is true that learnability is acquired differently based on the type of mindset a person has. I can say that I am a mixture of two kinds of mindsets. On the one hand I am always eager to use learnability and learn new information to develop new skills and improve my intelligence. On the other hand, it is hard for me to become interested in a topic to the point that I want to grow my knowledge.

  6. Learnability is such an overlooked but significant trait to have especially in today’s rapidly changing world. Sadly, this is the one trait that I lack but am working on. Like some people, I was always under the misconception that knowledge is required to get a job and had focused my whole life on getting an education instead of developing the necessary mindsets. This had backfired on me when I started a research class. In research, and especially in STEM leadership, learnability is a necessity. You can’t simply succeed with knowledge. You have to be able to get away from your comfort zone, think outside the box, and come up with your own ideas to figure out an answer to an issue that couldn’t be explained through knowledge alone. It’s all about the experience and being able to learn as you go. Success does not always require knowledge but rather the ability to quickly adapt and learn any new skill. After all, in this ever-changing and innovating society, we are forced to quickly adapt to the changes. If we keep staying inside the box, we could never be truly successful. The strategic mindset plays a role in this. In order to nurture our learnability, we need to develop strategies. Like you said, we have to think. What can we do? How can we do this better? It is this openness to learn that helps us become more successful in everything we do.

  7. This article is blanket for so many things that are dynamically at play in our country and around the world. From politics, to social injustices, capitalism, and social stigmas. Calling this a transformational era sounds almost to generous a word. I vividly remember politicians who are still in office today denounce things such as gay rights, to now being strong advocates on matter, even in favor for more reform that comes with the change of heart.
    I think this is an amazing time we are in where as the article highlighted, “Illiterate is not those who cannot read and write. But those who cannot learn, unlearn, and learn relearn.” This leads one to believe that if you cannot learn you will be left behind. This can be good when it comes to things such as racism and sexism. But for things such as the economic or class disparities that continue to widen in our world. For those individuals left behind, I fear the gap will be too wide for any one person in any one generation to overcome.

    • Hi Mark,

      I wanted to expand on your thoughts on the first part of your comment. Do you think that these politicians are now strong advocates because of a true change in heart, or do you think it is more that because their voters are so strongly for human rights such as gay rights that they are now scrambling to win more votes? If it is the former, wouldn’t you agree that this change in ideology validates the use of the term “transformational”? If it is the latter, what would you consider as a better descriptor?

  8. I find learnability to be a very important component in the overall assessing of mindset. Having learnability is important to have for any job. I have personally had this trait assessed by others (my capability to learn certain skills to work). I had been seeking to tutor a certain subject at one of the Georgia State perimeter campuses after being a student assistant, and I wanted to work directly with students with their subjects etc. When I went to inquire about this, I was told by the supervisor that she only typically hired Masters students for that position, hardly ever undergraduates. Long story short, she took the chance on me based on my work ethics, grades, and other factors and allowed me to “shadow” for a few days. After watching me work with students; I was hired. This experience has opened many doors for me, and I am aware how important one’s “learnability” can be in impacting your end results. I also believe that having a strategic mindset can aid to one’s success in various forms of one’s career. A strategic mindset allows you to remain focused on the end goal while improving yourself along the way.

    • Hello Roya,
      That story is so tangible and indeed if anything can stand the test of time, it must adapt. Novel ideas and better ways of doing the same thing in the past are introduced. Your ability to adjust and assimilate would expedite your integration into a particular environment, and ultimate help you grasp opportunities like in your case. Hence, the importance of learnability cannot be overemphasised, the strategic mindset kind of directs yous.

  9. This article really hit home for me. Years ago when I was going into a new career field I was interviewing with a company that technically wanted previous experience. The hiring manager took a gamble with me in hiring me as he felt I had the overall skills, knowledge, creativity, and temperment to do the job. He felt he could teach me the components that would help me become successful and help the team succeed as well. The belief that I could learn what was needed for the job based upon me displaying that I had “learnability” and a strategic mindset to keep learning, improving myself, and developing my skills beyond what I was currently capable of doing has always resonated with me. Without this manager believing in my “learnability” and my strategic mindset, I would never have landed the job to begin my second career that would give me incredible skills and capabilities to carry with me throughout my life. By learning to find new ways to increase my business, adjust and adapt my business, and surpass goals, I continued to develop my strategic mindset in thinking how can I do this better? So yes, I believe in the strategic mindset as it is important to consistently think of new ways to improve a strategy, a task, or learn new skills and capabilities to keep striving for improvement and overcoming obstacles in order to reach your goals.

    • Hi Kari,
      Just wanted to further discuss the learnability trait. It is so interesting how you had experienced it first hand. This is further evidence that having a specific skillset is not required to be successful. In fact, people could graduate with countless degrees, certifications. But without the ability to adapt, these skills could be rendered useless. We should not always expect our skill set to be enough for everything. Sometimes, we are forced into tasks not even relating to our skills. It is our job to be able to adapt and learn as we go. Learnability is crucial, especially in this rapidly-evolving world.

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