Lessons From: Sun Tzu's Art of War

From Sun Tzu himself: Three main ideas that will help you win every battle in your life

War. What is it good for? Showing off your strength, that's what. 

All jokes aside, the Art of War is an excellent book that you need to read at least once in your life in order to find your inner strength and take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way. Because not everybody has the time to read, I'll help you understand it so you can apply the knowledge in the meantime. This knowledge is not only good for war, and I would prefer you don't use it for that if you can avoid it, but when it comes to business strategy, politics, and gossip at the office's water cooler, you will always come out on top. 

There are three main ideas in Art of War, which are position, expansion, and situations. They do not necessarily come in that order because the book is written in a circular fashion, but we will explore these ideas in that order. 


Sun Tzu says: All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.

In a related note, he also says: If your enemy is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him. If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.

There's an old motto that talks about selling a product: Position, position, position. In many ways, it is the key to success. In Taoist philosophy, nature has a five-point cycle of creation and destruction, where each point creates the next, just as in war, are five main elements to position: 
  1. Ground
  2. Climate
  3. Mission
  4. Command
  5. Methods
From the ground is created climate, for each area has its own pattern of behavior. From the climate, is born the mission, for there is change and with change come objectives. From mission comes command, for a leader needs people to follow his objectives. From command come methods, for these are borne from the decisions of leaders. 

If you try to apply game theory to real life, you will soon find out that there is a lot of information missing. Not every game is as simple as the Prisoner's Dilemma, wherein two criminals involved and arrested for a crime know the consequences of confessing or denying their crime, but if you were one of the prisoners, then you would be missing information yourself for not knowing what the other one's decision would be. In real life, you don't even get to know every rule of the game. Information is valuable in situations where it is scarce, and you must be making sure that you're working with objective information. What is reality and what you percieve as reality can be two very different things. 

Competition has an economic nature, in the sense that winning must be worth it, so efforts or cost must be limited. You don't send the best squadron in the Mexican army just to capture a measly place like the Alamo, and you don't spend a million dollars if your revenue will be less. This means that efficiency is the way to go when it comes to conflict, and you always need to do a cost-benefit analysis to make sure that winning is worth it and not just a way to inflate your ego. 

Sun Tzu says: Where the army is, prices are high; when prices rise the wealth of the people is exhausted.

Sun Tzu also talks about using spies. Although you can maybe hire a private eye, most of the time you don't have to take it so literally. Information is key. He says that there are five sorts of spies: 

  1. Local spies - People who live there
  2. Inward spies - People who work with the enemy
  3. Converted spies - People who worked for the enemy but are now working for you
  4. Doomed spies - People who do things openly to decieve the enemy
  5. Surviving spies - People who bring information from the enemy's camp
Every one of these will have to be managed in a different manner, but you must always make sure you get along with your sources of information, after all, information is key. 


This deals with advancing your position. What is the nature of strength? In order to survive, you must advance your current position. Defense is cheaper in the short term, but in the long term, change is what defeats entrenchment, just as a river erodes stone. 

Sun Tzu says: It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.

How do you get into a competent position? Recognize that as man cannot play god, you cannot alter the environment in order to create opportunities. Instead, observe, and find your opportunity to advance. There is an energy behind humanity, and that is imagination, which is infinite. This makes competitive environments unpredictable, for the possibilities are infinite, but by itself, imagination can do nothing. When imagination comes together with reality, or in our case, actual knowledge that we can apply, we have what Sun Tzu called force. Applying this force is what will get you into a competent position. 

Sun Tzu says: It is the rule in war, if ten times the enemy's strength, surround them; if five times, attack them; if double, be able to divide them; if equal, engage them; if fewer, defend against them; if weaker, be able to avoid them.

What is behind change? When you open a window in a spaceship, air flows outward to fill the void (and probably your internal organs). This is how opportunity works as well; need is a form of emptiness, and production is fullness, and when you can put yourself into the flow you find opportunity, but be careful about forcing opportunities, for, direct conflict is dangerous and costly, and creativity can help you avoid dire circumstances. Should you come to direct conflict, then you must tip the balance in your favor by knowing yourself and knowing your enemies. 

