I recently read the book The Art Of War, which is an ancient Chinese military treatise, written by military strategist Sun Tzu. Even though its focus is on military strategies, the lessons from this book have been applied to many areas, such as legal situations, education, and businesses. It also contains lots of great advice on how to make the best out of life.
If you learn to embrace the lessons Sun Tzu shares in his book, it can be a life changing one!
1. Before you attack a new challange, commit to paying the price.
Whatever you are trying to achieve, whether that is running your first marathon or earning an additional $20,000, realize that you will have to pay for it in the form of time, effort, pain, and sacrifices. Anything worth having comes at a cost. The bigger the goal, the greater sacrifice is necessary.
As James Allen said, “He who would accomplish little need sacrifice little; he who would achieve much must sacrifice much. He who would attain highly must sacrifice greatly.”
In other words, if you set your goals high, be prepared to pay the price. Failure to do so can lead to excuses and a lack of follow-through when the going gets tough.
Before you set out to accomplish anything, think of the time, effort, and sacrifices it will
take and commit to paying the price ahead of time. Write it down on paper below your goals, and determine whether you are willing to do whatever it takes to get the results you want.
Whenever you are struggling, don´t just revisit your goal, but also your commitment to do whatever it takes. When you have a goal worth fighting for, never give up!
2. Planning and preparation are the key to success.
As a military strategist, Sun Tzu knew that planning a battle and preparing for it thoroughly were necessary on the battlefield. He would spend countless hours refining his knowledge and understanding of battle strategies and wrote down everything he learned to be better prepared for the next challenge.
This constant learning of his craft gave him the ability to understand the art of war better than nearly anyone else at that time. However, Sun Tzu also knew that planning alone isn´t enough. Even the most perfectly laid out plan would inevitably fail if his soldiers weren´t prepared to actually make his ideas happen. Simply knowing something is not enough, you need to apply it.
To do that, he would drill his soldiers until every formation and every move was repeated so often that it became second nature. His soldiers became so disciplined that they followed every order he gave. Only through this constant preperation and repetition of the same things did his soldiers learn to fight together, as well as to follow their orders no matter how frightening the battle was.
Ultimately, what decides between success and failure in the defining moments of your life is the amount of preperation you put in beforehand. As Arnold Schwarzenegger put it, “There are no shortcuts – everything is reps, reps, reps.“
No matter whether you are preparing for a new project at work or your first marathon, repetition is key. The more you practice something, the better you get at it. If you run 50 miles every week, you will probably beat someone that is more talented but doesn´t put in as much work. Constant repetition is your opportunity to seperate yourself from the masses. If you are willing to put in the work, there is nothing you cannot do.
As Benjamin Franklin noted so wisely,
“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.“
Never make that mistake.
3. The battle is won in the mind long before it is won on the field.
Before you set foot on the battleground, know in your mind that you will win. Develop the belief in yourself and your abilities that you can succeed at whatever challenges life may throw at you. The hardest part of any challenge, whether that is an important presentation at work or the weekly soccer game for your son, is getting in the right state of mind.
It´s about developing the calm confidence in yourself and your preparation so that you know there is no way other than to succeed. As legendary basketball coach John Wooden said,
“Success comes from knowing that you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming.”
In other words, it means to know that you did everything in your power to prepare, and that the knowledge and expertise you have gained along the way will carry you through even the most challenging circumstances.
Before you have your next “battle” in life, whether big or small, win in your mind first before you actually do it. Visualize your victory and see yourself succeeding in everything you do.
4. Break down big tasks into smaller ones.
In his book, Sun Tzu repeatedly talks about directing whole armies of over 100,000 men. How on earth could you do that in an era without internet and mass communication technologies? How could you possibly control that many men at the same time?
According to Sun Tzu, it´s simple: You group a few hundred or even thousand men together and treat them as one. Suddenly, instead of having to direct a 100,000 men individually, you can control them by directing a few big groups. Essentially, you break down a big task into many smaller ones to make them more manageable.
