I first read The Art of War in 2009, when the library didn’t have the book I was looking for. I kicked myself for having not read it sooner. I had heard a lot of people recommend it, but I didn’t understand what it was. When I started to read the material, I realized that it has nothing to do with warfare – unless, of course, you’re at war. It’s an operating manual for solving any conceivable kind of problem. One might just as well call it The Art of Productivity, The Art of Writing, The Art of Dance, or The Art of ___________.
Sun Tzu’s prose is elegant and simple, and the English translation reads with a soft, steady cadence. It is a fun book to read, and it really made me think. I consult it often when dealing with difficult problems. The first line that stuck with me: “One who knows when he can fight and when he cannot fight will be victorious.” I have only recently begun to appreciate the depth of this profound statement. Weighing my options against this statement has become routine and habitual for me since reading The Art of War. I often ask myself, “Can I win the battle I’m about to fight here?”
To decode the metaphor and make it relevant, I will sometimes replace words throughout the text with more specific language, and it works like a charm. Here’s one example of how I applied the text to a challenge with my writing. I was coming up against self-doubt about the material I was creating and whether it really had value.
The passage that I consulted:
“In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good. So, too, it is better to recapture an army entire than to destroy it…”
I did a little bit of substitution:
“In the practical art of writing, the best thing of all is to keep one’s self-doubt whole and intact; to overcome it is not so good. So, too, it is better to recapture a stream of negative thoughts than to suppress it.”
I realized that Sun Tzu was right on the money. Trying to overcome my self-doubt might get me over a short hump, I saw, but I would never achieve lasting and permanent victory against it. Instead, I saw, I needed to use my writing to bring my fears and doubts into the open. This insight occurred early during the writing of a new book, which is still underway at this time. I started to write about the struggles I was going through, and the book came alive. I read a passage aloud to a few people, who all gave me very positive feedback. My writing was real again, and other people could find inspiration in it.
In context, Sun Tzu was referring to the idea of taking over an opposing army. I realized that I could do the same thing with my own fears. I could take them over and use them as an asset in my writing.
Sun Tzu’s manual is chock full of practical applications like this. I will continue to explore the depths of this book for the rest of my life, and I’m sure that I will manage only to scratch the surface a bit more. Don’t just read this book. Apply it.
Dave Baldwin is a writer who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. He currently works for Bottom Line Internet Business Consultants, a local online marketing firm
How do you overcome self-doubt when it comes to writing? Any practical tips you’d like to share?