These highlights are from the Kindle version of Thirty Six Stratagems, translated by Peter Taylor.
The Thirty-Six Stratagems is a Chinese essay used to illustrate a series of stratagems used in politics and in war, as well as in civilian life, often through unorthodox means. Approximately 300 years ago, either towards the end of the Ming or the beginning of the Qing Dynasties, an unknown scholar compiled these 36 military stratagems. One of the things that makes this classic unique and strangely seductive is its use of deception throughout.
The Thirty-Six Stratagems have variably been attributed to Sun Tzu from the Spring and Autumn Period of China, or Zhuge Liang of the Three Kingdoms Period, but neither are regarded as the true author by most historians. Instead, the prevailing view is that the Thirty-Six Stratagems may have originated in both written and oral history, with many different versions compiled by different authors throughout Chinese history.
Zhuge Liang was a chancellor of the state of Shu Han during the Three Kingdoms Period of Chinese history. He is often recognised as the greatest and most accomplished strategist of his era.
Sneak across the ocean in broad daylight. What you see often you do not doubt and what is familiar becomes uninteresting and a perfect cloak for the unusual and unexpected.
Think about hiding surprise inside familiarity by creating a routine of behaviour that makes others believe that you are a creature of habit, perhaps even boring, at which point – you make the change and achieve your purpose.
Besiege Wei to Rescue Zhao. When the enemy is too strong to be attacked directly, then attack something that they hold close to them or value dearly. Take the indirect approach and find their Achilles heel.
In Greek mythology, when Achilles was a baby, it was foretold that he would die in battle. To prevent his death, his mother, Thetis, took Achilles to the River Styx which was supposed to offer powers of invincibility and here she dipped his body into the powerful water. But as Thetis held Achilles by the heel, his heel was not washed over by the water of the magical river and so left this one place of weakness and vulnerability. Achilles grew up to be a mighty man of war who survived many great battles but one day a poisonous arrow shot at him struck his heel resulting in his death.
Kill with a borrowed knife. Attack using the strength of another in a situation where using one’s own strength is not favourable. Trick an ally into attacking him or bribe an official to turn traitor in your favour, or use the enemy’s own strength against him.
Don’t expend physical energy on arguing with an opponent but just say something that will plain worry them, enough that they will waste valuable time, money and effort in checking out what you say.
Create competition between your adversary and another competitor by helping that competitor in some way in order to distract your opponent.
Wait at leisure while the enemy labours. It is an advantage to choose the time and place for battle. In this way you know when and where the battle will take place, while your enemy does not. Encourage your enemy to expend his energy in futile quests while you conserve your strength. When he is exhausted and confused, you attack with energy and purpose.
Muhammad Ali’s famous ‘rope-a-dope’ strategy against his powerful opponent George Foreman in 1974 was a brilliant implementation of such a method. Ali, unable to get the better of Foreman by normal means taunted him with typical cockiness into hammering him with a barrage of blows as Ali leaned back on the rope and took a breather; well not a breather in our minds I suspect, but a breather in the mind of perhaps the best boxer of all time. Anyway, after Foreman exhausted himself with this assault Ali came off the ropes and started to return blows, with the result that Foreman went down and the boxing match was won.
Loot a burning house. When a country is beset by internal conflicts, or when disease and famine ravages the population, or when corruption and crime are rampant, then it will be unable to deal with an outside threat. This then is the best time to attack.
This is also known at the ‘Vulture Stratagem’ and a modern- day equivalent of this might be the notorious occupation of ‘Ambulance Chaser’. This term refers to a lawyer using an event as a way to source clients. The original term comes from the stereotype of lawyers who follow ambulances to the emergency room or A&E in order to find clients.
Try to understand the potential negative from any situation in order to understand the consequences, or fear of such consequences, that your competition might face. What is it that worries them and what price would they pay to avoid that happening?
Once you understand the fears of others then you can work to make their worst nightmare come true and then exploit the situation to gain your advantage.
