Jun 132011
Sun Tzu by Wikipedia

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.

Sun Tzu’s Art of War by Vlasta2

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.

Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed this article, please subscribe to my RSS feed and spread the word below. You can also follow me on Twitter and Facebook.

  14 Responses to “The Two Biggest Lessons From The Art of War”

  1. Hi Sebastian,

    Sun Tzu and his Art of War is truly a classic and there are so many applicable lessons within for our daily lives. Indeed if we only took the trouble to study it carefully, we would all make better decisions and less mistakes. One of the striking aspects of his thinking for me is how battles should be foregone conclusions. Victory should be as natural as the rising sun. If all of us took heed of his advice and achieved success before we acted, life would be vastly different.

    When I was younger, I used to be more impulsive and apt to charge into something with guns blazing and not much of a plan. More often than not, I made a lot of needless mistakes. Nowadays I take the trouble to think things through a little more carefully and that has made all the difference.

    Thank you for writing this wonderful article for Han of Harmony! :)

    Irving the Vizier

    • Hey Irving -

      Thanks for having me on here. It’s a tremendous honor.

      Indeed, most people don’t think through actions before they try something out. They just act without really deciding what they want to have happen. That can be fine for creating art or experimenting, but if you have a specific purpose in mind, your chances of success can go way up.

      Thanks again for having me here – a tremendous honor. Cheers,


  2. Hello Sebastian,

    You really need to be centered in yourself and introspective to apply the principles advocated here. Those qualities are not commonly found in our fast-paced culture. I found the emphasis on knowing both yourself and your opponent well very interesting. There’s a great deal of wisdom in your writing and I appreciate your article very much.

    • Thank you Sandra. Yes, so much stimulation and action is thrown at us – a lot of people don’t stop and reflect on what they actually want to have happen.

      I think it’s worth doing almost every day for a few minutes. At the very, very least, going back through your goals once a month and thinking on them should be required for almost anyone who wants to do meaningful things.

  3. I am really going to have to read this book! It keeps crossing my path, so I better pay attention. Thank you both for this informative article about two of the main points. On the first one, winning before you fight, I applied this principle many times in negotiations, both in my professional and in my personal life. The best example I can think of was when my son was growing up. He is autistic and I had yearly meetings to make a plan for the following academic year. This included many services. The school district was always short of money and staff, so getting the needed services was a challenge. I did a lot of preparation before the meeting, talking to the key players, getting needed documentation in place, and familiarizing myself with the relevant regulations. Once, just as I was walking into the meeting, one of the service providers said to me, “You know, your son gets more services than any other student in the entire school district.” Without missing a beat, I responded, “He is not getting any more than he is entitled to under the law.” I knew before I went in the meeting that I would get the services he needed.

    On the second point, what came to mind was Bruce Lee and how he revolutionized martial arts by abandoning all rigid and stylized forms of combat. The way of no way allowed him to pay attention to the present situation and to use whatever techniques he had available to respond.

    Thanks for a great article. Now I have to go get that book!

    • I’m a huge fan of Bruce Lee as well. The Tao of Jeet Kun Do has some really fascinating points in it if you like Bruce’s philosophy.

      Thanks for the kind words and sharing the story about your son. Preparation and getting all the groundwork right can really lead to better outcomes, and that’s great that you’re getting all the resources you can for your boy. You sound like a really devoted and great parent and thank you for sharing that story.

      Also, a nicely annotated copy of the Art of War can be read online here -


      That’s the best version I’ve found online. The commentary on that site is useful, because a lot of the times the translator has to choose between using a Chinese idiom that Western audiences don’t understand, or translating it literally and losing the flair. That site manages to capture both, so it’s a good read. Best wishes to you and your family.

  4. A lot of good nourishment here Sebastian. Thanks for your post. A quality that I think is helpful in this process of winning before we begin is the simple ability to be truly flexible — not bound by prior prejudices or even prior plans, but able to adjust in the moment to present realities.

    • Thanks Christopher.

      > A quality that I think is helpful in this process of winning before we begin is the simple ability to be truly flexible — not bound by prior prejudices or even prior plans, but able to adjust in the moment to present realities.

      I like Eisenhower on the topic – “I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” Having an objective in mind, but being flexible on getting there.

  5. Sebastian,

    The Art of War is one of my favorite books based upon a few points that you have shared in this post. In my reflection on the information that was shared I found the most value of strategic preparation that allows you to be mentally prepared for whatever challenges may come your way. In life you have to learn to use the terrain of wisdom and experience to your advantage to overcome the battles we face daily. I found a ton of value in this post. You did an excellent job.

    • Hi Frank,

      Strategic preparation is one of the keys to success. If we do not plan and prepare for what is ahead, we are not likely to have any success that is of lasting value. We might be lucky and succeed, but without the proper foundation, our success may collapse soon after.

      Thank you for sharing your lovely comments! :)

  6. I keep meaning to read this book for a number of reasons. For one reason or another, it never seems to happen, but I aim to change that!

    Thank you for such a thorough-yet-brief overview of The Art of War. No amount of reading about this book has given me the information of what this book is actually about like you did; most other reviews or explanations are way too technical and over-complicated.

    Thank you for the reminder. I need to read this book.


    • Hi Delena,

      It is easy to appreciate the value of something when we see it in action. The same goes for the Art of War. Although it is a very short book with very simple sayings, it is actually very profound. In another words, it is easy to read but difficult to master. Yet if you master and creatively apply the principles contained within, it will make a great difference in your life.

      Thank you for sharing your lovely comments! :)

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