Lessons from an Old Master


This is part of my Series on Mentorship.

On a frigid winter's night about seven years ago, I was challenged to a chess match by an ancient looking man with a snow white beard. We were in an old Baltic tavern that suffered from poor heating and as you can see by the photo that memorializes our encounter above, he wore his scarf, coat and hat throughout and I barely managed with a heavy sweater and scarf.

**Full disclosure: to further combat the chill, we both employed the aid of spirits- initially mild in nature and then escalating in subsequent games to a cranberry-infused vodka of his choosing.

The man spoke very little English and when he approached, merely gestured to me using the universal sign language for "play a game"? His expression was open but grave at the same time. I had been analyzing some positions and playing speed chess with some friends until that point. Of course out of respect for his age I agreed immediately, but perhaps you can see the traces of a faint smirk or bemused expression on my face as the game began. This was of course because I have been a decent tournament player throughout my life that began in earnest during my high school years when my team was twice the national champion. Over the ensuing years, I had defeated my share of masters both here and abroad. As a consequence, until this particular evening, when challenged in casual games of this nature in pubs, at parties and the like, I always approached such encounters with a fair amount of bemused indulgence, shall we say. Need I tell you by now that this particular evening was the last time I ever did so again?

In our first game, playing perhaps to the 19th century atmosphere of the place, I trotted out an old-fashioned Vienna Game which transposed into a King's Gambit. My friends, who by now no doubt sensed something was in the air began to take photos. After a half dozen moves I already realized that the man was no novice. As the middlegame arrived I could see (to my shock!) that he was in fact rather strong. As the game wore on he proceeded to beat back my attack rather forcefully- and I was only able to draw the game with a perpetual check, otherwise the advantage was fully to him. We shook hands and I looked closely at him for the first time. His ancient and dark eyes were full of light and mirth- there was no trace of mockery, just mischief- he knew he had fully stunned me. He'd been young once- and hadn't forgotten it just yet. He smiled and gestured for another. My friends were similarly stunned. The old man called out for more drinks in his native tongue.

We played a few more games. We were evenly matched- a win to him, a win to me- I forget. The vodka had arrived too and it suited him. In the last game he hit some old stride from a half-century long past- and slowly dismantled my position with a precision and inevitability that shocked us all. I eventually resigned. We all shook the old Master's hand and he gave us that great mischievous smile of his, bowed slightly and shuffled off into the night. Of course I never saw him again. 

Last night my wife and I watched a 13 year old girl shock the judges and audience on the X Factor with a stunning, soulful rendition of "Feeling Good". We looked at each other and smiled- it was amazing.

Every once in a while I meet entrepreneurs that absolutely shock me. It happened the other day yet again. I met with two massively talented young women who had ended up partnering by sheer happenstance when one complimented the other on her shoes about six months ago.  They had got to talking and well, here they were- a stunning and amazing entrepreneurial team. In the first minutes that I met them they were two incredibly humble young people and yet in the ensuing minutes during which they described what they had created- they literally transformed before my eyes. 

I thank that old Master for teaching me this great lesson. My eyes have never been the same. I wish it for your eyes, too.

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Lessons from a Young Master

Sorcerers apprentice
Sorcerers apprentice

This is part of my Series on Mentorship.

I recently wrote about some enduring lessons I was privileged to learn from that great Old Master I told you about. I'm happy to say that of late I've been receiving some additional lessons, this time from some younger Masters.

A few weeks ago I started teaching our young son the game of chess. He is just a little over 2 years old but he is already learning what to call each piece, how to set them up on the board and now every night after dinner he says, "Daddy let's play chess" and we set up the board together, play a move or two and then he typically is ready to move on to another game or toy. I don't overdo it with him, but I can already see the enthusiasm he is developing for the idea and camaraderie of the game. Seeing him encounter chess with his fresh eyes has been something of a revelation for me. It has made me understand how precious the opportunity to teach something special to another human being can be. I've also come to understand just how much the teacher has to both remember and un-learn all at once. You have to constantly ask yourself questions like "what is he seeing that I no longer can", "what should I have been taught early on that took me years to realize on my own?". Imagination and creativity are paramount. You hope that in its purest form teaching is a gift to both the student and teacher. Each learns a great deal from the other and from the process as well.

I'm also teaching at Columbia Business School this year where I was appointed as an adjunct Professor of Entrepreneurship. I teach the Launching New Ventures class and we have 70 students with us, some of whom are dead-set on launching companies and becoming entrepreneurs. It's a huge challenge and you want to do your very best for them- not just to inspire them but to give them every practical advantage they can possibly have. Again I believe understanding how they see the landscape in front of them is paramount. You must understand how they think and the prism through which they're evaluating the world. A lot of this requires the teacher to unlearn and remember at the some time. One student was shocked when I told him how to approach a certain meeting. He said "I'm allowed to speak that way?" It was a powerful moment where he realized for the first time that there were no limits on him. I wish someone had told me that when I was in school twenty-five years ago!

As a teacher you feel an awesome responsibility to do right by each and every student. Amidst all of this, you also gradually realize not just what a privilege it is to guide them on their journey- but just how much the teacher is learning from all of his students along the way. It's quite stunning.

So here's to the young masters- to their success both in business and in life- and to all that they in turn teach us about ourselves along the way.

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