The Art of War is the ultimate book on strategy. It was written by Sun Tzu, a Chinese general and military strategist. His teachings through The Art of War have had strong influences in a number of fields and industries including politics, business, banking, law, and professional sports. Tzu himself of course used it to win many battles and wars.
There are some very valuable lessons that we can learn from such a book. The strategies are presented in a general, widely applicable way. Lucky for us as this means they are easy to apply in our own lives. Tzu was also an excellent writer and many of his best lessons are eloquently captured in single quotes.
Here are 12 The Art of War quotes that will help you become a strategy master.
“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”
In life, diplomacy should always be our first option.
Fighting will always be more expensive and tiring than making peace. Even if you are able to quickly and decisively defeat your enemy, you will still have spent time and energy on doing so. What’s worse is that you have now created a bitter enemy who might strike you back in the future.
When you see a fight coming, first look for ways that you can avoid it. Can you:
- Get out of the situation?
- Talk it over?
- Make friends with them?
All such options of peace are a lot better as they allow you to fully avoid losing anything. As Abraham Lincoln once said:
“Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
Information is oxygen when it comes to warfare, whether that’s literal warfare or the battles that go on in our day-to-day lives.
You should always keep aware of two things in all situations:
- Who is your opponent? — Are they strong or weak? Are they the emotional type or very stoic? Do they have certain tendencies or habits that are good to know about?
- Who are you? — What are your strengths and weaknesses? In what situations would you win or lose? Where are you better than your opponent and where are you worse?
These are important questions to answer for forming your strategy. It should be based on your strengths and how they stack up against your opponent so that you always give yourself an advantage. Understanding the practical applications of game theory can be helpful here.
Make sure you understand who all the players are, including yourself, so that you can make the best plays based on that information.
“Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.”
There is something incredibly important to understand, not just about battles but about life in general: much of what people do is based on perception. It’s not what is, but rather what we think is.
Thus, many battles are really games of deception. Each side tries to trick the other into making a mistake by showing them a different face. It is to your advantage if you can misperceive your opponent to never attack your weak points and to unknowingly run into your strong points.
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 this way, you foil your opponent’s plans. They attempt to strike you at what they think is a weak place (because you’ve misperceived them) but turns out to be one that you can easily defend. Or when you appear strong on the surface they avoid attacking you altogether because they think they’ll lose (but really it’s a weak point that you’re hiding).
Be aware of these surface-level interpretations. Understand how people think and use that to your advantage by presenting a face that is in your favour.
“Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.”
There are no advantages to revealing your plans or being predictable. If your opponent knows when and how you’re going to attack them, then they’ll be able to put up the perfect defence. No amount of strength on your part will be able to beat a defence that’s perfectly made and timed against your strategy.
When planning, it’s always best to be as subtle as possible. Don’t let your opponent catch an idea of what you’re planning or even that you’re planning at all. If they never know what you’re up to, then they can never build up a proper defence. In this way, you are able to catch them off guard and off foot, where their defence won’t be as strong.
When you do finally decide to move, don’t hesitate. Move as fast as you can, and when you hit, make it hard. Give your opponent neither the time nor the means to defend against such an attack. The surprise alone will give you a key advantage in the fight.
With their lack of prepared defence and your incredible offence, they will have no chance to win.
“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win”
There’s no use in you trying to fight a battle that you can’t win. It’s a pointless waste of time and resources. You should have a path to victory before starting a fight, rather than starting a fight and then rushing to look for ways to win.
There are several things you can do to set your path to victory before the fight:
- In the first place, pick the battles that you have a high probability of winning in. Avoid others
- Determine all of the possible player moves, events, and outcomes
- Identify your strengths and weaknesses, and the strengths and weaknesses of your opponent
- Spend some extra time thinking of anomolies and other highly improbable events that could happen
- Finally, put all of the above together to for your full plan
When going through this process, spare no detail. Go over ever possibility, every number, every piece of information, every chance. As Sun Tzu said:
“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.”
“Military tactics are like water. For water, in its natural course, runs away from high places and hastens downwards. So, in war, the way is to avoid what is strong and strike at what is weak.”
Like any kind of planning, some of them will work out well for you on the first try, and others will fail. Whether that’s due to an error in planning or a change in the battle is irrelevant. You must adapt to the environment if you want to survive.
In strategy, you should strive to be like water rather than a strong rock.
- No matter how large or strong the rock is, it can eventually be broken with enough strikes. Water adjusts itself when struck
- A rock may run over many obstacles, but can still break against a bigger rock. Water moves around or over all things, adjusting course however necessary
- Strong rocks can destroy weaker rocks, but not stronger ones. Water can seep through all of them if there is but a single crack
Be adaptable. Adjust your strategy based on the conditions. Always look for the best opportunity. Be willing to change things up based on what will get you results right now rather than what was getting results before. Be an opportunist.
“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. If sovereign and subject are in accord, put a division between them. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected .”
You should also be playing off of your opponent’s hand.
If they are strong in a certain area, it makes no sense to attack it. Change your strategy and evade if they try to attack you. Attack areas where you know they are weak. Pick the battles that you can win and avoid the rest.