Make a sound in the East, then strike in the West. In any battle the element of surprise can provide an overwhelming advantage. Even when face to face with an enemy, surprise can still be employed by attacking where he least expects it.
Deceive your rival and show an interest in another person (or product or service) and then, when they react with concern, turn and demand some concession or reward for just staying loyal.
Act as though you no longer have an interest in what you are actually after, convince your opponent that you have given up chasing after this and, when they relax, go for it!
Create something from nothing. Make somebody believe there was something when there is in fact nothing – or simply put, lie.
And for an example of something that doesn’t exist when it does let’s look at the swashbuckling world of piracy. In fact, while the various versions of the ‘Jolly Roger’ were flown by all of the legendary pirates, many would disguise their ship by flying friendly flags (known as ‘flying false colours’) and making the ship look more like a cargo voyager than a fighting vessel, in order to allow them to get close to their prey before revealing the truth and hoisting their version of the ‘skull and crossbones’; then the fighting would begin.
Make yourself seem bigger, more important, part of a larger group or with more influence to intimidate others. For example, putting yourself forward as a larger business than you actually are is relatively easy with the front of a website and meetings off premises, etc.
Openly repair the gallery roads, but sneak through the passage of Chencang. Deceive the enemy with an obvious approach that will take a very long time, while surprising him by taking a shortcut and sneaking up on him.
In neuroscience terms, misdirection relies on the fact that the brain has a very limited attention span. Over the past decade or so it has become clear just how limited our attention is: focusing on one thing can make you oblivious to other things that would otherwise be obvious.
This phenomenon is called ‘inattention blindness’ and it was demonstrated in impressive style in 1999 by two psychologists, Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris. They made a video of six people in a circle bouncing two basketballs around. They then invited other people to come and watch the video with the instruction that they had to count the number of bounces the balls made during the video. As a result around half of the people who watched the video, and tried to count the bounces, failed to notice a man in gorilla suit walking through the middle of the game and beating his chest.
Launch several initiatives (some true and some fake) to divert your opponent’s attention, they won’t know what is real and what isn’t and won’t dare ignore any of them.
Watch the fires burning across the river. Delay entering the field of battle until all the other players have become exhausted fighting among themselves and at that point go in at full strength and pick up the pieces.
This is perhaps one of the most cynical of the stratagems, allowing others to effectively fight your battle for you, or at least most of the battle. But you can be opportunistic in life by keeping alert for when others are weakening their positions through arguments and disagreements.
Hide a knife behind a smile. Charm and ingratiate yourself with your enemy and then, when you have gained his trust, move against him in secret.
A ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’ is an idiom of biblical origin. It is used to describe those playing a role contrary to their true character, with whom contact is dangerous. The phrase originates in a sermon by Jesus recorded in the New Testament ‘Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.’
It is about the complete relaxation of your opponent in your company, as you demonstrate that you are no threat to them at all; just before proving that you are, in fact, the worst possible threat.
Take this stratagem one stage further and actually (falsely) become your opponent’s friend or ally and pick your moment to reveal the truth.
Sacrifice the plum tree to preserve the peach tree. There are circumstances in which you must sacrifice short-term objectives in order to gain the desired long-term goal. This is the scapegoat stratagem whereby someone else suffers the consequences so that the rest do not.
For the ultimate advantage let your opponent know something about one of your own allies that they can use to profit from the situation. Of course once you have gained their trust you can make your own profit at the right time when they are least expecting it.
Take the opportunity to pilfer a goat. While carrying out your plans you need to be flexible enough to take advantage of any opportunity that presents itself, however small, and avail yourself of any profit, however slight.
As Shakespeare wrote in Julius Caesar, ‘There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat. And we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.’
Stomp the grass to scare the snake. Do something unaimed, but spectacular to provoke a response of the enemy thereby giving away his plans or position, or just taunt him. Do something unusual, strange and unexpected as this will arouse the enemy’s suspicion and disrupt his thinking.