The Life

6 Important Life Lessons from Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’, for Twentysomethings

Whether you plan to go to war with your sibling for the last butter croissant or simply want some practical life advice, read on to learn about how important war principles established over 2,500 years ago can be applied to your life right now.

I’m about to tell you how ‘The Art of War’ is applicable to your life. Yes, you.

I know what you’re thinking – Tara, you’ve officially lost it.

But hear me out: ‘The Art of War’ isn’t a book about war. Okay fine, it is. However, the lessons and principles it teaches aren’t exclusive to battle. This book has been on my to-be-read list for quite a while. And not because I’ve got some strange obsession with war or military strategy; it’s because for such a short book, there’s a crazy amount to unpack. People have studied this book for centuries, linking Sun Tzu’s 13 principles to business strategy, reaching one’s goals or even conquering a school bully.

If you’re a curious or thoughtful person, you’ll probably enjoy this quick read. Sure, tips like “choose the right location to attack, away from the riverbed” might not be the most relevant – but when you read ‘The Art of War’, you realize how common wars are, and I don’t necessarily mean on a large scale. Two coworkers competing for a promotion is a tiny war in itself. Do you remember in House of Cards how Frank Underwood made hundreds of small, sneaky moves that eventually led to him becoming President? He was engaging in acts of war, albeit subtly. Wars aren’t always loud gunfire and explosions – they can just as well be quiet, covert and equally painful.

Whether you plan to go to war with your sibling for the last butter croissant or simply want some practical advice for life, read on to learn about some principles established over 2,500 years ago that can be applied to your life right now as a twentysomething:

“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

In summary, if you have self-awareness, and a strong understanding of other people, you have the strength to overcome anything that anyone says to you, or about you. I remember right at the beginning of my freshman year in university, I had a friend who constantly criticized the way that I dressed. I would be feeling great, wearing skirts and dresses to class, and the second she saw me, she would tell me I was overdressed and that she couldn’t believe I was wearing that. It reached a point where I started to doubt myself, and felt like I was a walking need for attention. A few months later, in a moment of vulnerability, she admitted to me that she wished she could also wear skirts and dresses to class, but always felt too insecure.

I was 18 when I found out that people usually project their own insecurities onto you. And hell, I’ve been guilty of it too. I still am, sometimes. I used to have a terrible work ethic, and until now I find myself internally judging people I deem are wasting their potential. Why? Because I’m terrified of never reaching my full potential. Or worse: that I already have.

If you know yourself -your strengths, your weaknesses, your potential- and know what you’re up against, nothing can touch you. If you know you’re having a bad hair day and your douchebag coworker mentions it, you won’t care. You already know. But does he know that he’s a douchebag? If he isn’t aware, he’s in for a rude awakening.

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

– Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Nobody likes war, and if they do, they’re probably pretty sick (in a bad way). But sometimes we have no choice, and we’re thrust into a war-like situation.

Want to hear something that’ll make me sound really old and boring?

Preparation is key.

Many people that will try to engage in battle with you are likely going to be acting out of emotion. Maybe it’s a jealous ex-lover or a jaded friend. Generally, they won’t have much of a game plan, except to inflict pain. Your job, as a victorious warrier, is to plan ahead before entering this war.

First, you need to see if this is a battle worth entering. Your time and energy are the most valuable currencies you own, and if engaging in this war will drain you, you’re better off exiting the situation entirely. For example, if your ex is trying to hurt you in order to get back together, the war may not be worth it if you don’t plan on ever having them in your life ever again. On the other hand, if the battle is against the douchebag coworker from earlier and the prize is a promotion, it may be time to pull out the blueprints and get plotting.

If you decide that you want to enter this war, you’ll then need to make yourself bulletproof instead of focusing on throwing bullets. You need to have the confidence and the game plan set on how you’re going to win, instead of running into a battlefield guns blazing and then realizing you’re out of ammo a minute later. You should have a list of all the possible outcomes from your opponent, and plan out your counter-moves. Sound neurotic? Perhaps. But that’s how you win before the war has even begun.

Another thing: mental preparation is just as important as strategic preparation. Things happen, and maybe you’ll lose. The real victory, however, comes from knowing that you put hard work into something, and came out of it with newfound knowledge or lessons learned. By entering a war with the mentality of having no regrets regardless of whether you win or lose, you are truly bulletproof.

“Treat your men as you would your own beloved sons. And they will follow you into the deepest valley.” 

– Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Growing up, we’re told that opposites attract, but I realized over the years that the statement is completely wrong. Opposites don’t attract. Like attracts like. If a company’s culture is toxic, you need to look at the top – it starts there. If all your friends are shitty, you need to take an honest, hard look at yourself.

To build on that, the way you treat people will dictate how you are treated (in theory, of course – some people will be mean regardless, just like some people will be kind regardless). But at the end of the day, you catch more bees with honey. If you treat people with patience, kindness and understanding, you will get further in life. Friends will be loyal to you, if you are loyal and caring to them. And cruel, mean people won’t be drawn to you.

“Opportunities multiply as they are seized.” 

– Sun Tzu, The Art of War

An incredibly successful family friend gave me this extremely generic yet painfully true advice when I was 17: “Success is where hard work meets opportunity.”

And it’s true. If you want to be a singer, but have never taken singing lessons or practiced, then end up at an open mic night with a top record producer in the audience, you’ve just wasted an opportunity. There’s also this thing called the ‘snowball effect’, which basically means that something that seems small can build upon itself until it becomes something of great significance. For example, you may start taking singing lessons. Little by little you improve, and your instructor asks you to perform at the music school’s annual concert. You’re proud of yourself for singing publicly! Afterwards, a band looking for a lead singer that was also at the concert reaches out to you, and you accept to join. Soon, you’re doing weekly band practices, then you book your first gig at a local pub. Then, your local community centre. Next thing you know, you’re opening for Shawn Mendes.

Momentum builds on itself, and small opportunities often lead to bigger and bigger ones. Certainly, you can argue that there are a ton of variables in this specific example that would need to line up for everything to work in your favour. But my rebuttal is this: if you don’t say yes, and seize opportunities as they come, you’re basically shooting yourself in the foot.

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

– Sun Tzu, The Art of War

The beauty in ‘The Art of War’ is that in its essence, the book is actually trying to convince you to do everything in your power not to go to war. It speaks about the cost of war, the consequences of being rash, the importance in humanizing your enemy, and that the greatest victory is that which requires no battle.

In life, you often hear that you’ve got to pick your battles, and that couldn’t be more true. Whether it’s to save an important relationship, your job, or most importantly your peace of mind, sometimes the best thing to do is to lay your sword down and hold your hand out. If you have the self-control and discipline to put your pride or ego aside and solve a problem with meaningful dialogue, you have truly mastered the art of war.

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