The Art of War is about how to conduct a successful war. I keep going back to it for inspiration and advice on how to conduct a successful life.
The Art of War is more than a book about war
I first read Sun Tsu’s The Art of War in my mid 20’s. It is a short and remarkably simple book written by a Chinese strategist approximately 2,500 years ago. It has remained a foundation of military strategy and organization in both the East and the West.
I read it as part of my quest to consume the classics. I appreciated its conciseness and brevity, but I read it as a military essay and did not really absorb the broader lessons the book has to teach.
Through the years I have found myself going back to this brief but dense little book, and finding more and more wisdom in its measured prose. I have discovered that it is actually a template for living an effective and successful life.
All business is war
I’m not the only one to glean value from The Art of War outside the military circles. It has become a popular text among business and entrepreneurial tribes. They have adopted the tenant “all war is deception” as a motivating principle. It is for people seeking to gain wealth and success without morality or accountability.
I reread the texts and applied them to my own entrepreneurial efforts. I experienced some success. But I also began to see the book more holistically. And I began to apply the lessons I found there to more than just business, but to all aspects of my life.
If there is one book I have used consistently to guide my decisions, it has been this one. I will at times fall away and have to find my way back. But the philosophies never fail, and grow more profound with each review.
War, in 13 chapters
The Art of War has helped soldiers, CEOs, people in AA, and motivational speakers. It has helped me, too. In many ways I’ve turned back to the pages of this book for inspiration and strategy.
For the purposes of this review, I am only going to make references to the ways I’ve applied the principles of The Art of War in my life. And while I could probably recount a thousand examples of where the knowledge I gained has helped me, I will focus on just a few of the gems in this diamond mine.
“Know your enemy, know yourself, and in a thousand battles, you will know victory” – I’ve spent years looking hard at myself. I have been unflinchingly critical. Challengers would rise to obstruct me. I took the time to learn what I was facing and looked deep into my own well of resources. I could count on finding ways to succeed.
“The goal of war is victory, not prolonged conflict” – I’ve known people who kept fighting long after they won the battle. Some people cannot move past the battle and short-circuit their own success. I learned early on to take a win, even if it wasn’t a perfect win.
“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting” – Conflict is expensive. It costs time, energy, and resources. My first instinct now is to find a way to win people over to my side before an argument can commence. I want to win without fighting. If I show up prepared, the contest never even gets started.
“When strong appear weak; when weak appear strong” – This will always be a hard one to master, but it is among the most valuable, especially when dealing with people. Others either underestimated or overestimated me. And it has made me successful. People feared what I couldn’t do, but thought I could. People believed in me for what they thought I could do, which I couldn’t. It is a matter of perception, but you always have to know your strengths and weakness.
“Attack the enemy where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected” – This overlooked bit of wisdom gets results. We love the story of David and Goliath where little guys take on giants and persevere. In reality, though, we know that little guys rarely prevail in head-on conflict. But the art of the niche is to find out where the big guy is weak, where he is not giving attention or resources, and exploit the opportunity. I’ve always looked for ways around the fringes, rather than trying to do battle head-on. When my rivals are chasing the big shiny, I go for the overlooked pebbles.
“When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard” – A defeated foe will give up. A desperate foe will fight tooth and nail. When I’m in a negotiation or a contest, I make sure to give my opponent a place to retreat to. Most people would rather move to a place of more comfort to escape from conflict. But leave them no way out of an unbearable fate, and they will fight until you are both brought to ruin.
“What enables the wise to achieve things beyond ordinary men is foreknowledge” – Sun Tzu said that one spy was worth a thousand soldiers. The lesson is that knowledge is more powerful than skill, more powerful than attitude, and more powerful than any gut feeling or intuition. I get information wherever I can, and I utilize it to my advantage. Gossip carries threads of truth. When resources have information to give, I make myself available to listen.
“In chaos there is opportunity” – I bought a house in the free-fall of the housing crisis. I paid 60% of what it is now worth. When the company I worked for was collapsing, I went to the clients who were soon to be without service and built an entrepreneurial opportunity out of the ashes. If you can keep your head while those around you are losing theirs, you can find opportunity in the direst of circumstances.
Applying The Art of War to every situation
Sun Tzu has counsel for just about every life circumstance if you are willing to adapt it. Do you want to come out on top of a negotiation for a new car? Keep your plans as dark an impenetrable as the night, then fall like a thunderbolt.
Wonder about the value of self-discipline? You can tell the outcome of any challenge by how devoted to discipline and training someone is.
Sun Tzu doesn’t believe in luck, he believes in preparedness and opportunity intersecting.
Will I lose weight and get fit reading The Art of War?
I’ve used The Art of War to conduct business, negotiations, lead teams, figure out how to beat someone in a competition, and make myself be a better person.
I’m now using these lessons to lose weight and regain my health and fitness. The advice is all there if I read between the lines. Sun Tzu tells me how I got here:
“Plan for what is difficult while it is easy, do what is great while it is small.” – I should have taken care of my diet and fitness before now. I would be living the life I wanted, instead of struggling as I am.
But he also tells me the way out:
“If you fight with all your might, there is a chance of life; whereas death is certain if you cling to your corner”
Losing weight is like going to war. This is a war I have to win.