Sounds simple enough? The same concept can be applied to tackling any goal that may seem a bit overwhelming at first. When you set your goals high, you often have no reference point for succeeding yet. What I mean by that is that you have never done anything similar, and so you don´t know if you are truly capable of making it happen.
Let´s say you just started to run regularly, but your ultimate goal is to run a marathon. Obviously, that would be a huge challenge to most of us, especially when we are just starting out. When you are barely able to run for three miles in a row, running a marathon may seem impossible.
That´s when breaking down your big goal into several smaller ones comes into play. For example, you could do decide to run a 5k first, then a 10k, a half-marathon, and only then, after you have mastered all of those, attack the marathon. By doing this, you will not only gain the physical fitness, but, even more importantly, the confidence of having mastered many smaller goals along the way. Suddenly, the huge goal of running a marathon becomes manageable because you know that you are preparing yourself with every step along the way.
5. Be flexible in your methods, but not your results.
In the art of war, as in life, it is necessary that you are able to adapt to circumstances that prevent you from doing the things you planned on doing. Sun Tzu describes many times how he had to change his plan due to unforeseen circumstances. Whether that was the weather, the battle ground, his enemies, or sickness in his own troops, he had to adapt to the new reality and deal with it.
The reality of life is that adversity does occur, and when that happens, you need to change your plans. Be flexible in the methods you use, but not in the results you work for. If one way seems to fail, try another one. There is always a way, your job is simply to find it and then pursue it with all your power.
Never give up on your goal simply because it got harder, but instead ask yourself: How can I use this? How can this help me in the future? And what can I do right now to adapt and succeed anyways?
If you make this a regular habit, you will soon find that every obstacle also contains the opportunity to better yourself and your life. It is in defying the storm that the sailer becomes great, and so can you.
6. If you want to take the island, burn the boats!
This brilliant quote goes back to Julius Caesar, the Roman emperor who sat out to conquer England 2000 years ago by boat. Upon landing at the coast, his soldiers soon realized that they were by far outnumbered by the Celts, and fear started to spread. Instead of preparing for battle, Caesar found his soldiers preparing the ships for a quick and easy retreat.
The brilliant general he was, Caesar knew that in the condition his men were in, the battle was already lost. But instead of joining the ranks of fearful men, Caesar decided to do something else: He burnt the boats, and therefore any hope to ever leave the island unless they conquered the whole country.
This sent a powerful message both to his army and his enemies. From the moment he set the boats on fire, everyone knew that there was only one outcome: to fight until death. The only way for the Romans to live was to win the battle, and so Caesar gained 100% commitment from his fellow soldiers.
Now, what can we learn from this? If you have a big dream in your life, burn the friggin boats! Destroy every possible excuse and make success the only option there is – only then will you enjoy the kind of success you are capable of. Commit your entire being to making your dreams come true, and never accept failure as final. If you have a boat to save you from failing on your dream, the best thing you can do is burn it. That is obviously not always easy, but will allow you to go all-in and make it happen while others are still looking for excuses.
Burn the boats, and never give up until you succeed. In the words of Les Brown, “It´s not over until I win!” Keep playing the game until you win, no matter how many times it may take.
7. Expect the best, but prepare for the worst.
When planning for war, Sun Tzu always had to prepare for the worst. No matter how greatly trained his soldiers were, the possibility of surprise through their enemies was always there. Going into battle, there were countless variables and tactics to consider. Only by preparing for and anticipating his enemie´s moves would he be able to succeed. It was therefore critical that he considered the worst-case scenario with possible solutions at all times. For every move his opponent might make, he had to find a counteraction.
When working on a project at work or doing anything else that is important to us, we have to use the same kind of dedication to detail sometimes. There are often a dozen things that can go wrong with any plan, so anticipating this in advance and coming up with possible solutions to either prevent it or minimize the damage can prove to be very helpful.
However, this is not to say that we should always be looking for what could go wrong in life. Clearly, that kind of mindset would not only hinder success, but also all happiness in life. If all you do is imagine the things that could go wrong with everything, the world will look like a rather dark and frustrating place. It is therefore critical to happiness in life that you always keep a positive mental attitude and expect things to go your way – while at the same time preparing for possible problems.
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