2 Sentence Summary
The Art of War by Sun Tzu is a classic military strategy book that has been used by the Chinese military for over 2500 years. The book contains a wealth of information on military tactics and thought, and has since been adapted for use in politics, business, and everyday life.
Summary Read Time: Less than 5 minutes
Actual Book Length: 273
First Published in: 2005
Below is the detailed yet quick summary of the book:
Key Idea 1 – Knowledge is Power
War is never a decision to be taken lightly, as it comes with a great social and economic cost. War is costly and time-consuming, and you should only proceed if it’s absolutely essential. Sun Tzu advocates for non-violent strategies wherever possible. That’s because war can completely destroy a country and leave its people in ruin. Therefore, only wage war if you’re confident that you’re prepared, and try to end the conflict as quickly as possible.
If war must be waged, a series of calculations based on 5 factors should be considered. They are Moral Law, Heaven, Earth, The Commander, and finally Method and Discipline.
It’s been said that if everyone had the same set of morals, we would see more people fighting for causes they believe in. Just like how members of ISIS or Boko Haram are willing to risk their lives because they’re passionate about what they’re fighting for. In the same vein, if we don’t believe in the project we’re working on or see the value in it, we won’t be motivated to put ourselves at risk.
The Commander is the person who upholds the values of the team, and provides wisdom and guidance to everyone beneath them. If leadership is weak or ineffectual, then failure is imminent. Finally, discipline and method mean that everyone knows their role, and works for the entire team’s benefit.
After we understand the five factors, we need to ask questions and do a set of calculations to determine our battle outcome. Begin by asking which side has more invested in their moral law? Usually, the hungriest team, and the team with a greater sense of moral law, will end up victorious.
Key Idea 2 – Know Your Enemy
One of the most important messages from the book is to know your enemy. Sun Tzu explains that if you understand both yourself and your enemy, you will be successful in any situation. However, if you only know yourself or only know your enemy, you will be at a disadvantage. If you do not know either yourself or your enemy, you will be defeated every time.
We can look at the story of Mark Zuckerberg, Evan Spiegel, and Bobby Murphy for an example of how to handle pressure when starting a company. When Zuckerberg flew out to L.A. to offer Spiegel and Murphy $3 billion to purchase Snapchat, they refused and he pressed them for information. The story goes that Zuckerberg announced he would be debuting a similar platform called Poke and intimated that the weight of Facebook would crush them. Spiegel and Murphy didn’t back down and stood their ground. Once Zuckerberg left, Spiegel purchased a copy of The Art of War for everyone in his office. At the end of the day, Snapchat remains a billion-dollar company. And that’s because it embraced knowing one’s enemy, and always being prepared.
Knowing your enemy is about understanding how to defeat them without destroying what you’re fighting for. Frequently, winning comes at a high cost, and it’s better to recapture than to destroy. So choose your battles wisely.
Key Idea 3 – Know Your Battles
Sun Tzu states that security against defeat comes from defensive tactics while the ability to defeat an enemy comes from taking the offensive. In other words, be patient and wait for an opportunity to arise in order to gain the upper hand. Additionally, it’s important to avoid an opponent’s strengths and focus on their weaknesses. By doing so, you will be more likely to come out victorious in battle.
The main issue with these strategies is that they require a lot of time, effort and patience. Also, initiating an attack takes a great deal of strength, discipline and energy. The lesson to be learned here is that we can achieve success by making the fewest number of mistakes and taking advantage of our opponents’ mistakes. In the end, it all comes down to creating forward momentum and developing innovative strategies. Using a combination of strategies is essential to victory, and a good leader will be able to adapt ideas to different situations.
It’s important to be aware of who has the advantage at any given moment, especially in a battle. For example, those who are waiting for the enemy on their own turf are prepared and better positioned than those arriving at the battle site. That’s not to say that you can’t win if you’re not immediately in control of the battle site, but rather that you need to be able to maneuver, adapt, and strategize.
Key Idea 4 – Know Your Faults
It’s important to know your own weaknesses so that you can adjust your strategies accordingly. As the famous saying goes, “the general who knows his enemy and himself will never be defeated.” In other words, being prepared for war means always being on the lookout for potential threats. Once needs to be also have contingency plans in place to deal with them. By understanding your own weaknesses, you can be better prepared to counter any attack.
How often do people lose things because of complacency? And how often have you seen victory snatched from the jaws of defeat? Knowing your weaknesses and being prepared for disaster means that you’ll always have a way to face catastrophes.
A good leader knows their weaknesses. According to Sun Tzu, there are five typical faults that leaders, or in this case, generals, display. These are recklessness, cowardice, being ill-tempered, being sensitive about their honor, and being too caring, which causes undue worry and concern. So next time you react to a situation, think about which of these attributes you might be exhibiting. If you can catch yourself before acting impulsively or fearfully, you’ll be able to make better decisions that benefit both yourself and your team. On the flip side, if you can find the root of your worries and address them head-on, you’ll be more likely to maintain a level head in difficult situations. As a leader, it’s important to be conscious of your weaknesses so that you can work to improve them.
Key Idea 5 – Know Your Terrain
You can’t win a war if you don’t know the terrain you’re fighting on. Vietnam War is a prime example of how important it is to be familiar with the land you’re fighting on. Viet Cong had the advantage of being on their home turf & they also knew how to use their surroundings to their benefit. Guerilla warfare allowed them to disappear into their surroundings, making them invisible to the enemy. Furthermore, by controlling the Ho Chi Minh Trail, they were able to control military supplies and personnel movements.
When we have a good understanding of our environment, it gives us the element of surprise. We can set up ambushes and traps, and strike when our enemies are not expecting it. Sun Tzu explains, when the enemy is close at hand and seems to be inactive, he is actually relying on the natural strength of his position.
Keep an eye on your enemies’ body language, as it can give you important clues about their next move. For example, if you see an enemy approach a water source and drink thirstily, they may be low on water or far from a stable source. Also, look for signs of insubordination or collapse among your enemies, such as how they interact with each other. A well-disciplined and well-led army acts in unison and shows no signs of discord.
Sun Tzu’s advice is to treat your troops like your children. By doing this, they will follow you unquestioningly. However, if you treat them as your sons, they will stick with you until death. On the other hand, if you’re an overindulgent leader, your troops will act like spoilt children, and they will feel entitled and not fulfill any sense of purpose.
Key Idea 6 – Knowledge is People
If you want to be smarter and more powerful than anyone else, you need to set up a network of trusted spies. This way, you’ll always have the foreknowledge you need to stay ahead of your enemies. Just like Little Finger in Game of Thrones.
Obtaining accurate and up-to-date knowledge about your competition or enemies is essential to gaining an advantage over them. This is where spies come in – local spies, inward spies, converted spies, doomed spies, and surviving spies. Having a well-coordinated network of spies is referred to as a “divine manipulation of the threads.” This is a powerful tool that should never be underestimated.
During World War II, the manipulation of information was commonplace. Did you know that the famous children’s author Roald Dahl was a spy during the war? Dahl was sent to Washington D.C. after being injured and was asked to share information he overheard at prominent social events with British Security Coordination.