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Productivity and “The Art of War”: Applying Sun Tzu’s Teachings to Business

Productivity and “The Art of War”: Applying Sun Tzu’s Teachings to Business

    Sun Tzu’s seminal work “The Art of War” has been referenced for millennia by historians, military tacticians, and world leaders. In fact, the book is still recommended reading for the US Marine Corps. With such timeless advice, I found myself asking one simple question: How can we apply Sun Tzu’s principles of warfare to our modern goals for productivity?

    1. Personal Accountability

    Sun Tzu said: “If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, then the general is to blame.”

    The Bottom Line: If you communicate ineffectively, then any problems caused by unclear communication are your fault. Make sure that every email and conversation you have is clear and distinct.

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    The important corollary to this aphorism is important to keep in mind as well: “But if his orders ARE clear, and the soldiers nevertheless disobey, then it is the fault of their officers.” If other people are hampering your productivity, take decisive action.

    2. Keeping Your Cool

    Sun Tzu said: “Disciplined and calm, to await the appearance of disorder and hubbub amongst the enemy:–this is the art of retaining self-possession.”

    The Bottom Line: The fastest way to lose productivity is to lose your cool. Take a deep breath, and think before acting rashly. If you can keep your wits about you in the midst of a crisis, it will serve you well.

    An important quote that relates to this concept is: “Do not swallow bait offered by the enemy. Do not interfere with an army that is returning home.” Staying productive and staying professional are one in the same. Never lose your cool with co-workers or bosses. At least, not where it can get back to them.

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    3. Be Prepared

    Sun Tzu said: “The art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy’s not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him; not on the chance of his not attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable.”

    The Bottom Line: Do everything in your power to be prepared, because it’s only a matter of time until something goes wrong. If you have daily deadlines, work two days ahead to give yourself a buffer. Take initiative to track trends in your division, so that when your boss asks you to compile a report, the work is already done. Think of all the possible complications that you might have to contend with, and work out a plan to be ready for when the inevitable happens.

    4. Do Work to Get Work

    Sun Tzu said: “Opportunities multiply as they are seized.”

    The Bottom Line: The boss needs volunteers to stay late and work on a project? Do it. Your company needs a speaker to represent them at a conference? Do it. The more experience you gain, the better your resume will look, and the higher the quality of your contacts will be. Just be careful of spreading yourself too thin.

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    5. Grow Your Social Network

    Sun Tzu said: “Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat. Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory.”

    The Bottom Line: Stay in touch with former co-workers, colleagues, and yes, even bosses. You never know when a former business contact may recommend you for a new position. But it’s not enough to just stay in touch. You need to have a plan for how you can leverage your connections.

    Note: This quote, while attributed to Sun Tzu, is likely apocryphal. Nonetheless, it is good advice.

    6. Be Selfless

    Sun Tzu said: “The general who advances without coveting fame and retreats without fearing disgrace, whose only thought is to protect his country and do good service for his sovereign, is the jewel of the kingdom.”

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    The Bottom Line: No one likes a manipulative ladder-climber. Just do what is best for the company, and ultimately, you’ll be doing what’s best for you, too. Stay humble, even after winning awards and accolades, and you’ll make more friends (read: allies.)

    7. Play to Your Strengths

    Sun Tzu said: “It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.”

    The Bottom Line: If you always play to your personal strengths, and understand any potential problems that could cause a decline in your productivity, you will always be successful in your industry. Stay abreast of industry trends, and always keep honing your skill set.

    Conclusion

    Sun Tzu may have been the master of wartime strategies, but his advice still resonates with us today because it can be so readily applied to politics, business, and our personal lives. Follow his precepts, and everything will go your way.

    Resources and Further Reading

    http://classics.mit.edu/Tzu/artwar.html
    http://www.history-of-china.com/three-kingdoms/sun-tzu.htm
    http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/The_Art_of_War (Contains original Chinese and variant translations.)
    http://shop.history.com/detail.php?p=104545&v=history

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    Tucker Cummings

    Writer and social media professional sharing productivity tips on Lifehack.

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    Last Updated on August 19, 2019

    How to Succeed in Life on Your Own Terms: 7 Essential Steps

    How to Succeed in Life on Your Own Terms: 7 Essential Steps

    There is a great deal of advice in the world telling us how to succeed in life, but often we are given advice that isn’t tailored to our needs, desires and priorities. Success means different things to each of us, and living a life that feels genuinely successful to me might be very different to your idea of a successful life.

    Naturally, when we follow the advice of someone else, which is tailored to their life goals and personality, we can end up with something that doesn’t deliver on the promise. We don’t get rewarded with our vision of success: we get theirs.

    This is why I’m a proponent of self-discovery, introspection and personal sovereignty. So how to succeed on your own terms?

    These 7 essential steps are not going to tell you exactly what to do, but they will provide you with the tools and the questions to ask so that you can discover your own path, so you know how to succeed in life on your own terms.

    1. Know Thyself

    One of Socrates’ most well-known quotes is,

    An unexamined life is not worth living.

    I argue that an unexamined life is not a successful one. Self-knowledge is something we could dedicate our lives to, but I’m not suggesting you sit around and navel-gaze in order to find happiness and meaning.

    Thankfully, there are people who have created techniques and systems that less us fast-forward through a lot of personal philosophizing, and quickly identify some key aspects of what makes us, us.

    You might want to find out what your ideal daily schedule is,[1] and you can take tests that reveal just that. Or you might want to figure out what you need to get things done – and yes, there’s a quiz for that too.

