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Major progress can come from small slow improvements

People are impatient. We want to be rewarded immediately and easily disregard or are blind to slow processes: things that take 2, 5, 10, 20 years. However, major progress can come from small slow improvements. A story about the invention of chess (the board game) illustrates both the power of simple progression and our blindness to it. “Legend has it that in the province of Taligana, in India, lived for many years a rich and generous king named Iadava. An adventurer named Varangul attacked Iadava’s kingdom. He had to wield his sword, and in front of his army, faced Varangul’s army. Iadava, who had a military genius, defeated Varangul in the fields of Decsina, but he paid a heavy price for his victory, his son Adjamir died in combat. There was so much sadness in Iadava’s heart that he locked himself in his castle, and no longer wanted to talk more with anyone. His only consolation was to repeat the maneuvers of combat in a sandbox, as a tribute to the memory of beloved son Adjamir. But one day it came to the sad palace, a young Brahmin named Lahur Sessa, from the village of Manir. He asked the guards to see the king saying that he had invented a game especially for him in order to cheer his hours of solitude. Iadava decided to receive Lahur Sessa in his palace. He had a great curiosity to see the game which had been invented for him. When Lahur Sessa was in front of the king, he gave him a beautiful board divided into sixty-four squares and thirty-two pieces: sixteen of white and sixteen of black. Each group of pieces represented according to Lahur Sessa, two armies, the army of Varangul and the army of the king. After some brief explanations, the king began to play with great enthusiasm, really was fascinated with the new game. And it happened that Iadava had to sacrifice a rook to win the game (changing one more valuable piece by other one less valuable). This opportunity was exploited wisely by Lahur Sessa. He told the king, ‘Sometimes we need to make a sacrifice to achieve a greater good for everyone.’Iadava caught the acute observation which made a reference to his son Adjamir, sadly died in combat. Pleased with the beautiful game that Lahur Sessa had invented for him. Iadava told Lahur Sessa, "Ask me what you want to and I will give you immediately." Sessa kindly explained to Iadava, "I would like to receive a grain of wheat for the first square, two grains of wheat for the second square, four grains of wheat for the third, eight grains of wheat for the fourth, and so on until the sixty-fourth square." By hearing such a humble request Iadava began to laugh nonstop. After a while, he ordered that he would be given what he had requested. Later mathematicians confusedly came to the king to tell him that it was impossible to accommodate that request. The quantity of wheat was so great that all wheat from his kingdom was not enough wheat to pay what he had promised Lahur Sessa. This is the incredible account of wheat after reaching the sixty-fourth square: 18,446,744,073,709,551,615. Iadava was amazed by such an impressive figure. He told Sessa, ‘Unhappy is he who assumes the burden of a debt whose worth cannot be measured by the simple means of his own intelligence.’Iadava embraced Sessa and appointed him to first vizier for life.”[]

The request for one grain of wheat for the first square, two for second and four for the third and so on until the last square of the chessboard (the sixty-fourth square) sounded very reasonable to Iadava. However, this simple progression may start slowly, but it grows enormously in the second half of the chessboard. In this version of the legend, Iadava is told what the progression means, and the story end well. 

The chess legend is entertaining, and we can laugh at Iadava not seeing the scale of Sessa’s request. However, in modern life, there are other examples of slow, simple progressions. Take for instance Gross Domestic Production (GDP). We are all used to the business news commentators saying this year's GDP figure is and quoting a percentage. The general thinking is that a higher growth rate is a good thing and we should be unhappy about lower growth. Three percent growth per year sounds very modest. Some countries such as China have 8, 9, 10 % or higher. But just three percent growth results in the economy doubling in size in circa 23 years. If the economy is already developed then what does doubling it again really mean? How much more food can be eaten, how many holidays can you take? GDP growth has delivered social progress. Hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens have moved out of extreme poverty. However, in a developed country does 3% GDP automatically equal progress for its citizens? Are there other national or community goals we should set, that may be slow to achieve, but would provide major progress?