If they are prideful, flatter them to get them on your side and avoid battle entirely. If they are sensitive, draw out their emotions to throw them off their game. If they insist on fighting, use deception to put them off balance. Get them to go where you want them to go.
In general, rouse them up and make them uncomfortable. Make them do things that they don’t want to do and that are in your favour. Get them to play the cards that you deal.
“Rouse him, and learn the principle of his activity or inactivity. Force him to reveal himself, so as to find out his vulnerable spots.”
Sometimes an enemy may be very good at deception too. They may be hiding things or are incredibly mysterious. In essence, they have an amazing poker face that you just can’t read.
In that case, it is best to start out by testing the waters.
Make a small move that they’ll notice and see how they react. Do they get angry? Sad? Emotional? When you move to the position (X) do they always respond by moving to the position (Y)? Are there any patterns of action or movement that you can pick up on?
Collect data on your opponent in any way that you can. Move and attack and engage with them lightly in different ways to observe their response. Poke them from different angles to see what they do.
This preemptive planning will help you tremendously in understanding who you are dealing with. Once you decide to make your real move, you will be well-armed with the information to make it a sure win.
“Who wishes to fight must first count the cost”
Not every battle is worth it. Whether you win or lose, you will expend time, energy, and resources fighting it.
Thus, it’s important to pick your battles based on the opportunity cost. Ask yourself a few questions:
- What are the chances of me winning, losing, and getting a draw?
- If I win, what will I get? Will that reward be worth my investment of time, energy, and resources?
- Is there another way to get what I want rather than fighting? Diplomacy, or perhaps just leaving the situation altogether?
You should also factor in some margin of error for each of these questions. If you think that you have a 90% chance of winning, it’s best to assume 80% for safety.
You will find that in some cases, there are better alternatives to fighting. Even running away is a good option sometimes. Through this analysis, you may even realize that what you originally wanted is not so valuable to you after all.
Always count the cost first to see if it’s worth the bang for buck.
“There is no instance of a nation benefiting from prolonged warfare.”
There will never ever be a case where long fights are a good thing. Fighting is both expensive and tiring.
Thus, it is always advantageous to try to win the fight as quickly as possible in order to minimize the costs. Now, this won’t always be easy, but that’s where Sun Tzu’s advice from the other quotes comes in:
- Always choose battles that you’re sure you can win
- If you’re going to strike, do so swiftly and powerfully
- Adjust your strategy based on the situation
- Look for your edge and advantages that tilt the playing field in your favour
Minimize the amount of fighting you’re going to do. If you have to do it, make it hard and fast to win and get out of there.
“Treat your men as you would your own beloved sons. And they will follow you into the deepest valley.”
Your allies and your “network” are people too. If you want them to stay with you, to support you, to fight for you, then you must treat them in the proper way.
People will only follow you for one reason at the end of the day: they feel good about doing so. Your job is to give them those good feelings when they work with you. There are a number of ways to do that:
- Pay them for their services
- Make them feel a sense of pride and accomplishment
- Give them the inspiration of a higher purpose
- Show them great love and compassion
The golden rule is to always give your people more than you receive from them. When you do, they will see that you are there for them and feel the greatness that comes with following you. That is the sure-fire way to maintain your allies and always have the support you need to succeed.
“Opportunities multiply as they are seized.”
Momentum is an incredible force of nature, and it applies very strongly to battles and opportunities in life.
Every win you get makes you stronger. That strength in turn makes it easier to win again, which makes you even stronger. You gain more skills, experience, position, and resources. Over a long enough period of time, the result is an unstoppable snowball effect. It’s compound interest.
You should be taking advantage of those snowball effects as much as you possibly can.
- If you see an opportunity, no matter how small, take it. Every win is positive and the small ones add up to the big ones
- Look for ways to use your existing network, position, and resources to create more opportunities. There’s always more to be leveraged out of what you already have
- When you feel that you’re on a roll, don’t stop. Keep going to build up that snowball. Momentum doesn’t always come around, so you should take full advantage of it when you have the chance
The great scientist Albert Einstein once said that:
“Compound interest is the 8th wonder of the world. He who understands it, earns it; he who doesn’t, pays it.”
Seize opportunities to earn it and build your unstoppable momentum.
The Art of War is a timeless classic book on military strategy. If you can learn its universal lessons, you will become a strategy master and succeed greatly in life. Here are 12 incredible The Art of War quotes to become a strategy master:
- “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”
- “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
- “Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.”
- “Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.”
- “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win”
- “Military tactics are like water. For water, in its natural course, runs away from high places and hastens downwards. So, in war, the way is to avoid what is strong and strike at what is weak.”
- “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. If sovereign and subject are in accord, put a division between them. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected .”
- “Rouse him, and learn the principle of his activity or inactivity. Force him to reveal himself, so as to find out his vulnerable spots.”
- “Who wishes to fight must first count the cost.”
- “There is no instance of a nation benefiting from prolonged warfare.”
- “Treat your men as you would your own beloved sons. And they will follow you into the deepest valley.”
- “Opportunities multiply as they are seized.”