Know thy enemy, know thy self

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles” (知彼知己,百戰不殆)

This is arguably one of SunTzu’s most famous quotes — but when you read it, what do you focus on? If you’re like most people, you focus on trying to learn more about the enemy. After all, we’re our own best friend and partner; we spend every waking moment with ourselves, what else is there to know? We don’t nearly spend as much time or attention on other people.

While mostly true, SunTzu’s view is that actually, we don’t know ourselves as well as we might think.

I’m typically more guilty than most when it comes to not quite knowing who I am — not because of the lack of trying mind you, but because I get distracted so easily. It’s easy for me to get bored and wanting to move onto the next fun thing. I get caught up in the thrill of progress — I tell myself that I’m learning and moving, and that’s all that matters!

However, I don’t spend nearly enough time on asking myself: why am I even fighting? What war am I in? Do I even want to be here?

My first career out of college was to be an account. I took accounting and finance in college because it was a safe career — there were tons of opportunities out there, it was what everyone else did at the time, and hey, I seemed to be pretty good at it. I quickly moved up the ranks in the firm and made a decent amount of coin — what was there to complain about?

But five years later, when the promotions slowed, I realized I was in the wrong war, fighting the wrong battles. I didn’t want to be an accountant! I wanted a career where I could be a creative (and people didn’t tend to appreciate creative accountants!)

In hindsight, my life might have turned out a little differently had I tried to figure things out earlier in my life.

ZhugeLiang ‘gives up’ the city

In one battle during the Three Kingdoms period, ZhugeLiang’s (諸葛亮) two thousand soldiers was surrounded within the city of Xicheng (西城) by SimaYi’s (司馬懿) vastly superior army

Even then, SimaYi was expecting a tough battle as ZhugeLiang was a master strategist and definitely not a fool. But instead of trying to defend the city, ZhugeLiang simply opened the gates and told his men to stand down. He sat on the city walls and played music to pass the time, while watching his soldiers play games.

SimaYi’s army, watching from a distance, was understandably confused. After some pondering, SimaYi said to his son, “ZhugeLiang is an extremely wise and intelligent man, there must be an ambush in the city, we have to retreat!”

His son protested, “No, Father! Our spies have given us very accurate reports of the inside of the city, and there is no ambush there.” But his father would not listen: “What do you know, boy? Retreat!”

Of course, neither ZhugeLiang nor SimaYi were confused, they knew exactly what they were doing.

ZhugeLiang knew that the true battle wasn’t going to happen around the city, it was going to happen in SimaYi’s mind (he was very dramatic!) ZhugeLiang knew that SimaYi’s objective wasn’t just to win the war, he wanted to be the emperor. And to do that he needed to take the throne by force.

By standing down and opening the doors to the city, ZhugeLiang wanted SimaYi to realize that he could take the city at any time, but taking it would do him no good. Yes, a victory would be the end of the war; his army could disband, and his soldiers could return home. But with his soldiers gone, so too would go his ability and opportunity to take the throne.

ZhugeLiang taunted him from a distance, subtly “encouraging” him to think about his future very carefully. SimaYi took the bait and ordered a retreat, knowing what he wanted more.

Although it seemed as if SimaYi was on the offensive, it was ZhugeLiang who was on the attack. SimaYi’s army outnumbered the measly two thousand soldiers defending the city, but ZhugeLiang was attacking SimaYi’s heart and mind. He was so effective that SimaYi didn’t know how to counter.

Do you know where the battlefield is?

If we’re not clear on what our goals are and what we’re truly trying to achieve, how do we know which battle to fight? We won’t know how to get to the battlefield, let alone how to win the fight. We’ll be spending our lives straining and perspiring, only to one day realize that we’ve won the wrong war.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s significant value in taking action, keeping momentum and following through. But some of us have to learn (the hard way) that it’s also worth investing the time in trying to figure out what makes us tick.

Posted in History