Like all of the Ways, The Way of Strategy cannot be learned through academic study; it must be grokked through life experience. Reading a book on strategy will not make you a strategist, just as owning a hammer will not make you a carpenter. Strategy is an applied science; it is a skill, like karate, woodworking, or playing the guitar. Strategy is more than something you read about -- it is something that you do. Like all of the Ways, the Way of Strategy is a path that you must ultimately walk alone, but there are a few masters who are willing to help point the way.
Among the earliest treatises on strategy was The Art of War, by Sun-tzu (544?-496? BCE), which reduced the discussion of warfare into its most abstract and generalized form. In doing so, it ceased to discuss warfare, per se, and it became a treatise on the nature of conflict itself. The Art of War provides a series of general guidelines that are useful for anyone who experiences any sort of conflict in their lives -- which is to say, everyone. The Art of War contains simple, but timeless wisdom that can apply to running a small business, winning a high school football game, and dealing with cliques of mean girls just as easily as it applies to fistfights, resistance cells, or world wars.
The teachings presented in The Art of War mesh so well with everyday life in a modern world because, ironically, Sun-tzu advocates non-violence. (Case and point, the chapter on scorched earth tactics is mostly spent trying to talk the reader out of using scorched earth tactics.) According to Sun-tzu, the ideal strategy is to cultivate a position which is so secure that the enemy has no choice but to surrender. Barring that, you are to physically and spiritually wear your enemies out, to coax them into quitting, since conflict is expensive and unproductive. The real goal is not to fight, but to win. Enemies are to be assimilated, not destroyed, so you can take their strength and grow stronger and stronger. If conflict is unavoidable, then attacks should be limited to surgical strikes directed at the enemy’s weakest spots.
The Art of War consists of a series of brief, expository statements, which were expanded upon by various commentators throughout history. While profound, The Art of War can be difficult to understand, since Sun-tzu's statements are often vague, obtuse, and mysterious. This makes sense, as he devotes much of his book to highlighting the benefits of being formless and mysterious. However, this also makes Sun-tzu difficult to learn from. This is why we have not posted the full text of his work; instead, we provide a “Cliff’s Notes” for this ancient text; a “Schaum’s Outlines” for dealing with conflict. The distilled essence of the principles Sun-tzu was trying to teach rendered in a standard English prose can be found here.
A key component to understanding the Way of Strategy is to understand the use of stratagems. A stratagem is different from a strategy. A strategy is an overall gameplan; whereas a stratagem is just a deception or dirty trick used to gain an advantage. Using a variety of stratagems is part of a larger, overall strategy. Although many readers will initially reject the use of deception to achieve one’s goals, I can guarantee that at least some of these stratagems will be used against you at some point in your life, so ignore them at your peril.
While The Art of War is intended to be an in-depth study of the nature of conflict itself, The Thirty-Six Stratagems are intended to be more of a “cheat sheet.” The stratagems are organized into a decision tree of “if-then” statements to provide quick responses to six common situations.