Sun Tzu and the art of... Psychology?

Sun Tzu’s Art of War is a well known short read. It was popular in the western business world in the ’90s. Entrepreneurs and coaches alike swarmed to it for inspiration on how to ‘win’ at business. Whether treating your business ventures like warfare is useful is for others to decide and not relevant to this piece.


I enjoy finding different ways to discuss psychological ideas. We all connect with different things in life. For some, metaphors and quotes can help them absorb, remember and understand concepts.


I have picked out a few quotes from the Art of War which translates to key concepts in life.


“We may take it then that an army without its baggage train is lost, without provisions it is lost, without bases of supply, it is lost.”


This first quote discusses the movement of troops. It’s pretty relatable from a psychological perspective and a strong first metaphor. If you’re going to make any real change in your life, you need to make sure you have enough provisions in place.


We have a pretty intuitive understanding of our core needs in life. We can take this concept further.  Maslow first put forward the idea of a hierarchy of needs in 1943. Hierarchy theories have changed over the years but the principles remain the same.


The basic principle is that if you want to achieve fulfilment in life you have to start from the bottom.  You can’t start at the top, you have to build upwards from a solid foundation. Like an army needs its provisions, you need solid groundwork to grow from.


If you have no secure home and are struggling to eat, it’s difficult to have a strong sense of self-worth. You’re unlikely to search for higher levels of fulfilment in life. Maslow’s work wasn’t the best in terms of scientific rigor, and there is a level of subjectivity to the needs. 


This is where the argument that people don’t need ‘things’ comes in. This is true, to an extent, but our core needs are not universal. As our experiences in life, where we came from are not universal. At least beyond the obvious biological needs, we have to survive.


Your provisions may differ from others, but the core concept of this makes sense to everyone. Make sure you’re grounded, make sure you have a solid base to work from and build from there.


It may be that after the basics of food and water, what you need is spiritual growth. It may be that you need social connection, friendship and love. You may need a direction, a goal to strive and achieve.


Beyond the basics, there will be variation in what people need. However, the principles remain true. You can’t skip steps. You start with your basic needs and then build upwards from there.


If you don’t have a strong foundation and you hit a problem, everything collapses. Build your foundation, build upwards and make sure to keep that supply running.


“There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.”


There is a general rule when it comes to health which also applies to psychology. Short term experiences will usually be beneficial. Chronic, long term exposure causes problems.


Stress is a good example of this. Short experiences translate to robustness against negative experience. Chronic stress predicts the development of mental illness. The immune function is an example of a biological system that also demonstrates this.


Often we break down because of prolonged exposure and not because of the situation itself. If you feel something is becoming too much, taking a break can be powerful.


If you can’t separate yourself from it for a while, this might give you a reason to seek support. Often people don’t want to seek support because they feel they are a burden.


If you take it from a different perspective, the feelings of being a burden can lessen. You are seeking temporary support to give yourself a short break. Temporary being the keyword here.


We all have to deal with difficult and stressful situations in life. It’s important to understand what limits you have. Learn to know how far you can and should go and when to take a step back and give yourself time and self-care.


“Therefore, as water retains no constant shape, so in warfare, there are no constant conditions.”


The world is a complex environment, always changing. Psychology can provide tools to help us navigate that world but they are not universal. We can create generalised concepts but you still have to adapt them to your specific situation.


It’s important for us to remain flexible in our approach to life. You can’t expect to tackle every problem the same way.


Anxiety which fuels depression and depression which fuels anxiety share similar outcomes. When it comes to treatment, the approach for each is different.


Psychology always has and likely always will struggle with this concept. As a science, the goal is to find universal truths so that we can make accurate predictions on behaviour. However, we also always have to respect individual differences which somewhat defy those universals.


The end result is we tend to have predictions with variability. The most accurate areas of prediction have the least amount of variability. This is true for all medicine which is why certain medications work on some and less for others.


Real-life is messy, and when you get into the complexity of biological life you find the usual systems that science relies on the struggle. Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford Professor, has a fascinating lecture on chaos theory which underlies these issues.


Your best bet is to learn as much as you can from any source that is available to you. Then trust in yourself to shape that knowledge to your individual needs. Be flexible and be ready to change.


“To secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.”


The first component puts a focus on ourselves over our environment. There are two ways to change any situation. You can make actual physical changes to it, or you change how you view it, your perspective.


In life, we need to use both to some extent. When we can’t change our environment, at least not immediately, we can still change our approach to it.


Securing ourselves from defeat is a personal goal we can all strive for. We may not be able to overcome our problems but as long as you can adapt, you can survive. If you can survive, a path will open up for you.


This phrase gets better when you take the second part of it into account. If we try to change something in our life at the wrong time, we often fail.


If you quit the job you hate with no other opportunities present, you’ll be in a bad place.


Opportunities present themselves to us all the time, life is constantly moving. If we can strengthen ourselves so we don’t break and then look for those opportunities, then we can make real change.


It is disingenuous for people to assert that you can always make the changes to your life at any time. Assertions to make changes have merit but they are not always realistic, at least not at that time.


We aren’t always in the position to make real significant changes. This goes back to the first quote, if you want to make those major changes, often you have to start at the foundation.


If you can’t quit your job currently, strengthen your foundation. Make yourself unbeatable so that the job you dislike doesn’t drag you down. When the opportunity presents itself, that’s when you make the move and at that time, you will be ready to do so.


When faced with psychological difficulties, there are usually many different facets of improvement. It might be that dealing with social anxiety isn’t right yet because depression is a greater priority. It’s important to understand when the right time for change is.


You can’t expect to change everything at once and sometimes it’s not realistic to try at that time. Life changes regardless of whether you enact it or not. That is the very nature of life.


If you are trapped right now, realise that even if you do nothing at all, things will change on their own. Focus on stability for yourself and be ready for a change when realistic.


You can learn from all sorts of places in life, even ancient books on warfare. These may or may not be useful for you but they were certainly fun for me to explore.


Further reading:

Sun Tzu – The Art of War

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