Sun Tzu’s Art of War is a short book. You can read it quickly, tick it off and boast about it. Or you could read it slowly and painfully and learn something about yourself.
I initially read it while I was deep into my martial arts training, I was disappointed at the lack of secret fighting techniques. On my second read-through, I discovered the philosophies would help me in the ring. It wasn’t until several more read-throughs I started seeing there was something deeper in all of this.
While it was a guide for actual war in ancient times, many lessons can be applied to the war we are battling with ourselves. Like many of you reading, sometimes I’m my own worst enemy and get caught in difficult internal dialogues. I assume like me, you generally don’t pop out to the shops and have to fight an army of samurai on the way back.
These quotes are from over 3,500 years ago so no one can claim to know what exactly Sun Tzu meant with his words. Yet the beauty of a good quote is the original author’s intent is almost irrelevant, what matters is whether they can encourage positive behaviors for you.
Here’s how I interpreted five quotes to improve my life. They serve as reminders to keep me on the right track for the life I want to live and I hope they will help you too.
#1: “Knowing others is wisdom, knowing yourself is enlightenment.”
For me, this comes with a hint of irony. I am self-aware enough to know I obsess about knowing everything about those around me too often.
Fundamentally, all of us want to know whether we are living a good life yet it’s so hard to define. So we turn to external metrics to determine our happiness. Do we have as many friends as others? Have we been to as many countries? Are our abs as well defined?
I’m much better than I was but I would create all manners of lists in my head and rank myself against it. I’d be anxious if I felt I was failing relative to others in anything big or small. Even now, I’d be lying if I didn’t know how many followers some of my peers have and want to overtake them. This isn’t healthy but I just can’t help myself.
Knowing yourself isn’t about perfection at all. Turning inward gives you greater control because you learn what affects you positively and what doesn’t. Over time, your actions will trend towards what you feel is good for you. It’s different for all of us and while you can take lessons from others, they are only effective if they align with you.
#2: “The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.”
Those who follow my work may not realize I grew up around the East London “gangsta” scene. Rest assured I never did anything actually bad despite speaking like a wannabe thug on occasion. Through my environment, I learned it was a sign of strength to never back down.
While I didn’t try to use this in a malicious way against others, I used it against myself devastatingly. I've suffered several sporting injuries and pushed on through them to the border of insanity. I set myself too high standards and would turn on myself with pent up rage when I couldn’t train.
I haven’t eradicated this but I’ve become kinder to myself. I don’t need to fight myself all the time for arbitrary targets. I wake up without an alarm most days. In summer, I tend to wake up at 6 am and in winter 8:30 am. I feel rested because I’m letting my body determine my sleep schedule not battling myself.
Maybe you’re reading this and forcing yourself through a fitness regime or diet you don’t want to do. Some will find the cost too high and yo-yo back to their old bad habits. So much self-help these days requires some kind of self-loathing and it shouldn’t be this way.
Focus on small steps you can take to nudge yourself in the right direction. I’m a big fan of micro-habits where you pick tasks so easy that it’s hard to not do them. There’s no shame in setting smaller initial targets rather than staring down a giant bear and being mauled.
#3: “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.”
Sometimes war is inevitable and you have no choice but to compete. For some people, daily life itself feels like war.
Yet two people can have the same day and one person end it feeling happy and the other miserable. A lot has to do with our self-talk in preparation. Some people I know see the weekdays as the torture they need to get through to reach the weekend. Is it any wonder the week then feels terrible to them?
There was a point in my life when I would book a vacation and count down the whole time until I could go. I was wishing away days to get to a time where I could go somewhere impressive and feel accomplished. It’s no way to live and I was disempowering myself to make the most of every day of my limited time on this Earth.
I was a fool.
Each day is filled with opportunity and wonder. I slowed down and took in the world around me more. In my daily walk to the office, I would walk over the world-famous Tower Bridge and pause for a few moments. Look across the view of London and believe it was going to be a good day.
It wasn’t long before vacations snuck up on me because I was too busy enjoying the simple things. Try not to give in to despair and in anything that feels scary, think about what could go well rather than placing your mind in a prison.
#4: “There are not more than five musical notes, yet the combinations of these five give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard.”
Through social media, our minds are filled with images of the most talented and glamorous people in the world. Everyone seems to be doing something incredible and we’re not.
I’ve fallen victim to this in the past where no matter how good I got at something, I’d see constant reminders of my inadequacy. I was good at lots of skills but not truly great at any and saw this as a weakness. Jack of all trades and master of none. It left me confused about where to go when I didn’t have this one overriding passion.
This is why Sun Tzu’s words resonate with me. You don’t need to be the best at one thing and neither do I. We can combine the skills we do have into unique combinations and make our own melodies. Specializing in a single task is great if it doesn’t need any creativity because then you have no other sources of inspiration in your life.
I’ve been successful writing online not because I’ve memorized the dictionary but because I bring a unique combination of skills and experiences. Variety makes people interesting because they can connect the dots in ways other people can’t. Nobel Laureates are 22 times more likely to be amateur dancers, magicians, actors, or performers than the average scientist. Feed your mind’s curiosity, don’t try to stunt it.
#5: “It is easy to love your friend, but sometimes the hardest lesson to learn is to love your enemy.”
What frightens me about the world today is how quick we are to dehumanize the people we disagree with. Spend 5 minutes on Twitter and no side of any argument comes out with their asses sparkling clean. It’s becoming more mainstream to actively encourage people to hate or shame those on the other side to prove purity.
I’m not innocent here myself but I realized the damage it was doing to my own mind. I was polluting my thoughts with rage and anger that affected how I acted with people around me. How ridiculous is it to be in a bad mood because of an Instagram post and take it out on a family member or friend?
It’s not about altruism but selfishness. It serves you better to not hold such hatred in your heart and reduces your blood pressure and anxiety. If you allow others to have negative control over your emotions then you’ll never be at ease. Disagree with ideas, not people as it’s less visceral. There’s a reason movements use a figurehead because it has more power.
Sun Tzu calls this a hard lesson but many would consider it impossible. It’s way easier to send a snarky comment or make a joke about it privately. Yet it’s the higher-level skill to convert an enemy into a friend. When you understand their arguments without dismissal, it’s easier to break down the underlying assumptions. If you can do that consistently then you can change the world.
What to Take with You
The genius of Sun Tzu has been explored for millennia. Yet the true lessons aren’t steeped in mysticism nor do you need to be ideologically pure. I found the greatest lessons came from treating his words about war as metaphors for the battles going on inside us. I hope these have helped you too.
- Knowing others is wisdom, knowing yourself is enlightenment. — Seek your own form of success not to judge yourself relative to others.
- The greatest victory is that which requires no battle. — Life doesn’t need to always be a fight, try to make it easy to move in the right direction.
- Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win. — A positive mindset and preparation can transform an average day into a good one.
- There are not more than five musical notes, yet the combinations of these five give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard. — You are special, you bring a unique combination to this world.
- It is easy to love your friend, but sometimes the hardest lesson to learn is to love your enemy.— Don’t let hatred consume you, it hurts you more than anyone else.
Have a wonderful day.