It's In the Cards: A Gamer’s Guide to Professional Development

Like fellow board member Jamie Millard, I proudly identify as a gamer. But my personal favorites differ a little: instead of getting immersed in a massively multiplayer online game, I’m more likely to crack open a strategy card game like Magic: The Gathering, the premiere and still best example of the genre.

So when I was rereading Jamie’s post on video games for professional development, I was nodding along and pondering the similarities and differences in my experience. Since different games stretch your brain in different ways, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned from years of drawing seven cards and mulling over the proper sequence of plays, and how that can apply to my and your professional life.

Have a game plan

One of the biggest breakthroughs you can have playing any strategy game is to move from simply making the move immediately in front of you to thinking about how it will play out several turns down the road. What will it lead you to do the turn after? How does that change if your opponent plays something you know they’re likely to have? Can you win if your opponent has a certain card, or is it time to get aggressive and hope that you can beat them before they draw it? If you can answer those questions, you’re far more likely to emerge victorious. 

In the professional realm, one place this comes up is for those on the job hunt. Most people know the outlines of what they’re supposed to do: go to networking events, have informational interviews, update LinkedIn. But stories of people who ask for informational interviews and then have nothing to say are plentiful. Just showing up isn’t enough. If you think ahead to others’ likely thoughts and motivations, and have something to offer them, only then will you really get somewhere.

Take responsibility

Because there’s natural built-in randomness in any card game, it’s easy (and often cathartic) to rage after a loss about how your opponent drew the exact right card at the right time while you drew nothing for five straight turns. But after a while, you start to realize that there’s more to it than that. Did you play the wrong card on turn five? Or neglect to play around a card you should have thought your opponent might have? Or maybe there are cards in your deck that aren’t holding their weight and need to be replaced. Asking these questions is the key to making better decisions, which is when you start to notice your luck magically improve.

It’s the same story at work. When a sticky situation comes up, it’s easy to say it’s unfair. That might very well be true. But guess what? It doesn’t matter what’s fair or not. All that matters is what you’re going to do given where you are now. That might mean having a difficult conversation with a coworker, asking for new or different responsibilities, or even finding a new job entirely. What it definitely does not mean is sitting around feeling sorry for yourself while allowing the same thing to happen over and over.

Focus on what matters 

One of the trickier strategy game lessons I’ve had to learn is that everything is a resource, including your life total. Losing a bunch of life in a turn can feel nerve-wracking, sacrificing a bunch of cards now to prevent it can leave you in an even worse position next turn. By the same token, throwing cards at an opponent to put him or her down to a low life total is a one way ticket to failure if you run out of ways to finish them off. The goal is to win, not to end the game with the most resources or highest life total possible, and you have to play accordingly.

The next time you’re stressed out on the job, ask yourself what you’re really trying to accomplish, and how much the things keeping you busy are helping you get there. It’s easy to fall into a culture of stress, where everyone keeps as busy as possible because it feels like the easiest way to prove your worth. But the most deeply ingrained tasks and traditions can be a distraction or even actively harmful to what you know needs to be achieved. Identifying those is one of the best ways to bring about transformational change from any position in an organization.

What lessons are you picking up from your favorite pasttime? If you pay a little attention, you might be surprised at how much there is to learn.

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