I like to play Sudoku. It is a nice way to challenge my mind. The puzzle also distracts me from any woes in life as I need complete focus on solving it or else I’ll mess up. When I played a game last week while on my lunch break, I noticed quite a few parallels to the game and young professional careers. Let me explain.
When you first start out playing Sudoku, as in your career, you start out on the beginner or easy levels. You need to learn the rules (or corporate culture, ins & outs of your new boss) and begin working on this brand new skill. You’ll mess up along the way, but chances are pretty good you learned from them and know how to navigate the puzzle, or career situation, better the next time it comes up. Eventually, after some time in entry level or beginner, you progress to intermediate. You’ve gotten better! But there is still “hard” and “expert” and “like beyond difficult” levels to get to! As an intermediate player, or employee, you now get more challenging assignments. You use the skills you’ve already learned to solve those problems, but are constantly presented with new ones you have to figure out (they didn’t give me ANY 9s!?). Then you keep developing new skills, new problems to solve, new techniques, and develop your level of play of the puzzle. But you are never really DONE learning Sudoku. There are always new puzzles to try, that get harder and harder, situations you’ve never seen before. As in your career, you are never DONE learning or coming across tough problems to be solved.
More than just levels of Sudoku paralleling your career, there is also the in game play as well. You typically start out on a roll, the first few moves tend to be a bit more obvious (I have an engineering degree, I’m going to go work as an engineer). After the easier moves, things start to get a bit cloudy. Take more focus and energy to figure out. Are you on the right path to solve the puzzle? (I.e. the right career path). You try a few moves, maybe a new department, new job, new company, to see if that fits. Learn some new things about your career puzzle. And, inevitably, you get very stuck. What’s the next move? Both in the puzzle and in your career? Should I relocate? How far am I willing to commute? Is this just a slump or a real cause for change? Is it my attitude or the company I’m struggling with? You likely feel like quitting is the only option. You can throw the puzzle away, you can start to not care about your career because it got “hard.” There is even that quote from A League of Their Own “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.” When doing Sudoku I find that putting the puzzle down and coming back to it later lets me tackle it with clear head and new eyes. Or ask for help from another Sudoku loving friend (or a mentor for your career). You don’t HAVE to solve the puzzle alone. Heck, games were designed for you to play WITH people. Just like you won’t magically have a Sudoku fill in with all the right answers as soon as you look at it, nor will your career fully blossom to what’s “right” for you without the hard work of solving it along the way. You have to fill it in, square by square, some squares easier than others, some squares you will make a mistake and have to look at again. Just like solving a Sudoku, you can figure out your career. One piece at a time.
Take Away: A career isn’t something that just happens by going through the motions. It takes thoughtfulness, problem solving, reflection, and information to make moves (even some wrong moves to help us learn) to figure out what we want to do when we grow up.