The 6 Most Important Lessons of Strategy From the Art of War

“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.”
― Sun Tzu, The Art of War

The Art of War is a timeless book about war strategy written by the Chinese general and military strategist Sun Tzu. His book has made strong influences on both Western and East Asian philosophy and military thinking. Even more so, following the book’s mass production and sales, its lessons have made their way into many competitive fields including politics, business law, and professional sports.

That being said, it is a very dated book, having been initially written in the 5th century BC. As such, its writing can seem rather cryptic and difficult to understand at times.

Personally, I prefer things to be more practical. Extracting, understanding, and applying the most practical timeless lessons in this well-established masterpiece will no doubt help you in your career, business, and life.

Below are the 6 most important practical lessons of strategy from the Art of War. All of them play the role of increasing your strength and position, making the path to win a lot smoother.

(1) Plan First

“Now the general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple ere the battle is fought.”
― Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Before you start any type of project, whether it be a project at work, a business endeavor, or working towards a personal goal, it’s important to plan out your path first.

Look over the high-level steps that you’ll need to take to achieve your goal: what and how much work do you need to complete each day, month, and year. Understand all of the people involved, who they are, and what motivates them. Try to think of some of the roadblocks that might inevitably pop up along the way. Review and understand the risk vs. reward involved in the whole thing, what you stand to gain and lose.

Warfare, and any other kind of large, high commitment projects, are going to have a lot of moving parts. Before jumping into the fray, it’s important to fully understand what you’re getting into and to prepare for everything that is to come. That way, you’re well-equipped to handle everything involved and don’t have to go in blind, which would be a difficult situation to adapt to.

(2) Speed > Accuracy

“What is of the greatest importance in war is extraordinary speed: one cannot afford to neglect opportunity.”
― Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Plans are important, but if you know that your project will have to be executed anyways, speed will help you out far more than passivity. The Art of War explains that success requires “winning decisive engagements quickly”. Moving swiftly and firmly is a big part of this.

Always plan to complete a part of your project that delivers value within a fixed amount of time. This is similar to setting up many project milestones with deadlines. Breaking things into smaller chunks makes the goals less daunting and complex, allowing you to attack and achieve them quickly.

If you’re launching a new business or starting a new project, the most important thing is to get it off the ground, up and running as fast as possible. This will have three key benefits. Firstly, you’ll be more motivated psychologically to continue, whereas if you didn’t move quickly in the beginning to gain momentum, you’re likely to get stuck in a mental rut. Secondly, it’s a lot practically easier and far more enjoyable to work on your project or business once things are moving forward, since you’re seeing direct results from your work, and aren’t worrying about working for no real results. Finally, you’ll be first to market, a huge competitive advantage in the world of business.

(3) Claim and Hold Strong Positions

“Hence the skillful fighter puts himself into a position which makes defeat impossible and does not miss the moment for defeating the enemy.”
— Sun Tzu, The Art of War

In any endeavor, it is critical to understand the importance of strategic positioning. You must understand what makes a position strong and what makes it weak. From this knowledge, you will be able to create many opportunities for yourself while limiting opportunities to be attacked.

If you’re negotiating for a certain price, whether for your business or on a salary for a job offer, your strongest position will be the one that gives you the most options. Apply to many companies at the same time to make sure you’re getting multiple offers simultaneously — it makes negotiating extremely easy when you have backup options. Entrepreneurs can also benefit from this when they have many buyers or investors — if one doesn’t like your price, you can always walk away.

The other side of the coin is making sure you yourself aren’t vulnerable. Many financial advisors strongly recommend having an emergency fund. This fund won’t only help you in times of emergency, but also in times where it’s helpful to have extra options. Hate your job? You can quit right away if you wanted to because you have those backup funds. An unexpected expense on your car? You don’t ever have to worry or stress about it, because you’ve established a strong position with a backup fund.

(4) Search For Easy Attack Points

“So in war, the way is to avoid what is strong, and strike at what is weak.”
― Sun Tzu, The Art of War

People sometimes like to brag about working extra long hours as if it’s earned them some kind of badge of honor. Yet the Art of War recommends the exact opposite: finding the weak, easy, low-effort points of attack when working towards your goals.

Sure, you could apply for a job in the traditional manner. But if you can get connected with the hiring manager directly, perhaps through some other network connections, then why not? You won’t have to expend as much effort or stress yourself out over it.

If you’re looking to start a new business, look for whatever shortcuts you can to move quickly. Try Kickstarter, ask friends or family for some funding or connections, look to see what your competitors are doing to get some ideas, or even watch Shark Tank. The point is, you don’t have to be some magic genius or an Elon Musk to create a great business. You just have to recognize and fulfill a need — which is much easier to find if people have already done the job for you.

Let the people who take pride in working hard work hard, while you reap the same rewards without as much investment.

(5) The Art of Timing

“One mark of a great soldier is that he fight on his own terms or fights not at all.”
― Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Timing is all about selecting the most opportune moments to make your moves. It lines up similarly to strategic positioning, except that when mastering timing, the most important thing is being highly observant.

If you’re going to ask someone for a favor, aim for a time when they’ll be in a good mood. If you approach them while they’re angry, they might reject you out of sheer emotion. If you want to send an important email, schedule it to be sent at a practical time when you know there’s a higher chance of the recipient seeing it. If you hit send at 8 pm, your recipient will likely have forgotten about it by the morning or be annoyed that they have to deal with it the next day. Instead, have it scheduled to be sent at 11 am or 2 pm, away from lunchtime, and likely when people are working on their computers.

Mastering the art of timing will help make every project and process you work on much easier since you’re acting at the times which there are the least resistance and the biggest advantage for you.

(6) Managing Energy and Staying Motivated

“There is no instance of a nation benefiting from prolonged warfare.”
— Sun Tzu, The Art of War

The workaholics and wannabe entrepreneurs advocate working 16 hour days. That’s not even remotely feasible, nor is it healthy, nor is it an effective way of working over the long term! Our minds and bodies simply aren’t made to work that much.

Instead, Sun Tzu emphasizes managing your energy. Doing so will make you more efficient and maximize your productivity over the long term. The extra energy means you have the mental headspace to think straight. You’re well fueled and so it’s easy to get work done. This is especially true when doing work that is more technically complex or more creative, as such things take a lot more thinking than the average everyday task.

As a part of energy management, Sun Tzu also discusses methods of staying motivated. If you’re doing a big project, whether it be grinding for a promotion, working on your business, or anything else that takes long-term time and effort, your motivation won’t be at its peak forever. It’s important to re-spark and refuel your motivation from time to time. If you hit a big milestone in your project, take the time to celebrate your successes. Doing so will put you in a good mood and remind you that it’s all worthwhile. You can even pre-establish your rewards for meeting certain goals. Knowing that there’s a sweet prize at the end of the road will motivate you to keep going when times get tough.

The Art of War is the timeless book on military strategy that was analyzed here. Even today, it remains an excellent manual for forming strategies. The 33 Strategies of War is a more modern look at strategy.

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