“We must be swift as the coursing river …. With all the force of a great typhoon … With all the strength of a raging fire … Mysterious as the dark side of the moon!”
The remake of Disney’s classic Mulan was released recently, but did you know that those lyrics from the song “I’ll make a man out of you” came from Sun Tzu?
Well, what Sun Tzu said was more along the lines of “as swift as wind, as gentle as forest, as fierce as fire, as unshakable as mountain,” but what do these lines really mean?
On the surface, it seems as though Sun Tzu was emphasizing the need to act with aggression. When you’re on the offense, you need to attack quickly so the enemy can’t defend. A wind is not only swift, but also invisible and leaves no tracks. Life won’t wait for you, so you have to be prepared to follow one strike with another.
These are great points! But the more subtle lesson that people don’t usually glean from these passages is that context matters, and it changes how we should act.
Match your actions to the situation
To Sun Tzu, the context of a person’s surroundings mattered more than their will or desire to act. A large marble ball weighing 600 pounds will stay motionless on a completely flat surface — it will stay completely still no matter how hard you pushed on it. But put that marble ball on a slightly angled floor and it’s guaranteed to roll downwards.
When a situation warrants us to be aggressive, we have to act aggressively. A fire attack only works when the air is completely dry and the winds are high. Only then will it burn like chaos through the enemy’s camp.
If you try using fire on a warm but otherwise calm day, then you’ll be lucky to cause damage beyond a single tent.
On the other hand, when a situation warrants us to be slow and measured, then make sure you take your time. Don’t be tricked into making rash mistakes if you have the luxury of waiting — be as unshakable as a mountain. Spend the time preparing and closing your internal gaps, removing the opportunity for others to attack you.
Neither of these paths have an inherent advantage over the other, it’s up to us to decide what we must do given a set of circumstances. We have to match our actions to the right time and opportunity.
Back to our story about Mulan — she disguised herself as her father for twelve years before she revealed her true identity as a woman. She fought alongside men through hundreds of battles and won their trust before she displayed who she really was.
Because she knew that she lived at a time when women were not accepted. She lived at a time when even those whose lives she saved would not respect and honor her, because she was a woman. They would rather dismiss her contributions and achievements than accept her as someone different.
So she had to wait. She had to wait until the war was over and she had proven to everyone, including the Emperor, that she was as their equal (if not their superior).
She couldn’t just act in the way she wanted to, she had to wait until her situation changed.