Read Like a Gent: The Art of War, by Sun Tzu

This is a guest post from David Ford, who last wrote for us on The Richest Man in Babylon.

The Art of War was written by the ancient Chinese military strategist Sun-Tzu who was born around 544 BC. Being quick-witted and intelligent, Sun-Tzu established a remarkable philosophy of military strategy that’s been used by countless military strategists since its first publication. 

The Art of War, known in Chinese as “Bingfa,” is one of the first known treatises on warfare strategy in history. It is uncertain when this book was written precisely, but most scholars believe it was written between 475 and 221 BC, during the Chinese Warring States period. This guide details various battle maneuvers and tactics as well as ways to collect strategic information such as the enemy’s location and the terrain of the battlefield.

Sun-Tzu believed that war is essential to the governance of the state and argues that it is governed by only five constant factors: 

  1. Moral law: That which inspires the population to be in complete agreement with their leader, willing to follow them under any circumstances.
  2. Heaven: The changeability of the environment, e.g., the seasons, times of day, and the weather.
  3. Earth: This comprises vast distances and the variability of terrain.
  4. The commander: The importance of the virtues of wisdom, sincerity, benevolence, courage, and strictness.
  5. Method and discipline: The clear hierarchy and structure of an army, with clear divisions, subdivisions, and ranks.

Sun-Tzu demonstrated the effectiveness of his philosophy by leading an army and winning an impressive battle in the Ch’u state. Only after this victory did Sun-Tzu put his philosophy to paper and wrote The Art of War for the king of Wu. 

The book itself has thirteen chapters, each focusing on a particular aspect of war and strategy. Sun-Tzu tended to write in short, succinct sentences and always contained deeper meaning. 

Although The Art of War states that war is essential, it should be avoided with diplomacy. If it cannot be avoided, it should be fought strategically and psychologically to minimize damage and the waste of resources. War should only be a last resort, and active warfare was believed to be a kind of defeat. Sun-Tzu thought there were no real winners in war. 

Sun-Tzu was a Taoist and recommended that every leader follow the Tao as a central component of leadership. This was because of the Taoist principles of yin and yang, opposing and complementary forces, represented by Sun-Tzu’s belief and strategy of peaceful resolutions after aggressive warfare. 

Not only is The Art of War the bible for the battlefield; many have found it to be a great source of lessons for life. Some takeaways from The Art of War that you can apply in your personal life and work. 

“He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.”

Pick your battles, learn the art of triage, and choose what is most important in life for you. Learn to say “No” or at the very least how to negotiate. 

“One may know how to conquer without being able to do it.”

In order to have more time for yourself and the things you want to achieve, learn to outsource or delegate to others capable of doing the work that needs doing. 

“Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and When you move, fall like a thunderbolt.”

Put a significant amount of time into planning. The importance of having a sound plan cannot be overstated. Before making any kind of decision, consider the pros and cons and the consequences that each possible decision could bring forth.  Just make sure you put your plan into action. 

“Move not unless you see an advantage; use not your troops unless there is something to be gained; fight not unless the position is critical.”

Learn to spot opportunities as they arrive. 

“If he sends reinforcements everywhere, he will everywhere be weak.”

Focus is important in order to succeed. Concentrate on areas of improvement, and don’t try to be everything at once.

“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while Defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.”

Do the things you do because of passion and because you want to do something, not because you’re expected to or for some form of compensation or glory at the end.

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

Strike efficiently and quickly. Nothing beats a good plan violently executed today if you have ideas for self-improvement or projects that you truly believe in, don’t act tomorrow or next week. Act now. 

“In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.”

Not everything is going to go right. Learn from your mistakes. 

“Never venture, never win!”

For everyday people like you and me, a career change can go a long way. In fact, right now, there are a lot of people becoming successful entrepreneurs. 

One last one:

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt; if you know Heaven and know Earth, you may make your victory complete.”

Overall, The Art of War teaches us that we need to be aware of ourselves and others. If you keep an open mind to the things happening around you, you can make informed decisions that will help everyone, including yourself. 

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