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    None of these tests are infallible, and some are more scientific than others, but the process of asking yourself questions about your behaviors and traits is invaluable when it comes to determining your path to succeed in life.

    For example, if you know you are an introvert and are unhappy in your current workplace, it might be worth considering why that is (an open plan office space perhaps) and what you would prefer.

    It’s these little questions that will provoke answers in you that can guide the decisions that truly improve your life now and in the future.

    2. Figure out What Matters to You

    What lights you up? This is a question that often gets forgotten as we age. A fortunate child will be given the stimulation they desire in the form of bright toys, affection and entertainment. Little by little, the things that bring a child joy get replaced by what society demands on their behalf.

    When we return to that question, and ask ourselves what really matters and what brings us joy, we can move closer towards a successful life. It can help to think back to your childhood, and the times in your life when you were in what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls a flow state.[2]

    In a state of flow, time slows and our focus is directed like a laser. We are fully present.

    Whilst not everything in life that matters to you will conjure up a flow state, it’s a good indication of the kind of activities and experiences you can try to incorporate into your life on a regular basis.

    A successful life is made up of moments like this, and when you know what matters to you and brings you a sense of joy and purpose, you can go about creating more of that.

    3. Play to Your Strengths

    Why spend your time only on mitigating your weaknesses, only to feel average? Instead, playing to your strengths and amplifying those skills and qualities you already have will help you go from average to extraordinary.

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    If you’re great at big picture thinking and love dreaming up new ideas, but often lack attention to detail, acknowledge that. Then instead of trying to improve your analytical skills, focus instead on developing your existing skills of imagination and insight. When you need someone with a keen eye for detail, you can collaborate with those people.

    Jackson Pollock was an extreme introvert, with no real desire to get his artwork in front of people. Fortunately, he had Clement Greenberg, who was much further towards the extrovert end of the spectrum, to popularize his work and get Pollock the publicity he needed.[3]

    Start by identifying your strengths and what comes naturally to you. Then work on developing those and becoming known for those strengths. You can always find someone who will help you in fill in the gaps.

    4. Listen to Yourself

    It isn’t always clear to us that we’re on a path that leads us to failure or to success. People can spends decades in a job that is unfulfilling and slowly breaking their spirit, without even realizing it – until it’s too late. This is usually because they haven’t learned how to truly listen to themselves.

    The challenge we face is that we’re listening to so many other sources of information; whether it’s the news, television, social media, family, friends or colleagues. Many may want to help, but that doesn’t mean they know what’s best for us. Only you know what success means for you, and working this out begins with listening to yourself.

    Listening to yourself requires practice. It’s a daily effort, which over time, does get easier. That inner voice of wisdom will get clearer, and the decisions you make will feel more convincing.

    To start, you could try to set aside 10 to 15 minutes when you first wake up, in silence. Rather than look at your phone, checking emails or social media, simply sit in silence, listening.

    Ask yourself a simple question like, what am I feeling right now, in this moment? Notice the answer that bubbles up, without getting lost in the story. Starting an inner dialogue, without judgment is one of the key tools you can use to start making better decisions in your life.

    Learn more about listening to your true self in this guide: How to Listen to Your Inner Voice for Greater Fulfillment

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    5. Listen to Others (But Not Everyone)

    Listening to yourself is one thing, but listening to others is crucial in order to learn, empathize and be of benefit to your community.

    Truly listening to others is not just waiting patiently until it’s your turn to speak. Active listening requires focused attention, and the intention to understand where the other person is coming from.

    When you do this, you can ask better questions and discover more about the world and everyone in it, as well as learn how to interact with others in order to succeed in life on your own terms.

    However, this doesn’t mean you have to listen to everyone you come across. Trolls on the internet may come into the category of people not to listen to. Some people’s opinions will do more harm than good, as not everyone has your best interest in mind.

    It’s worth identifying a shortlist of people whose opinions you will listen to. Brené Brown, author of the New York Times best-seller Daring Greatly, recommends taking a 1-inch x 1-inch square of paper and make a list of people whose opinions matter to you. These are the people who love you and will genuinely support and help you. According to Brown,

    “If you need more paper, you need to edit.”

    6. Make Time for Reflection

    It’s easy to go through life without taking inventory of what you’re actually accomplishing. Missing this crucial step means we end up jumping from one goal to the next, without feeling like we’re getting anywhere.

    Make time, ideally each day to reflect. You might keep a paper journal, or an online document. Either way, jot down:

    • What went well today
    • Something you’re grateful for
    • What would make tomorrow even better

    Doing this can have measurable benefits to our overall sense of well-being, as well as keeping us focused for more success in the future.[4]

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    It also helps combat feelings of lack and doubt, that arise when we compare ourselves to others. When we look at someone who appears to be more successful than us in an area of life, we can forget how far we’ve come and how much we have to be grateful for.

    Making time to reflect on what you have accomplished is critical to keep you on track, and just not looking at what others are doing.

    7. Don’t Be Afraid to Change Your Mind

    Arguably the most important step of all:

    Remember that there’s nothing wrong in changing your mind and correcting course.

    The path to a successful life is not straight and narrow. It meanders and there’s no harm in going back and picking a different (and better) route.

    “I think our life is a journey, and we make mistakes, and it’s how we learn from those mistakes and rebound from those mistakes that sets us on the path that we’re meant to be on.” — Jay Ellis

    Be willing to make mistakes, learn from them and change your mind. Ultimately, there’s no better way to succeed in life on your own terms.

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    Featured photo credit: Shirly Niv Marton via unsplash.com

    Reference

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