The Inventor of Chess and The Emperor

There’s a famous story called The Inventor of Chess and The Emperor, perhaps you’ve heard it, that is a great demonstration of the power of cumulative effort. If not, allow me to sum it up for you.

One day, an inventor took his latest creation to the Emperor. He called it, the game of chess. The Emperor was so impressed with the game that he offered the inventor a year’s supply of rice for his efforts.

The inventor, being good with mathematics, made a counter offer. 

He said, “Emperor, instead of this gracious compensation, how about you just give me one grain of rice for creating the first square on the chessboard, then double that amount for every additional square on the board?”

The Emperor looked confused, but was nevertheless intrigued by the strange proposal. “So, I give you only one grain of rice today,” the Emperor confirmed.

“Yes,” said the inventor. “Tomorrow, I will return and you shall give me two grains of rice. On the third day, four grains of rice. For each day I return, you will double the amount that you gave me the previous day until I am compensated for all the squares on the board.”

The Emperor counted only 64 squares on the chessboard and became excited by the offer. Thinking that the inventor had made a foolish mistake, the Emperor immediately accepted the offer. He then handed the inventor one grain of rice.

The next day, the inventor returned to the palace and collected two grains of rice. On the third day, the inventor collected four grains of rice…

On the 32nd day, the inventor was compensated for half the chessboard. He now owned all of the rice in the kingdom. 

By the 64th day, the Emperor became vastly indebted to the inventor and wound up in prison because he was unable to pay. 

The inventor, his wife, and family then moved into the Emperor’s palace.

Although this story is showcasing the power of exponential growth, we can apply a similar lesson to our lives. Much like the Emperor, most of us are terrible at judging small incremental growth.

Understanding how small things can add up to big results can be applied to so many aspects of our lives from learning a new skill, saving money, or getting into better health.

Consider the following scenarios

Scenario one: Suppose you are out of shape and thinking about getting into fitness. For you to reach your fitness goal, you reason that it’s going to cost you a lot of time, effort, and money. The thought may seem daunting to you, so instead you put it off until next week, month, or year. Before you know it, ten years has gone by and you still haven’t done a thing.

Now imagine you had worked out once a week for ten years. The expended time, effort, and money would have been minimal, but the cumulative effect of all those workouts would be substantial.

Scenario two: You have been working at your job for far too long and you want to quit. The job you want requires a university degree or some level of certification that you don’t have, along with specialized skills or experience.

If you just put in a little effort – even take one class a semester, over a long enough period of time, you’ll be done. The alternative is to do nothing and have ten years go by and still be in the same spot.

If you have a goal, start today. Put in some small amount of effort and you will be rewarded big.