11 key lessons from “The Art of War” that will help you get ahead in your career

Ever come across “The Art of War”? It’s an old book from China about how to fight and win battles.

But it’s not all about fighting. It also has lots of smart tips that can help you do better at work.

If you’re trying to get ahead in your job or just make it through the day, this book has some useful advice for you.

It’s all about planning and making good decisions – and that sounds a lot like what we need for a successful career, right?

I’ve picked out 11 great tips from this book that can help you navigate work challenges and grab hold of opportunities. 

Let’s go. 

1. “All warfare is based on deception.”

Deception? In the workplace? Well, before you start planning any sneaky maneuvers, let’s clarify: this doesn’t mean lying or cheating.

What Sun Tzu was getting at is the importance of not revealing all your strategies at once.

Think about it. If you’re vying for a promotion or a big project, do you lay out all your ideas and strategies in the open? Probably not.

Instead, you’d want to keep some of your best insights and plans under wraps until the right moment.

This way, you maintain an edge over your competition and surprise your superiors with your innovative thinking when it counts the most.

This lesson is about understanding the art of timing and strategic reveal – key skills that can give you an upper hand in your career progression.

2. “In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.”

Work can sometimes feel like a battlefield, right? Projects piling up, deadlines looming, colleagues buzzing around – it’s easy to feel overwhelmed.

But Sun Tzu tells us that even in the middle of all this chaos, there are chances for us to shine.

When things get tough, most people tend to buckle under pressure. But if you can keep a cool head and find solutions in these challenging situations, you’ll stand out from the crowd.

For instance, stepping up to manage an unruly project or solving a problem that’s been bothering your team can showcase your leadership and problem-solving skills.

So, next time when everything seems to be going haywire at work, remember Sun Tzu’s words and look for those hidden opportunities. It could be your chance to impress.

3. “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

This might sound a bit intense for the office, but don’t worry, it’s not about literal battles.

The “enemy” here can be any obstacle in your career – a tough project, a difficult colleague, or even your own self-doubt.

I once had a co-worker who was always defensive and resistant to new ideas. Instead of getting into constant debates with him, I decided to apply Sun Tzu’s wisdom. I realized that arguing wasn’t getting us anywhere and was only creating more tension.

So, instead of fighting, I focused on finding common ground and understanding his perspective.

I started involving him in the early stages of projects and discussing ideas more openly with him.

Over time, his defensiveness started to ease and our relationship improved significantly.

The point here is, sometimes the best way to overcome challenges isn’t by direct confrontation but through understanding, patience, and collaboration.

That’s Sun Tzu’s version of ‘winning without fighting’, and it can make a big difference in your career too. 

4. “He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot, will be victorious.”

This nugget of wisdom from Sun Tzu emphasizes the importance of picking your battles wisely.

Not every disagreement is worth your energy and time, and knowing when to engage or disengage is a vital skill in the workplace.

You can avoid wasting time by choosing your battles wisely. You’d not only save time but also reduce stress and maintain better relationships at work.

So, taking a page from Sun Tzu, be strategic about where you invest your energy.

It’s not about avoiding conflict altogether, but about knowing which conflicts are worth addressing and which ones are better left alone.

5. “Opportunities multiply as they are seized.”

Sun Tzu’s words remind us that action breeds more action. When you seize an opportunity, it often leads to more doors opening for you down the line.

It’s like a domino effect; one bold move can set off a chain of events that can propel your career forward.

I’ve seen this play out in many people’s lives. I remember a friend who was stuck in a job she didn’t love.

One day, she decided to take a leap of faith and accepted a new role in a different industry, even though it was unfamiliar territory. It was a huge risk, but she saw it as an opportunity to learn and grow.

Fast forward a few years, that one decision opened up a world of opportunities for her. She got to work on diverse projects, met inspiring individuals, and climbed up the ranks much faster than she’d expected.

The takeaway here is simple yet profound: Don’t hesitate to grab opportunities, even if they’re outside your comfort zone.

It might feel scary at first, but remember, each opportunity you seize has the potential to create even more opportunities later on. 

6. “The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought.”

In plain terms, this means preparation is key.

Whether it’s a presentation, a meeting, or a project, the work you put in before the event can determine your success.

Early in my career, I had to present a proposal to senior management. Initially, I felt confident, thinking my good ideas would be enough.

But as the day approached, my nerves kicked in. I realized I hadn’t spent enough time really preparing — understanding my audience, anticipating questions, refining my delivery.

