Saturday, September 23, 2006

This is not your mother's "art" class...

Title: The Art of War
Author: Sun Tzu

The Art of War is a collection of common sense aphorisms relating to battlefield strategy. Composed by Sun Tzu in the 5th century B.C. and translated by Lionel Giles in 1910 (not the only translation, but the most famous one), it’s been a handbook for those wishing for a high-powered career in today’s highly competitive corporate world ever since Gordon Gekko told Charlie Sheen it was required reading in Wall Street. And since the one rule in my life is to always follow what Michael Douglas advises, I figured I’d give it a shot as well.

Not being a military strategist, I can hardly analyze the usefulness of The Art of War for today’s military. But it did strike me as rather dated, and doesn’t address the most pressing issues of today – What is war? How do we distinguish civilians and combatants? How should detainees be treated? Etc. etc. etc… I was particularly surprised that a treatise on war wouldn’t bother to define what war is, but maybe that’s just me.

The other question, of course, is whether Sun Tzu is relevant to today’s business world. Many appear to think so. I honestly don’t know, and also don’t really care. I think it’s rather silly to approach business as a battle. I’ve found one criticism of the application of The Art of War to business situations to be very persuasive, and that is that business and war simply aren’t comparable. In battle, there is a winner and a loser. In business, things are best when all parties working together gain something – it’s not necessarily a zero-sum game. A businessperson who deceives those she collaborates with and is only out for her own benefit will soon find no one willing to work with her.

Besides, those people I’ve met who’ve read The Art of War and seriously apply it to their lives are often intolerable, boring, and far too full of themselves for their own good. Call me naïve, but I rather like honestly and common courtesy. Then again, I clearly didn’t thrive in the law firm environment, so what do I know!

However, I do think that The Art of War would be excellent reading for football coaches. Football’s a simple game with clearly-defined boundaries, and someone always wins and someone always loses. Sun Tzu would like it.

I don’t mean to be too down on The Art of War, it was a fascinating read and I think everyone should give it a look. The words themselves are often beautifully simple and poetic. I wish I had read it a little slower – it’s one of those books where you should read a line, mark your place, and then stare of blinking into the distance while you ponder its significance.

And one thing I really did love about The Art of War is that Sun Tzu asserts that the best victory is never to fight at all. He also advocated treating subordinates and conquered peoples with respect and dignity. I liked that.

Two final points. First, if you read The Art of War, make sure you get an edition that comes with the notes and commentaries, since these explain a great deal and are more than half of the actual text. I read Sun Tzu straight through first, and would recommend that approach, but it was nice to then explore what others had thought. Second, this book is by far the most popular reading I’ve seen on the Metro. Since I read it, everyone else seems to be reading it, too – but mostly yuppy young white guys. Make of it what you will.

posted by Elizabeth at 8:05 PM


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