Today I’m going to talk about the power of strategy and focus on how useful strategy is for students, but let me first give you a brief lesson on a man who was arguably history’s greatest strategist: Genghis Khan.
Now, Genghis Khan is a complicated figure, and I don’t mean to present him as a hero. He was simultaneously responsible for the death of millions and the establishment of a gigantic free-trade zone in which people of all races and religions were free to live, travel, and worship as they pleased.1 He left behind few monuments; mostly, he built bridges.1 The trade network that thrived under the Mongols spread ideas and technology across the Eurasian continent in a manner that facilitated an enormous increase in cross-cultural creativity and, near the end of the Mongols’ reign, facilitated the spread of the Black Death.1
That’s all very interesting, but what I’d like to highlight is the enormity of the Mongol conquests because they clearly demonstrate the incredible power of strategy. According to historian Jack Weatherford, author of Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World.
“In twenty-five years, the Mongol army subjugated more lands and people than the Romans had conquered in four hundred years. Genghis Khan, together with his sons and grandsons, conquered the most densely populated civilizations of the thirteenth century. Whether measured by the total number of people defeated, the sum of the countries annexed, or by the total area occupied, Genghis Khan conquered more than twice as much as any other man in history. … At its zenith, the empire covered between 11 and 12 million contiguous square miles, an area about the size of the African continent and considerably larger than North America.”2
The empire Genghis Khan built was over 12 times the size of the Inca empire and over 6 times the size of the Roman empire.3 In fact, it was more than twice as large as the second-largest contiguous land empire in history–that of 7th and 8th century Islam.3
And most shockingly, Weatherford points out that his army “was comprised of no more than one hundred thousand warriors–a group that could comfortably fit into the larger sports stadiums of the modern era.”2 Furthermore, Genghis Khan was a disadvantaged boy from a disadvantaged area of Asia. His mother was kidnapped while still pregnant with him, and he was raised as an outsider in a tribe that abandoned him and his mother before he was even a teenager, leaving them to fend for themselves on the harsh plains of Mongolia.1 And before his conquests, the Mongols didn’t know how to attack a walled city and didn’t even have a written language.1 He was a true underdog. To achieve that much with such minuscule resources, you need strategy.
Despite their reputation for brutality, which is largely deserved, the Mongol success in war was not due to brute force. In fact, they were usually outnumbered.1 Their victories relied on cleverness. Genghis Khan and his generals came up with many brilliant innovations. I’ll share just a few of the many examples.
They used trickery and deception. Often, they would pretend to retreat, and the enemy would break ranks and give chase. After running for a while, the enemy would be tired, spread out, and disorganized, at which point the Mongols would turn around and slaughter them.1 If they were ambushed, they’d drop treasures on the ground to distract the would-be chasers. And while escaping, they’d drag tree branches behind their horses to kick up dust and conceal their escape and their numbers.1 They traveled light, snuck through the desert, and used experts captured in previous campaigns to build siege weapons on the spot.1
Beyond the Battlefield
Genghis Khan’s most brilliant strategies were perhaps those he employed after the battles were over. He usually succeeded in gaining the loyalty of the people he conquered by granting them equal status with the members of his own tribe.1 We, too, should remember that strategy is not only useful in war. It is an essential skill for life.
Strategy is unquestionably important in such wide-ranging arenas as sports, politics, business, and board games. There are virtually no people at the top of their field who didn’t use strategy to get there. And achieving any basic level of success is far, far easier when we have a large toolkit of strategies to draw upon.
Our species has always thrived because of strategy. Social organization, trade, and the specialization of labor are key human strategies. The use of tools is itself a strategy. To strategize is human.
And yet, despite all that, strategy is highly underrated.
Allow me to drive home the point with something I like to call the “life equation.”
The Life Equation
SUCCESS LEVEL = LUCK x NATURAL ABILITIES x EFFORT x STRATEGY
Obviously, the life equation oversimplifies things a little, but it’s still a useful model. With it, we can see that luck and natural ability aren’t the only factors in our success. With it, we can clearly see where we have leverage. The use of multiplication rather than addition is not an accident. This highlights the plain and simple truth that zero effort = zero success.
Strategy is one of the two features of the life equation over which we have a great deal of control. In fact, it’s the easiest place to make gains. Increasing our effort is important, and we have a great deal of control over that as well. We should work hard, yes, but we should also work smart because the time and energy we have to make extra effort is limited. What has yet to be discovered is whether or not there is an upper limit to strategic gains. Every time we are shocked by the incredible success of an underdog like Genghis Khan, we can be sure that strategy played a major role.
A classic blunder is to rely purely on willpower to get yourself to do things, or to rely purely on memory to keep your schedule in order, or to rely purely on your intellect to succeed in school. It is much more effective to leverage what you have by applying strategy. We can get much farther in life if we take the time to learn some strategies.
But in the hustle and bustle of going to school, getting your homework done, and studying for tests, time is rarely devoted to learning strategy. Strategy can be a serious multiplier of what you know on an exam, strategy can be used to help you remember to do your homework and get more learning out of it, and strategy can be used to maximize your study efforts so that you get the most bang for your buck when you put in study time.
I once got the only A out of three classes of bright students on a multiple-choice test in 10th grade Honors World History. The test was very hard; all 60 of the questions had been drawn from the AP European History exam. The test felt particularly hard for me because I had neglected to do the assigned reading in the weeks leading up to it. But I got the only A out of 90 honors students. How? With strategy.
