9 Practical Life Lessons from Sun Tzu's Art of War

Sun Tzu's The Art of War is over 2,500 years old, but it is still used as a guide for how to approach conflicts in personal life or in the business world.


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9 Practical Life Lessons from Sun Tzu's Art of War

How can we neglect the Chinese history when learning Chinese language? "The Art of War" remains on of the world's most famous military texts, 2,500 years after it was published by Sun Tze (孙子 Sūnzi) an adviser who probably lived during the Spring and Autumn Period (776-471 BCE). However, it is now celebrated by today's business gurus and even sports coaches as guidance for dealing with conflict of all sorts. When Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel felt threatened by the encroachment of Facebook into Snapchat's market, he gave each of his team members a copy of "The Art of War" in order to have them think in terms of ruthlessness competition. Whether it is internal or external to an organization or an individual's battles with themselves, competitors, or nature, "The Art of War" gives comprehensive advice on how to approach conflict. Let's take a look at 10 life lessons that can be taken from this broadly universal work.

Lesson 1: Choose Your Battles

"He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight." 

In the same way that Sun Tzu argues armies should only engage when they have a clear advantage, we have to pick our battles in real life. A child may fantasize about becoming a professional sports player, firefighter, a CEO, and the president all at the same time, but as we get older, we realize there are time and resource constraints to what you can achieve. As such, we should know what we can achieve and in which areas we will be most successful to take full advantage of the time and resources that are available. Sun Tzu recommends that military commanders avoid spreading their forces too thin, as that would make an army weaker throughout. Similarly, in your career, if you spread your skills over too many diverse areas, you won't be able to specialize in anything. That is not to saying having diverse skills won't help you get a job, but you have to diversify your skills in a smart way. In business, you have to choose battles all the time, whether it be choosing between project proposals, prioritizing requests for renegotiations, or choosing when to challenge a counterpart. Much of content in "The Art of War" is dedicating to advising how to pick the right time and place for your conflict to occur (it if really needs to occur at all).  

Sun Tzu's teachings can be applied to one's personal battles by helping us appreciate that self-improvement isn't just a matter of sheer willpower. When we have good habits we want to develop or bad habits we want to kick, it is helpful if we put ourselves in favorable conditions that will encourage success rather than make our challenges more difficult. For example, if you are trying to lose weight, eating out with friends while starting a diet will not help your case. Similarly, if you are trying to get a lot of reading done, loud and distracting housemates won't make that easy. Sun Tzu recommends following the path of least resistance. If you have multiple habits you want to build, you should start with the habits that are easiest to start, rather than completely trying to change your life all at once. Much like the feng shui tradition, Sun Tzu uses the metaphor of water flowing through the path of least resistance to describe the optimal course of action. 

Martial arts fighter over wooden boards leading out to the horizon

Lesson 2: Timing Is Essential

"The quality of decision is like the well-timed swoop of a falcon which enables it to strike and destroy its victim." 

Sun Tzu argues it is important to be extremely prudent in choosing the timing of when to engage the enemy. While having a good strategy in mind is essential, a plan is only as good as it is appropriate for the situation. Having good timing means that while you do not hesitate to execute when the time is right, you don't rush in either unless the conditions favor it. In marketing, for example, it is important to pay attention to what is happening in a market before entering it, and to stay on top of trends, responding to them in real-time via social media like Twitter. 

Sun Tzu knew that time was of the essence in warfare. In real life too, it is important that once a decision is made, it should be executed immediately. In Chinese tech industry, for example, startups tend to emphasize speed of execution and organizational flexibility in order to stay afloat. While China is a large market big enough to support many startups, it is generally considered a "winner take all" market, meaning that the first startups who succeed are likely to be the only ones that dominate. 

Lesson 3: Know Yourself, Know the Enemy

"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 abut 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."

Probably the most important point of "The Art of War" tries to make is that information does matter, and an educated guess is better than a gut decision. Sun Tzu thought that generals should be adept at the "military calculus" of taking into account anything and everything that could affect the outcome of a battle. Not only is it vitally important to have insight into what the enemy might be attempting to do in order to take advantage of their weaknesses and know one's own corresponding strengths and weakness, but it is also important to take into account factors such as the environment, weather, and troop morale. Recent trends in the use of big data demonstrate just how important in-depth research is to the survival and success of businesses. In business negotiations, knowing something about your counterpart can be vital to improving communication with them. 

Lesson 4: Have A Unique Plan

"All warfare is based on deception. "

While this well-known quote from Sun Tzu's text sounds sinister, but it has profound meaning in the business world. It is well-known that it is essential to differentiate your business strategy in order to come out on top. The "military calculus" Sun wanted generals to be adept in was meant to incorporate one's own unique perspective so that it would not be possible for the enemy to anticipate it. Similarly, if businesses do the same research as their rivals, the lack of differentiation would likely result in a loss of profits for both companies, as they would both be focusing on the same market areas. It is important in life's struggles to do the preparation work, but if you really want to win, you should prepare in a way that is either more extensive or more innovative than anyone else. 

