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Lessons for career growth from the game of chess

From striking a balance between risk and reward at work, to planning your next move carefully, there’s much to learn from the chessboard

Like the first move in a chess game, the initial decisions made in one’s career can significantly shape its trajectory.
Like the first move in a chess game, the initial decisions made in one’s career can significantly shape its trajectory. (iStockphoto)

It was 1997. I was in school and personal computers were just making inroads into our lives. That May, Deep Blue, an IBM computer, beat the world chess champion after a six-game match. As students who had just started exploring the capabilities of a PC, we were in awe. Deep Blue had the capacity to explore up to 200 million possible chess positions per second!

Scientists have often used chess as a way to test the calculating abilities of computers. Reason: The game of chess is a collection of challenging problems with simple rules, making it ideal for testing the computing capabilities of the machine.

Historically, India has long realized that chess is more than just a game. Chaturanga, considered to be the early precursor of the modern game of chess, finds reference in Kautilya’s Arthashastra, a treatise on statecraft, economic policies and military strategy.

As I moved ahead in my career, I realised that life, and the challenges you face along the way, can also be likened to a game of chess. But it is not necessary to be a chess player to take advantage of the lessons derived from the chessboard. Insights from chess can bolster your professional life and help you overcome hurdles at work. These are some of the career and life lessons you can learn from the game of chess.

The first move

Like the first move in a chess game, the initial decisions made in one’s career can significantly shape its trajectory.

In chess, the first move sets the strategy for the rest of the game and lays down the groundwork for future moves. In your career too, you must opt for the right launchpad and try to choose an education that offers experiential learning. What’s more, domain expertise can be a winning move, providing a robust foundation for future success.

Also read: Why a good manager might not make for a good leader

Think ahead

Making the first move also involves thinking several moves ahead, anticipating the opponent’s response and the way the game will move forward. Similarly, while planning your career, you should have a long-term vision beyond your first move and move accordingly to achieve it.

It’s not enough to excel at your current position; you must continuously strategize your future moves, staying one step ahead. You should be prepared for any sudden change in the business environment, such as the rapid adoption of artificial intelligence by businesses, and adapt by upskilling to meet the new demands.

Risk and reward

Every move in a chess game entails a delicate balance between risk and reward. The same principle applies to your career. You should examine the advantages and possible fallout of every move you plan to make. Whether it’s a career change, launching a new business venture, or taking on a challenging project, an evaluation of potential risks versus rewards is advisable. And, of course, you must arm yourself with the right skills and knowledge to be in the best position to mitigate those risks.

A strategic sacrifice

Chess often requires strategic sacrifices. Sometimes, you have to lose a pawn to capture the queen. Similarly, there are instances in professional life where a sacrifice in the short term pays off in the long term. Taking a break to gain a new skill is one instance, where you sacrifice your income in the short term to future-proof your career path.

Other examples could be taking up an unpaid internship to gain experience or uprooting yourself and relocating to a new city where there are more growth opportunities.

Patience and persistence

A game of chess can be a test of patience, demanding players to persistently implement their strategies, undeterred by temporary setbacks. Similarly, your professional journey requires focus, patience and persistence.

Plus, timing is everything—knowing when to make a particular move, and when to strike can be the difference between victory and defeat. The same is true in professional life. Recognizing the right time to acquire new skills, take on new roles, or transition into a new industry can set you on the path to career success.

Learn, learn and learn

The game of chess has evolved over centuries and today there are several variants of the game, including Fischer Random Chess, Blitz Chess and Speed Chess. Each variant demands unique skills from the players.

Likewise, the ever-evolving technological landscape requires today’s worker to adapt their approach and acquire new skills as per the industry’s changing environment. It is only then that you will stay relevant and ahead of others.

Losses are good

A lost game of chess is not a defeat but an opportunity to learn, to understand what went wrong and how to improve.

A career setback should be viewed similarly, as an occasion to learn, course-correct and bounce back stronger than ever.

One may not realise it while watching two players sitting calmly across a chessboard, but a game of chess, especially at a competitive level, involves intense mental stress.

Handling this pressure calmly is critical to play objectively, and to make the right moves that could lead to a win.

Similarly, the ability to effectively manage pressure in professional scenarios—be it high-stake projects, looming deadlines or conflicts—is crucial to success in your career.

As the world becomes even more dynamic and uncertain, professionals need to embrace flexibility and agility to succeed in their career journeys. For, being agile in career planning allows individuals to make the most of emerging trends, technologies and markets.

A recent Harvard Business Review article emphasises that the conventional view of strategy as a long-term, predictable game, with deliberate moves and clear winners, is no longer fully applicable in today’s fast-paced world. Similarly, the traditional approach to career planning is becoming obsolete. The balance between short-term tactical moves and long-term strategic plans plays a crucial role in both chess and careers.

Professionals need to strike a balance between immediate responsibilities and achievements with investments in their future development. By being receptive to continuous learning and skill development, professionals can continually enhance their competences and avoid being redundant in today’s rapidly changing job market.

Strategic networking and forming alliances, be it with pieces on the chessboard or with colleagues and mentors in the professional setting, are some of the ways to create valuable support systems and open doors to new opportunities. Much like a chess player strategizing several moves ahead, professionals must anticipate potential challenges and plan contingencies to navigate through uncertainties and disruptions in their industries.

Applying this contemporary understanding of strategy and planning in their career enables individuals to stay ahead of the curve, make informed decisions, and position themselves for success, irrespective of the sector they are in.

Your career as an entrepreneur or as a professional may not require you to declare a “checkmate”, but just as aiming for the final checkmate in chess requires careful planning, so does planning to checkmate any hurdle in your career.

Mayank Kumar is co-founder and managing director of upGrad.

Also read: The queenagers are done with unhappy workplaces







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