3 Life Lessons From History’s Most Famous Book About War

Winners win because they know when to fight

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“All is fair in love and war.” “Love is a battlefield.” “Life is suffering.”

We have many sayings to capture the struggle factor inherent in being human, and even though many overstate and dramatize it for show and effect, there is no denying that, indeed, we all fight for something in life.

When he compiled The Art of War in 500 BC, Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu did not think of businessmen, athletes, and lovers reading his book 2,500 years later to win battles fought far from the field, but because of its structure and comprehensiveness, that is what happened.

The book has persisted for more than two millennia. It is the most influential East Asian military text and has informed war culture all over the world. Because of this, it has also found audiences far beyond its central appeal.

The Art of War may be a book for soldiers and generals, but if you look closely, you’ll spot many useful lessons for everyday life. Here are three of them.

1. Focus on battles you know you can win

Losers often lose because they spend most of their time fighting instead of thinking. If you pick a battle with every person you bump into on the street, of course you’ll spend a lot of time on the ground.

James Altucher says: “Never wrestle with a pig. You’ll get dirty and the pig will be happy.” If someone is trying to get you to fight them, don’t. The taunt itself is a sign they either think they have the upper hand or your stooping down to their level is exactly what they want.

Let’s say you had an ugly break-up and your ex keeps coming back to drag you through the mud. “The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury,” Marcus Aurelius says. Focus on yourself. Be happy. Ignore your ex. Your happiness is a battle you can win. The quarreling with them isn’t.

Creating a drink meant to crush Coca Cola is a futile effort. Coming up with your own, unique energy drink for cyclists may not be.

In 1972, Bobby Fischer gave several crazy requirements for his continuing to play in the chess world championship against Boris Spassky after losing the first few games. Eventually, Spassky gave in, and the tables began to turn. Eventually, Fischer secured a historic victory. He had tilted the battlefield until he was able to win. He also retired after he did. He had proven all he needed to prove.

The most skillful players in any game avoid battles that needn’t be fought. Winners know when to fight, and that’s why they win. By the time they show up to the mat, they’ve already determined how they’ll walk away victoriously.

Focus on battles you can win.

2. Be wary of showing your hand

In the book, Sun Tzu says:

All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.

Life is different. You don’t want to lie to your partner or hide your true opinions from your good friends. There is, however, a lesson here that applies in most scenarios: Don’t reveal your whole hand on first sight.

Derek Sivers, for example, makes a compelling, scientific case for keeping your goals to yourself:

“When you tell someone your goal and they acknowledge it, psychologists have found that’s called a “social reality.” The mind is tricked into feeling that it’s already done. And then because you’ve felt that satisfaction, you’re less motivated to do the actual hard work necessary.”

Similarly, you might not want to tell someone you just had three great dates with that you’ll die of heartbreak if they don’t marry you. There is such a thing as too much transparency, and this level of commitment this early is scary for most people.

The same goes for your finances or big life decisions: You want to be sure who you confide in has earned the right to give you their advice and opinion. This is a judgment call you can only make slowly, with time, and if you fall into everyone’s house with the door immediately, as we say in Germany, you rob yourself of that chance.

Think about when to speak and when to stay silent. Carefully consider how much you share. Often, sharing is the right choice. Sometimes, it’s just better to wait a little longer.

Like war, life is not won with our bodies. It is won with our minds.

3. If you know yourself, you have nothing to fear

Another surprising thing Sun Tzu talks about in the context of war is self-awareness:

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.

In life, our most common enemy is ourself, which makes it all the more important to know him for us to succeed.

People who are oblivious to both themselves and their surroundings tend to live recklessly. They behave “like an axe in a forest” as we say in Germany. They might be happy, they might be sad, but they’re always life’s play ball, never its architect.

People who only know their surroundings but not themselves can feel life tossing them around, but the best they can do is complain about it. “Why me? It always rains when I want to ride my bike.” They become victims of life rather than its agents.

Only if we know both our environment and ourselves do we have everything we need to change whatever life may ask us to change. We needn’t fear anything, because we can either do something about it or at the very least accept it.

Know the world. Know yourself. Have nothing to fear.


The Art Of War may be the most famous, definitive piece of writing about warfare in history. Since 500 BC, it has inspired generals, leaders, athletes, and seekers of all kinds to do their best and win their quests.

Life is not war, but sometimes, it does require us to fight. Here are 3 lessons worth remembering from this timeless guide:

  1. Focus on battles you know you can win.

  2. Don’t show everyone your whole hand immediately.

  3. Know your surroundings and yourself, and you’ll have nothing to fear.

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

― Sun Tzu


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