Lesson 5: Disguise Your Plans

"When able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem 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.

Sun Tzu believes it is not enough to have a unique plan, and that a plan must also be disguised by means of deception. For example, if a general was planning an attack from his left flank, he should confuse the enemy by using decoys on his right, which would make it appear as if the attack was coming from the right. Ideally, an army should also be in constant motion so as to appear formless. Deception is also common in the business world. Large corporate monopolies will often take measures to appear smaller, while small startups will claim they are changing the world through the uniqueness of their innovation, even though they might not be at that stage yet. Similarly, if your ambition is to leave your current company to start your own business in the same industry, you would do well to have your colleagues believe you are dependent on your job. Sun Tzu also recommends that you make your former colleagues think your business is struggling until you eventually reach the point where you are outperforming them.  

Two businessmen with chess in office

Lesson 6: The Best Way to Win Is Not to Fight At All

"To win 100 battles is not the height of skill, to subdue the enemy without fighting is."

In observation of the fact that warfare is extremely risky, Sun Tzu proposes that the best tacticians are those who are able to defeat the enemy by diplomacy or other means. He proposed generals should try to take cities without laying siege, possibly by forcing the inhabitants to surrender due to psychological warfare. Sun Tzu argues that for any situation, man has more than one tool at his disposal, making it sometimes necessary to engage the enemy in a conventional manner. The concept of being resourceful applies to real life even more than it does to military conflict, as not a zero-sum game, and there can, in fact, be multiple winners. The example of Apple's "Think Different" campaign illustrates how companies can become successful not by direct competition, but by differentiation. Similarly, in personal life, you are much more likely to succeed if you create your own job opportunities than if you follow normal, more established career paths. Develop a skill (or combination of skills) that nobody else has, and you won't have to compete with anyone. Want to get hired? Figuring out how to get companies to seek you out rather than you having to seek them out will save you a lot of time and effort. 

Lesson 7: Change Represents Opportunity

"In the midst of chaos, there is opportunity." 

According to Sun Tzu, change is one of the most important factors in deciding the outcome of a battle. As a realist, Sun Tzu emphasizes that anything can happen in warfare, and proposing that generals always prepare for the worst. However, he also points out that the only way to get ahead is to take the right risks. Therefore, those who remain calm and keep an open mind during a time of uncertainty are best-positioned to take advantage of opportunities when they arise. In real life and in business, it is often the case that one is unaware of the opportunities one has missed because people are so often fixated on protecting themselves from change. Change is inevitable in any industry, and the best way to prepare for change is to be the driving force behind that change. Being aware of new laws or regulations, disruptive technologies, social phenomena, and changes in the budget of your customers will uncover opportunities, which must be seized if businesses are to progress. 

Lesson 8: Success Breeds Success

"Opportunities multiply as they are seized." 

Sun Tzu noticed that momentum was very important to warfare. The same is true in business. When Uber was vying for market dominance with local ride-hailing app Didi Dache (滴滴打车 Dīdī Dǎchē), Uber was the clear favorite as a more technologically advanced and better-funded startup. CEO of Didi, Cheng Wei, reportedly a military history buff, told Uber CEO Travis Kalanick that he would someday overtake Uber when the two met in 2013. Although he was at the time much smaller than Uber, Cheng knew that he would someday win because he was going have to fight other local ride-hailing apps before he challenged Uber anyways. Indeed, after defeating or acquiring all the local rivals, Didi had become a seasoned veteran in the Chinese market and knew how to fight much better than Uber, a U.S.-based company. Cheng's string of victories against local rivals eventually helped him outmaneuver Uber despite Uber's ability to match his moves financially.Companies like Didi are able to scale quickly once they have a few successes, and the momentum starts shifting their way. Similarly, in a career, sometimes it is the small actions that snowball into something bigger. For example, if you volunteer to represent your company at a conference, it could lead to networking great contacts who give you clients, or a future job. Sometimes, it just takes one opportunity for the floodgates to open. 

Lesson 9: No One Profits From Prolonged Warfare

"There is no instance of a nation benefiting from prolonged warfare."

Uber and Didi can attest to the draining effects of a protracted conflict, as both companies burned through billions of dollars while competing with one another. Sun Tzu advises it is best to strike effectively and quickly, making conflict decisive. In the business world, you don't want to drain your resources attacking a rival when you could invest them in your future development. In personal life too, you do not want to wait forever to tackle your problems, and should make progress toward your goals as soon as possible. Do you have an idea to start an innovative company? Don't wait until next year to get things rolling, as someone else with the same idea might act on it sooner than you.

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