Updated: Jan 27, 2021
Sun-Tzu was a general who lived during the Warring States period of China. His abilities as a general reach almost mythological levels, blurring the line between myth and reality. His most famous story involved him training concubines. Before hiring Sun Tzu, King Wu of Zhou ordered him to train his concubines into soldiers to appraise his abilities. Sun Tzu organized the women into groups and ordered them to face right in unison. The women giggled and didn’t perform the task. Sun Tzu apologized to them, stating: “If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, the general is to blame.” He bade the women to turn left, resulting in another flurry of giggles. Sun Tzu then stated: “If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, then the general is to blame. But if his orders are clear, and the soldiers nevertheless disobey, then it is the fault of their officers.” Sun Tzu promptly executed two of the King’s favorite concubines, who were both the respective leaders of their groups. When he ordered the concubines to perform a drill, they executed it flawlessly, recognizing the situation's seriousness.
This story, while macabre, demonstrates an aspect of leadership we can learn from. When managing a group, it's your responsibility to communicate tasks effectively. Should you fail to do so, you cannot place any blame on your teammates but yourself. If you communicate lucidly, the responsibility falls on your teammates, and you must deal with them in a manner other than execution, of course. In this article, I will list three quotes from Sun-Tzu’s book, Art of War, and explain how we can apply them to our lives.
“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.”
This is arguably his most famous quote. Your enemies in life don’t consist of armed regiments, but of tests, exams, and deadlines. Know what’s on the test, and know if you understand it, and you will always score high. Know that you probably understand what you learned, but not what’s on the exam; you would probably get a mediocre score. Know neither the test nor how well you understand the content, and I guarantee you you will fail every time. This applies to all goal-setting. You need to know what it takes to get to that goal, and know how far along you are. If not, you’re guaranteed to fail.
“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.”
This quote ties in with the previous one. Your plan dictates the result. Meaning, you win on the drawing board, not in the field. Put it this way; you want to invest your money into undervalued real estate in the hope that the property appreciates. Whether you lose all your money or acquire million-dollar properties depends entirely on what you plan or analyze beforehand. Did you read the statistics on homeownership? Is it worth repairing the property? Don’t do your homework, and you might find yourself buying a worthless house for more than its asking price. Plan first, and then do. Don’t do, then plan later.
“He who wishes to fight must first count the cost,”
Is what you’re going after worth it? This is probably the most crucial question every undergraduate must consider. Do you really want that law degree? Is 4 years of medical school worth it? What’s the cost of all that time and studying? Will you be miserable pursuing your degree? Seldom do we consider why or what we are striving for. For every goal, there is a sacrifice. A sacrifice of attention, effort, and resources. It would help if you considered the payoff. Let's say you want to be an astronaut. Are you willing to sacrifice time with friends, time to relax, time to play sports, and dedicate yourself wholly to your studies? Will you be happy when you become an astronaut? Will mediocre pay be a problem? In short, count the costs and the payoffs for the things you want in life so that you can put resources into what you want most and not something you don’t want.
Sun-Tzu’s existence is still something that scholars are always questioning. There are no records of him professionally serving as a Chinese general. And his famous text, The Art of War, contains historical inaccuracies that suggest that several authors authored The Art of War. Regardless of his existence, Sun-Tzu and his work can still impart to us timeless advice that transcends the battlefield.