I knew some of the material because I had been attending class, but when I walked in, I only knew, at best, one-third of the questions. Perhaps another third I had some clue about, and the last third, well, I’d never even heard of what they were talking about. But you see, this wasn’t the first time I was unprepared for a multiple-choice test, so, in an effort not to fail, I had figured out some tactics that could help me do better than I really ought to do.
(For reasons that are beyond me, I had the motivation at that time to figure out these strategies but not the motivation to actually study. I’ve grown a little since 10th grade.)
For example, I knew that I could learn from the questions themselves, so I actually went through the entire test twice. Many questions from the beginning hinted at answers to questions near the end, and vice versa. Ironically, I ended up learning quite a bit from the test.
I also engaged heavily with process of elimination, crossing off answers that didn’t seem logical and answers that contradicted the facts that were embedded within other questions on the test.
I had an elegant system for recording what my gut instinct told me on the first pass, and how strong that feeling was. This involved making lines of varying lengths next to potential correct answers. The longer the line, the stronger my inclination toward that letter. Later, if I was thinking about changing my answer, knowing how strong my initial feeling had been helped to determine whether or not I made the switch.
It was an enormous mental effort to apply these strategies and hustle through the 60 questions twice in a 55 minute class period. I used every minute I had to do the very best I could with the terribly small amount of knowledge I’d walked into the room with. And it paid off.
Now, I would never encourage a student to rely as heavily on strategy as I did in that case. Most of the time, it doesn’t work out that well. Luck, to be sure, played a role. But luck alone could never have gotten me the only A out of 90 honors students, so my story exemplifies the power of strategy. And when strategy is combined with a healthy amount of knowledge, the results can be astounding.
Using strategy to get the most out of what you know is an essential element of the test-prep coaching we do here at Northwest Educational Services. Without learning any new content, a student can raise her score on the SAT by becoming proficient with just a handful of key strategies. The same is true for nearly any major, standardized exam, such as the ACT, the ISEE, the SSAT, the HSPT, and AP tests.
I’ve recently written a great deal about study strategy. It’s a shame to see students pouring hours into studying while using ineffective strategies. Great strategies leverage our time, our effort, and our brain’s natural tendencies in order to get far more out our studying than we otherwise could.
One of the most important strategies a student can use is taking steps to reduce Cognitive Load. Everything from daily planning to problem-solving is easier when we lighten our load. Plus, the same load can be much easier to bear when you have a strategy for carrying it. Strategy can mean the difference between walking home from the grocery store with an awkward armful of oranges and walking home with the oranges conveniently in a bag. Yes, you can carry the oranges in your arms, but wouldn’t it be nicer to use a bag?
To see a quick list of effective techniques, as well as the list of not-so-effective techniques, check out The Do’s and Don’ts of Effective Studying. To explore these strategies in-depth, please read about The Importance of Written Product, 2-Handed Learning, The Power of Asking Questions, Spaced Repetition, and Self-Testing.
The theories behind these study strategies are Use it or Lose It and Convincing Your Brain to Care. The mindsets that support them are The Mastery Path, Permission to be Human, and the Growth Mindset.
These are all essential elements of learning how to learn. Success in school involves a great deal more than mere intelligence, and it also takes more than just hard work. Learning the strategies of effective memory-formation and problem-solving is critical. Furthermore, students would be wise to use school as an opportunity to practice both learning and strategy.
I also write another blog, Becoming Better, which is all about self-improvement that actually works. There, you’ll find many effective strategies for creating healthy habits, enhancing willpower, defeating procrastination, and cultivating happiness.
In life, just as in school, we often find ourselves too strapped for time to even consider pausing to learn strategies. Understandable though this is, it is a mistake that keeps us trapped in a life where we can never quite manage to pursue our dreams.
My favorite source of strategies for life is Brian Johnson’s Philosopher’s Notes. On this YouTube channel, you’ll find hundreds of 10-minute summaries of great books that teach life skills. I even have a strategy for consuming this library of wisdom: I watch one of his videos with breakfast each morning. Doing so has improved my life in countless ways. The act of carving out time to learn strategy itself takes strategy.
I’ve made this point before, but it bears repeating. The single best strategy any parent can use to get a message across to her children is to lead by example. And if you feel a desire to share with your children the message of this post, please don’t tell your children anything. Instead, see how you can, more and more, be a role model of strategic living.
Chris Loper has been working as a tutor and academic coach since 2014, racking up over 10,000 hours of experience supporting students.
Along with Greg Smith, Chris is the cocreator of Parenting for Academic Success (and Parental Sanity) – a five-part course offered every summer.
Chris’s most recent endeavor combines his academic and habit-formation expertise to help students thrive in college. Visit SmartCollegeHabits.com to learn more.
In 2021, he published a humorous memoir titled Wood Floats and Other Brilliant Observations, a book that blends crazy stories with practical life lessons, available on Amazon and through most local bookstores.
He lives in Issaquah, WA where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.
1 Weatherford, Jack. Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. Broadway Books, 2005.
2 Weatherford, Jack. Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. Broadway Books, 2005. Pg. xviii.
3 Brown, Cynthia Stokes. Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present. The New Press, 2012.
Mongol Empire: Astrokey44. “Location of the Mongol Empire.” Wikipedia.org. Creative Commons 3.0. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/.