Sun Tzu says: For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.


Just as every place has its pattern, every situation you find yourself in will be different and you will be forced to adapt. Despite this, there will be certain elements you will find in common in some situations, and here is where your creativity will help you excel and win every single battle, and if you've been paying attention, you'll do it before there even is a battle. 

The marching army is the first of these situations. You must fly over mountains and stick around in the valleys, and you mustn't fight uphill battles, or your expense will be extraordinary. If you cross a river, go ahead so your enemy crosses it, and fight when half the army has reached the ground, for the other half will not have the time to gather its bearings. Although you will rarely use geography for warfare, adapting to a change has its own geography and you need to understand the advantages that knowing the landscape bring. 

Sun Tzu says: And therefore those skilled in war bring the enemy to the field of battle and are not brought there by him.

The general mentions different terrains in warfare, but these can be separated into early, middle, and late-stage terrains, and they go from easier to harder to access. 

In the easily accesible terrains, you must always arrive first and be uphill. Discover a genre, invent a new product, be the first to cast the stone. If the ground can be abandoned, but be difficult to recapture, you must defeat your enemy when he is unprepared. If the enemy is prepared, ignore it, for you will not be able to return. 

Sun Tzu says: Speed is the essence of war. Take advantage of the enemy's unpreparedness; travel by unexpected routes and strike him where he has taken no precautions.

You then have situations where he who makes the first move will end up losing in the long run. If you make the first move in chopsticks, the second player can always make you lose if he knows what he's doing. Your enemy will try to bait you, but resist and retreat, and when your enemy thus advances, get him while he's unprepared. Narrow passes are on a similar level. If you can get control of one, heavily reinforce it and wait for the enemy. If your enemy is already there, observe if it is heavily fortified or not, and if it is not, attack with all your might so you may occupy and defend it. 

If the ground has a steep rise, go to the highest point, the advantageous position, and if your enemy is already there you must retreat and put a bait. In a personal situation this can be the moral high ground, in a business situation this can be the preference of your boss or business partner. 

If you're far away from your enemy, be aware of his strength. If the enemy is as strong as you are, abstain from chasing him, and make him come to you with bait or impatience, which will tire him out. Otherwise, do not fight, for a direct conflict in even terrain with an equal is very costly. 

Sometimes, absolute destruction of your opponent is the only way to proceed. This is known as attacking with fire, and there are five ways to go about it. 
  1. Burning soldiers in their own camp. Sure, in real life, you can't just go to your rival's house while he's sleeping with a container full of kerosene and a couple of matches, but you can catch your enemies off-guard in their own terrains every once in a while. This is the theoretical equivalent of opening a Walmart in a small town. 
  2. Burn stores. Just as Julius Caesar wrote a book about burning fields of corn and made it his guideline on winning the Gaelic Wars, you must make sure your enemy does not have any incoming streams of resources in order to win. 
  3. Burn baggage trains. Cut the outflow. 
  4. Burn arsenals and magazines. If you make your enemy's stash of resources worthless in some manner, then you will win in the short and long term. 
  5. Hurl dropping fire amongst the enemy. In war you set your arrows on fire and shoot your enemy camps. In business you prove your rival's product is inferior to yours and drive his sales down. In academics you sneer at your intellectual enemy and make sure the inner circle disapproves of his theories. This one is the most direct, but it must be done carefully, for dripping fire can drip on you as well. 

If you treat the whole book as a metaphor of sorts, then you will see that all it takes to winning is making sure you know everything and putting yourself in the perfect position. If you can avoid conflict and win your battles before they even begin, you will avoid many troubles which can be costly and even win the heart of the enemy while you're at it. 

Sun Tzu says: The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses makes but few calculations beforehand.

If you want a version of the book with commentary, click here

No comments:

Post a Comment

Lessons From: Neon Genesis Evangelion

How to deal with the Hedgehog's Dilemma Neon Genesis Evangelion came out back when I was born in '95 and is still one of th...