The philosophy of war is catching up to Sun Tzu, but it hasn’t changed. The reality of war is that “competition” is baked into human nature. Human nature hasn’t change in 2,500 years and won’t for another 2,500. Sun Tzu sought to channel our natural psychological drives away from destructive conflict into more productive methods of improving positions in human hierarchies.
When you read Sun Tzu, you will learn nothing about how wars were fought in ancient Chinese because Sun Tzu focuses on the only weapon that matters in competition: the human mind. It is a very deep work, touching on transcendent truths that maybe cannot be easily understood. Modern psychology is actually make huge strides in explaining the neuro-chemical basis for the philosophy in The Art of War.
The work teaches you how to understand your competitive position, the competitive positions of others, and how to advance your position moving up human hierarchies while avoiding costly conflict. Theses competitive position exists only in people's minds.
We cannot escape from competition because everyone is consciously and unconsciously putting people in a place in their personal hierarchies. In other words, everyone is judging everyone else all the time. You may not like being judged. Who does? But it is a basic fact of life. There are neural-chemical counters in our brain that keep track of our competitive positions in the world. Those chemical processes are 350 million years old, older than mammals and a part of the nervous system of animals as primitive as lobsters.
These same chemicals regulate the positive and negative emotions that we feel. We are free to choose the hierarchies that is important to it. It could be as simple the opinion of one person who we want to love us. It could be as complex as social fame. Sun Tzu called this having a “mission” or “philosophy.” Whatever your goals, your brain rewards you only for moving toward them. The more valuable the goal, the more rewarding your incremental progress is. If you are depressed, it is not because you are suffering, everyone suffers. Sickness and broken hearts are a part of life. People can bear any amount of suffering if they have a mission. What we cannot bear over time is not making progress.
But no one likes being judged. We cannot handle the rejection. One of Sun Tzu’s “life hacks” is realizing that you, the real you, is not what being compared, judged, and ranked in a hierarchy. What is being judged is a mental artifact, your position. Your position isn’t you, that is, your consciousness, your self-awareness, which is a mystery to others—and largely to yourself. What is being judged is an artifact, the “competitive position,” which is something that you can consciously construct to make it easier for you to advance.
Think of your competitive position as something like an avatar in a video game. It is something that you can build up over time. You build it up by making choices. Like a video game role playing character, Sun Tzu taught that there are five categories in which you can build up your strategic position: mission, ground, climate, skills, and character. Those five categories can be broken down into subcategories. For example, character, that is, personality, can be broken down into five subcategories, intelligence, courage, trustworthiness, discipline, and caring. This is also an area where modern psychology is catching up to Sun Tzu. The BIG FIVE personality traits can be mapped pretty easily into Sun Tzu’s model.
Sun Tzu’s cycle for advancing positions incrementally, that I call Listen, Aim, Move, Claim, also maps into many cycles taught in modern society, for the sales cycle to the scientific method itself.