Despite my great ideas, the presentation wasn’t a hit. I stumbled over answers and couldn’t convey my points as effectively as I wanted to. It was a tough lesson in the importance of thorough preparation.

Ever since that day, I’ve made it a point to spend ample time preparing for any task at hand.

The more calculations you make beforehand — the more you prepare — the better equipped you’ll be to win your battles at work. 

7. “There is no instance of a nation benefiting from prolonged warfare.”

Sun Tzu wasn’t mincing words here. Long, drawn-out battles drain resources, morale, and momentum.

Now, let’s translate this to the workplace. Have you ever been stuck in a project that just seems to drag on forever? It’s exhausting, right?

I’ll be brutally honest here – I’ve been in that situation more times than I care to admit. Projects that should’ve taken three months somehow ended up stretching into six or seven.

It was like being stuck in a never-ending loop of meetings, revisions and problem-solving.

And you know what? It sucked. The team was tired, our enthusiasm dwindled, and other work started to pile up.

The lesson here is that it’s crucial to manage your time and resources efficiently. Avoid getting sucked into endless cycles of work without progress.

It’s not about rushing things, but about working smart, setting clear goals and timelines, and sticking to them.

Remember, a swift victory is better than a drawn-out battle. And that applies to your career as much as any war.

8. “He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.”

This lesson from Sun Tzu emphasizes the importance of knowing when to take action and when to step back.

In the workplace, this translates to picking your battles wisely and knowing when to assert yourself or when to let things slide.

Employees who know how to handle office politics are more likely to be satisfied with their jobs and less likely to be stressed or anxious.

This backs up Sun Tzu’s point; knowing when and where to engage can greatly impact your work life.

It’s not always about jumping into every argument or challenging every decision.

Sometimes, it’s also about stepping back, observing, and deciding the best course of action.

So remember, it’s not just about fighting hard, but also fighting smart that will get you ahead in your career.

9. “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.”

This isn’t about counting your chickens before they’ve hatched. It’s about the power of positive thinking and self-belief.

Some years ago, I was up for a promotion against some pretty tough competition. On paper, some of my colleagues had more experience or specific skills that I didn’t. It was easy to feel like I was already defeated.

But then I remembered Sun Tzu’s words. Winning first isn’t about being overconfident, it’s about believing in your capabilities and potential.

So, I decided to shift my mindset. Instead of thinking about why I might not get the promotion, I focused on the unique value I could bring to the role.

I walked into every meeting and presentation as if I had already won, carrying myself with confidence and positivity.

And it worked. Not only did I get the promotion, but this shift in mindset has stayed with me throughout my career.

Be your own biggest cheerleader. Believe in yourself and your ability to win before you even start the battle – it could make all the difference.

10. “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”

The ‘enemy’ in your career isn’t always a rival coworker or a mean boss. Often, our biggest enemy is ourselves – our doubts, fears, and insecurities.

I’ve had moments where I doubted my abilities, where I thought I didn’t measure up to others.

But over time, I realized that the more I understood my strengths and weaknesses, the more confident and effective I became.

And knowing your ‘enemy’? That could be understanding your company’s expectations, your manager’s style or the intricacies of office politics.

The more you know, the better you can navigate your career path.

At the end of the day, knowing yourself and understanding your ‘battlefield’ can remove a lot of fear and uncertainty in your career.

So take time for self-reflection and observation – it’ll equip you for the hundreds of battles you’ll face on your career journey.

11. “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

You can have all the grand plans in the world, but if you don’t figure out how to actually execute them, you’re just dreaming.

On the flip side, if you’re all about action without a clear plan, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

I’ve seen it happen too often – brilliant ideas that flounder due to poor execution or hard work that leads nowhere due to lack of strategic planning.

Your career is not just about doing or planning; it’s about doing and planning. It’s about aligning your daily actions (tactics) with your long-term goals (strategy). This balance is what will drive your career forward.

So whether you’re plotting a career change or aiming for a promotion, remember to pair your strategy with solid tactics. It’s the surest route to victory in your career.

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Picture of Lachlan Brown

Lachlan Brown

I’m Lachlan Brown, the editor of Ideapod and founder of Hack Spirit. I love writing practical articles that help others live a mindful and better life. I have a graduate degree in Psychology and I’ve spent the last 6 years reading and studying all I can about human psychology and practical ways to hack our mindsets. If you to want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Twitter or Facebook.

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