For the last 10 years, I’ve been studying the secrets of mental success—first as a brain researcher at Harvard, then as a technologist in Silicon Valley. Along the way, I’ve seen that there is a small set of cognitive skills that play an outsized role in our work, relationships, and quality of life.
And I’ve got great news: These aren’t skills you’re either born with or you’re not. These talents are trainable. Here are what I consider to be the top four mental abilities of super successful people, and some ideas for how to practice them daily:
1. Executive function
Your executive function oversees a few important processes in your brain: First, there’s your mental flexibility, or your ability to play with different or abstract ideas. Then there’s your working memory, which is your ability to use existing information to solve a problem. Inhibition is your ability to engage certain types of impulse control. And finally, another potential aspect of executive function is self-control—which actually has been shown to predict health and income beyond IQ and socioeconomic status.
One 2016 study found that transformational leaders tended to have higher levels of executive function. Research has also found that declining executive function is one of the more annoying aspects of aging. Luckily, executive function appears to be a trainable mental ability. My favorite science-backed way to develop it is through a technology-aided process called neurofeedback, which I discuss in my upcoming book, Smarter Tomorrow: How 15 Minutes of Neurohacking a Day Can Help You Work Better, Think Faster, and Get More Done.
2. Emotional self-regulation
It was Viktor Frankl, Ph.D., a Holocaust survivor who studied how to mine personal meaning out of suffering and trauma, who said, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
We can interpret the “space” from Frankl’s quotation as a place to exert emotional self-regulation. In that space between stimulus and response, we have a choice to make. What we do in that space determines our future. Learning how to manage your emotions and thoughts in that critical space is where “our growth and our freedom” lie.
From research, we know that high emotional self-regulation is tied to success in work, school, and relationships. And unlike other mental abilities, emotional self-regulation does not seem to decline with age. In fact, older adults actually outperformed younger adults and children at emotional self-regulation, implying that it’s a skill that takes practice.
There are a few new tools aimed at helping people improve emotional self-regulation at any age. For kids, a biofeedback-based game called Mightier has been shown to help manage difficult emotions. Early research indicates that biofeedback-based video games—such as the horror-themed Nevermind—can help adults better regulate their emotions, too.
Learning is the ability to encounter something new and make it a part of yourself—either as a memory, fact, or skill. Memory is the ability to pull up something you learned or knew in the past. Being able to learn quickly and remember is increasingly important as jobs around the world continue to change at a lightning speed.
Luckily, memory and learning are both very trainable skills. Even the people who literally compete at the World Memory Championships are not “born with it.” They practice explicit memorization methods over the course of many years. One of my favorite, underrated ways to augment memory and learning? Exercise!
Where learning and memory help us play defense, creativity helps us play offense. In an IBM study of over 1,500 CEOs, creativity was rated as the most important leadership skill—even above hard work.
Creativity is also tied up in what we value most as humans. To wildly oversimplify, let’s call creativity the ability to produce things that are both novel and useful. When we think of great thinkers through time, we often think of their creativity: What do the theory of evolution, general and special relativity, and Cubism have in common? Each of their developers was staggeringly prolific. Charles Darwin published around 120 scholarly papers. Albert Einstein published around 250 papers. Pablo Picasso is credited with more than 20,000 paintings, sculptures, and drawings. Were they just masochistically hardworking? More likely, creativity was fueling their work.
After all, entering a flow state, also known as being “in the zone,” is an inherently pleasurable experience. It’s a focused joy, a feeling of being immersed, fully absorbed, and having an energized focus. It’s common when in the throes of creativity. Many artists, scientists, and performers report that they lose track of time and all sense of themselves when they are deep in their craft.