On Dying Ground, Fight

The Art of War by Sun Tzu is a good read, for a lot of reasons. Strategy in general is an interesting topic to study, and strategy in one arena often transfers well to others. The kinds of techniques that improve your capabilities in the boardroom, the battlefield, and the marketplace all have elements that flow into the others. Your life will pass through many if not all of these arenas, and so it can be helpful to have a broad understanding of the concepts.

My favorite concept from The Art of War is the Nine Grounds. Essentially, Master Sun identified and categorized the nine different situations an army could find themselves in, and defined broad strategic ideas for what do to in each.

Each of the nine grounds provides certain incentives to the soldiers on them, and knowing those incentives lets you command most effectively. A key insight here is that people aren’t robots; they can’t be expected to obey commands flawlessly, even if those commands can be flawlessly delivered (which of course, they can’t be). No transfer of knowledge in either direction (from soldier to commander or vice versa) is perfect, and everyone has their own goals that may be separate from yours.

This is even true of an individual. You are different people at different times, and commands you give yourself in periods of low stress and high clarity won’t necessarily translate perfectly when you’re truly in the trenches. You can’t always trust yourself to obey your own orders.

Because of that, it’s good to know your own capabilities and set reasonable expectations, and design your orders to yourself around those facts. Give yourself things to do when your natural motivation is high, and other things to do when it’s low. Align your incentives.

The insights for the Nine Grounds translate well to this. Master Sun knew to look for win/win situations when they were available and not start fights then. He knew when to strengthen a strong position or flee from a weak one. He said to be safe when you’re in trouble, and be bold when the rewards are high. These are powerful lessons everywhere.

One of the grounds he defined was “dying ground.” Dying ground is when you’re in a hopeless situation – you can’t retreat, the odds are hopeless, and defeat is nearly assured. We’ve all been in that situation – and if you haven’t yet, you will be. Master Sun’s advice when on dying ground is profound.

On dying ground, fight.

When you’re almost certainly going to lose, but there’s no escaping, fight for all you’re worth. Master Sun even said it was good to put your soldiers on dying ground in some instances, because that’s when you’ll get the absolutely full measure of your soldiers’ capabilities. If you can’t surrender and there’s only a 1% chance of victory, you’ll fight like hell for that one percent.

If not fighting means losing it all, and fighting means even the slightest chance you won’t, you’ll do amazing, incredible things to win. And even if you lose anyway, you’ll lose as a warrior. Head held high, on your feet, with your boots on.

I truly hope that in most of your life, you find yourself on solid ground and your life is good. But it won’t always be. And sometimes that’s good, too. When that happens, remember – all is never lost. Fight.

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