by Jeff Kirsch
Recently, my son told me a story about how he played chess with a friend at school. In his story, he said his friend executed a certain move; my son then asked me if I had ever tried that move. I was a bit confused; I’ve played chess on and off for at least 20 years, but I’ve never heard of this play. My son asked if we could play, and more importantly, if I could teach him. Looking at the clock, I thought about how I needed to get his siblings into bed, and that he needed to read a book for school.
He promised to read his book while I put his siblings to bed. After the other kids were in bed, I got him from his room (where he had read a chapter of his book), and we headed downstairs for his lesson.
I explained the chess pieces and how they moved; he remembered this from the last time we played. We began the game and I watched him bring his plan to fruition. I didn’t start with very much instruction, because I kne
w that the best instruction comes when you are “deep in the weeds”, so to speak. I took a few of his pieces, and the teaching began.
For each of his moves I helped him see what my next moves could be and how that would affect what he should do. With each move, he needed less and less instruction, but his questions became more complex. Of course, like most novice chess players, he still needed help remembering how the pieces moved (especially the knight). Looking at the clock, I realized it was just a few minutes till his bedtime, so I finally made an exchange of pieces I had put off for most of the ga
me. A few moves later he was in checkmate. He looked at me with a huge smile on his face and gave me a big hug. “That was fun, Daddy,” he said as I squeezed him tight. “I can’t wait to play again.” That is when two thoughts struck me, which I shared with him, and which I’ll share with you now.
In losing, you win
We hear all the time that most successful people failed, sometimes more than once, before
being successful. Even after those people “made it”, they still face bumps in the road. What came out of my mouth first to my son was, “In losing, you win.” I went on to explain that you have to lose a lot of games of chess in order to learn how to play the game. This came out almost automatically, but then I started to reflect on what I had said. I realized that I wasn’t just talking about the game, I was talking about life and all the challenges we face.
In information security it is easy to become overwhelmed. We always feel like we are three steps behind. We put together teams, we focus on security and secure practices, and try to funnel everything down to a few points where we can protect our vulnerabilities, only to find that someone left the back door open. To add insult to injury, we get raked over the coals because the one thing we forgot compromised everything we were trying to protect. However, until the day you forget to lock one door, you have no real concept of the consequences that await when you do fail. In that moment of failure we have the ability to learn the most.
A plan is good, but plan flexibly
My son went into the game thinking there was a defense he could set up in the beginning that would win the game. What my son didn’t take into account was that I would have a turn, and that I could attack his defense – thus also keeping him from the offense he had planned. He immediately understood his mistake and explained to me why he should have paid attention to what I was doing. I was again hit with the realization that the lessons from this game were more than just lessons about a game. If we only plan to defend our systems from attack, we fail to see the most critical vulnerability and fail to account for a possible offense.
Flexibility is critical not just in information security, but in all aspects of our personal and professional lives. People who plan ahead certainly can start out of the gate faster, but when they get a few miles down the road and their tire goes flat, how do they sustain momentum? If you can adjust your strategy not only to account for defense, but also to incorporate an offense, you double your chances for success. In the end, you even the playing field by using your strengths and understanding your opponents’ weaknesses.
In a moment of just playing a game with my son, I re-awakened the magic of chess and learned some valuable lessons. There are plenty of people who make fun of the game and those who play it, but there are just as many (if not more) who play it and get it. When you realize that it is not simply a game, but that it also has many lessons to impart, you find that “losing” really isn’t losing. But just as in chess, you’ll encounter people who don’t get what you do or why it is important. Instead of discounting them, find a away to convey what it is and why they should care. You aren’t going to convince everyone and it won’t be easy, but giving up before you start says a lot about your character and reflects the quality of your work.