Change can be upsetting. It disrupts the familiar and brings chaos to the unprepared. During such times, it helps to have clarity of thought to deal with change. For only then is it possible to seize opportunities and avoid pitfalls as they arise. With this in mind, the famed Chinese strategist Sun Tzu wrote his Art of War. War is one of the great catalysts for disruptive change. Its outcome can change the course of millions of lives forever. But if one is able to master change in such extreme conditions, it is possible to survive change in other areas of life.
Today, Han of Harmony is proud to share a guest post by Sebastian Marshall. In this beautifully written piece, Sebastian shares two of the biggest lessons from the Art of War. With such insights into life, we can surely manage change to a greater degree.
The Two Biggest Lessons From The Art of War
Written 2500 years ago, Sun Tzu’s Art of War is one of the most enduring works of nonfiction of all time. On the surface, the book is about war, governance, diplomacy, and military operations, and it does cover those things.
But it goes beyond that as well – the reason it’s been read in so many different circle is because it’s a book that teaches clear thinking.
There’s lots of wisdom and good lessons in there, but I’ve had two particularly big takeaways from it – win before fighting, and use everything available to you. I’d like to share these principles with you, and then think a little on how they can be used to improve your life.
1. Win Before Fighting
So it is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss.
If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose.
If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself.
-Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Chapter 3: Plans of Attack
When The Art of War was written, superstition reigned and the scientific method and rationalist movements were thousands of years away.
China was one of the more robust scholarly cultures at the time, but it was still a superstitious place. Many decisions would be made on emotion, impulse, ritual, and feeling – instead of careful analysis.
Sun Tzu advocates against that. He wants the commander to be informed about all of the options, resources, and relevant details. Rather than go by feeling or superstition, you act in accordance with what’s possible. You learn about the enemy and their weak points before starting and you do much of the “hard work” of winning before any hostilities start.
If you do it right, any actual fighting is more of a formality – the outcome shouldn’t be in doubt.
This ideal isn’t always possible. In fact, getting into everyday life and outside of war, it’s not even always desirable. Frequently, it makes sense to just dive in to a project and muck around to see if you enjoy it, learn a little, experiment, and see what happens.
But over time, as you want to get bigger successes, start thinking about laying the groundwork to win before starting. Modern authors have picked up on this theme, like Stephen Covey who advocates, “Begin with the end in mind.” By having a target outcome, a very solid understanding of the situation, and plans that acknowledge and work with that reality, you can win before the fighting even breaks out.
Most people don’t do that. They start fighting and hope for the best. The better-informed, well-planned, pragmatic side will almost always defeat the less informed, poorly planned, impulsive/superstitious side.
“So it is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss.”
In new markets, in creative endeavors, in breaking new grounds – it’s not always possible to know your enemies. Sometimes, it’s not even possible to know yourself. But it’s worth striving for. Looking to get a fundamental understanding of how things work in your chosen discipline, how you work, and laying your plans intelligently with your target outcome in mind.
2. Use Everything Possible
Lay your groundwork, understand your opposition and yourself, have solid plans, and do most of the hard work of winning before fighting breaks out.
But how do you do all these things?
And Sun Tzu’s answer would be – any way possible.
The Art of War roughly goes three phases – the first part of the book is concerned with the nature of planning, warfare, setting objectives, and some fundamental principles.
After that, Sun Tzu moves into evaluating when and where to attack – looking for weak points and mistakes the opponent makes as well as opportunities that arise.
The third part of the book is largely tactical considerations.
The whole time, Sun Tzu instructs that you need to pay attention to the situation, have clear information, and make plans intelligently based on that information. He tells you to use whatever is available to you.
In Chapter Six, Weak Points and Strong, you’re told -
If the enemy is taking his ease, you can harass him. If well supplied with food, you can starve him out; if quietly encamped, you can force him to move.
Appear at points which the enemy must hasten to defend; march swiftly to places where you are not expected.
The applications in business are obvious – if you are opposing a well-funded bureaucratic corporation, you can move faster than them, release more often, and be more responsive to your customers. If you’re facing a smaller company, you could look to raise funds and out-spend them to gain market share quickly. There’s opportunities if you assess for them.
This applies as well to day to day life. If you analyze what’s fashionable and what isn’t, you can find great opportunities at low costs. If you identify a city that’s quickly on the rise but isn’t popular yet, you can go spend time in an exciting
culture with lots of opportunities and low cost of living.
This moves into Sun Tzu’s notes on terrain -
The natural formation of the country is the soldier’s best ally, but a power of estimating the adversary, of controlling the forces of victory, and of shrewdly calculating difficulties, dangers and distances, constitutes the test of a great general.
There’s much detail in The Art of War on different kinds of terrain and ground. There’s places that are easy to defend once you’re there, but hard to get back to if you leave them. There’s places where whoever makes the first move stands to do poorly. There’s places where movement is completely free to both sides, and whoever moves most quickly will gain a huge advantage.
Cultivating the skill of assessment and sizing up situations – looking to win before fighting – shows you opportunities everywhere. Sun Tzu talks about the different kinds of fires that can be set in wartime, and looking to keep enough materials onhand to set them. He talks about the use of spies and different kinds of intelligence gathering.
If he were alive today, he’d probably assess all the opportunities on the internet for ways to succeed as an individual or a group. He’d look to see what patterns of change are happening across a lot of industries and then look to see what industries haven’t been affected by them yet. That can be planned around and acted upon.
Many opportunities can be used to gather intelligence and knowledge about what you’re trying to. We have the most access in all of history to great writing, great books, great articles, great summaries, great audio, and great video. You can use all of these.
Sun Tzu lays out a foundation of acting pragmatically, rationally, after careful and informed analysis. You do the hard work of winning by setting plans, and then you move quickly to bring those plans into reality.
What should you use to get there? Anything you can. By having core objectives, a rational non-superstitious outlook, and a general understanding of what you want to achieve, then you can use everything available to you to get there from here. Sun Tzu studied terrain, weather, materials, supplies, provisions, intelligence, communications, training, morale, and leadership.
Many of those won’t apply to what you’re trying to achieve – if you’re looking to do creative work, the weather won’t matter all that much. But that’s not the point of The Art of War – the point is to have objectives and be well-informed, and then think about how everything around you could possibly help you get to your goals.
Sebastian Marshall writes daily on strategy, philosophy, self-discipline, science, and history at SebastianMarshall.com. Check out the “New? Start Here” to find relevant articles to improving your life.