Building a career like a word game!

I will be surprised if you have heard of the word game called Bananagrams (video: how to play it). And I will be very surprised if you have not heard of Scrabble (video: how you play it) Google turns up 82M results on scrabble while less than 1M with Bananagrams. Of course, in my home, it is different: everyone loves playing Bananagrams, ever since we discovered the game a few years ago. Its simplicity and flexibility attract everyone we have introduced to it.

The Games people play

Here is a brief description of these two games.

Scrabble

Each player puts a letter tile on the scrabble board, constructing a new valid word and extending the previous configuration of letters on the board (you can’t put a tile randomly somewhere). Each letter has some points and you get scored on the basis of total points generated by the words (and sub-words) constructed new in your turn. The game ends when letters are exhausted, or more likely in my case, you can’t put a letter on the board satisfying the constraints. The winner is the one who ends up with the most points. Usually, it takes about an hour (or more) for 4 players to get close to finishing the game.

Bananagrams

Each player gets a few starting tiles (equal numbers), and they need to arrange them into a valid connected word set (like a crossword). Key difference from Scrabble is that each player constructs their structure of words and doesn’t interact with others’ constructions. Players keep taking new tiles from the bag, one at a time, and reconfigure/augment their structure to remain valid with the addition of a new letter. The game ends when someone successfully finishes their construction and there are no more tiles to be picked from the bag.

Career = Word Game?

So now you are wondering – what has all this to do with a career?

Here is the idea: A career proceeds in a way that is similar to a word game. You are handed an initial set of letters (think skills and opportunities). You use these letters to construct words (results), you get more letters and can construct ‘better’ words (‘better’ results), depending on existing board configuration (career stage), earning points (milestones) and getting closer to a win (career success).

It becomes more interesting as you take this analogy forward. As your career progresses, you get more opportunities to produce outstanding results and get great rewards, as long as you are building on your skills and opportunities and playing to your strengths. You look to get the most results with the least resources spent.

However, the fascinating thing about this analogy, and the key insight of this post, is that the differences between these two games (Scrabble and Bananagrams) are also analogous to different ways people manage their career:

  1. In Scrabble, your words and moves depend a lot on the words and moves your opponents make since everyone is on the same board (playing field) and trying to occupy same spaces. In Bananagrams, your outcomes and moves solely depend on the tile and time that you have, since you are playing on your own surface (playing field). This has very significant implications to how you see your career progressing and what strategies you can apply – do you feel constrained by the career progression of others, or can you focus on your own definition of milestones and success and keep progressing towards your career goals.
  2. In Scrabble, word configurations are sacrosanct and no letters can be moved after they have been placed on the board by players. So it becomes harder and harder to make new words because it needs to fit the existing configuration. In Bananagrams, you have the liberty to break your configuration (partly or fully) and modify your configurations as you see fit, every new letter is an opportunity to reimagine what could be an ideal configuration. This makes the game play easier in Bananagrams, and you feel much more in control compared to Scrabble. Career can be thought in the same way: do you feel beholden to whatever career you have built so far, or are you willing to destroy and rebuild parts of it when an opportunity or a new skill can benefit from such a rebuild.
  3. In Scrabble, relative abilities of various players matter. If an expert is playing with a novice (whose vocabulary is not so great), the novice loses very badly because they have to play at the level of the expert which they find hard to do. In Bananagrams, since every player makes their own words, the relative abilities don’t have much impact, what matters is how fast they can use the letters and complete their configuration. This plays out in a career as well – do you leverage all your strengths cleverly and achieve your goals, or you try to emulate what others are doing and get stuck because you can’t pull off what others can.

Key Career Questions

These give rise to 3 important questions you need to answer – answers to these questions impact the career outcomes significantly.

Are you willing to choose your own playing field and not compare with others on a common playing field?

Do you play on a field where you are every day competing with someone else, and your success/failure depends on how others are doing? Or are you choosing your own playing field where you can build your own career in your own way?

Are you willing to move back in order to move forward in your career?

Do you want to keep building on what you have achieved in your career and keep trying to move forward and up? Or are you willing to revisit what you have achieved, and are willing to destroy and rebuild to make it easier to move forward and up?

Are you willing to leverage your own strengths and not get distracted by what others have?

Do you believe in playing to your strengths and seek opportunities that align with it? Or do you want to do what others are doing (or is the ‘in-thing’) and try to succeed there?

Career Principles to live by

I am a Bananagrams person as far as career management is concerned and hence my advice to myself and to others always are the following:

  1. Choose your own playing field. Have a strong belief that you are on a playing field where you are the only player – you compete against yourself, and you live up to your own measures of success always trying to improve on your last results.
  2. Be ready to review and rebuild. This is a key strategy for a good career. World will change around you, without notice sometimes – as I am writing this, Corona is impacting globally how we work and how we teach/learn, among other things. You need to be willing to review what you have built as part of your career and be ready to demolish and rebuild parts of it. So for example, you may be a good developer, and you may have a great career being a good product manager. To achieve that greatness, you may have to demolish parts of your engineering expertise (deep programming and development skills) and maybe go back a little on your external measures of growth (title, salary, bonus), but this can set you up for a great growth phase and you ultimately succeed better.
  3. Pride your strengths, don’t envy others’. Career is a game you need to play for 40 years (if not more). You can’t hope to succeed in the long run if you are not playing to your strengths and instead trying to do what others think are good skills to have. So don’t try to become data engineering just because ‘big data’ is in vogue, don’t take a job in a company just because they work on the next coolest tech, do these only when they align to your natural strengths and you feel you will do well. Identify right role, right job, right company that aligns with your strengths so that you get to leverage your strengths to succeed.

I strongly recommend you play both of these games if you haven’t done so already, and keep this analogy in mind. You will find interesting set of new analogies that will apply to your career strategy as well. Choose your strategy well, and keep playing!

Go Bananagrams!

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