Warrior in the garden

What lessons can be learned from the great Chinese military strategist and philosopher Sun-Tzu and his book The Art of War? Tristan Barnard shares how Sun-Tzu’s philosophy has helped him face higher education and Mathematics.

History and legends are as ancient as man and in the depths of this ancient wisdom sound advice may be found.  

Sun Tzu said: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle”.

In any pursuit or endeavor we seek out in life, so too shall we find hardship, struggle, and the burden of responsibility for self and future. You have thus found the enemy which lies before you, be that a mountain, river, or things which are difficult to overcome. Yet you must be mindful as this enemy is both before you and within you, for others have named it, but it is you and your mind which give it form. Now with your path forward blocked by adversity, struggle, and responsibility, you must seek to understand yourself when you are in the depths of hardship and perhaps even despair. For you and I are both a castle which is strong but also divided and in that you might find weakness, be that in ego, self-doubt and falsehoods, a poison to progress. Thus, seek not to rid yourself of the poison within but rather to understand it, to evaluate it, to give it form and then you may starve the snake from whence the poison flows.

In knowing that you yourself can be your greatest enemy, may you find the first lesson. As Socrates said, “to know thyself is the beginning of wisdom”. To know thyself is to be guaranteed success in half of everything that you may do, to know the enemy is to understand that which you do not know and how little you may know. Greatness, legends and the best among us have learned to temper the fire within themselves, to move past a house divided and to face their enemy, the unknown, the struggle, the hardship and seek understanding. I do however besiege you to heed these words: to understand your enemy does not imply hate, but rather respect in the face of the challenge before you. As Sun Tzu said, “to know your enemy, you must become your enemy”.

To this place this idea in the context of mathematics: mathematics is a challenge of mind and perception which must be overcome to succeed. You require faith and belief in your ability and intellect that is devoid of arrogance and conscientious battles with the material to discover patters in procedures. Sun Tzu said, “supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting”. To see the solution in your mind’s eye before you seek to solve the problem within the reality in which you exist. 

Sun Tzu also said:

 “If your enemy is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him. If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them. If sovereign and subject are in accord, put division between them. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected”.

Once again, bear in mind, the enemy, your enemy is the challenge before you on your path to success. This path you tread, the journey you are on is much like a river, it winds through the land, flowing from highs to lows and then to abundance. The path a river traces is never straight, for it too faces the challenges of life, but the river does not smash through them, it moves around them and slowly wears them down with time. Be like water, calm on the surface but immensely powerful in your depths and steadfast in your goal and journey. You may also wish to bear in mind that your journey may be blocked by wardens of admission, an immovable object. Yet know this, humans are fallible, capable of poor judgments and so when they look upon you, they shall see all but a calm surface and not the depth of strength which exists within you and they will cast onto you their judgment, their prediction of your future success not truly knowing you. They have revealed their hand to you, dealt their blow, yet recall that we all are poor predictors of future success and that those who are the true predictors of success are ourselves. Be like water, flow around your obstacles and into abundance. The greatest among us have been barred in admission multiple times in their lives, yet they continued to flow towards their goals and around immovable objects. Be not discouraged in failure, for a single battle has never decided a war, nor has a single rock moved a river.

To place this into the context of mathematics, firstly at school: “You should drop to mathematical literacy”. Do not fall victim to such comments, as such words may directly lead to the belief of inferiority in oneself and so you must attack the weak points. Target easy problems, easy victories and build your confidence, discover yourself, what you know and know not, for you will be rewarded by renewed vigor and joy in the starting of success. Call on your allies, build your plan and remember Sun Tzu: “In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity”.

At university level, you must remember that all things are a battle of attrition, for the work is constant and both your time and energy is finite. In wars of attrition, he who best manages his resources shall succeed. Also know that wars of attrition are long, drawn out and never end in a single defeat or battle. Be wary of the toll you place on yourself and the burden you carry alone and beware of the trap, “this isn’t for you”, as that is for you to decide as well as whether you will succeed or capitulate. Believe in yourself, but do not delude yourself.

Lastly, remember these words, success breeds success exponentially and the upper limit of that is unknowable, but so too is the inverse of success. So seek good allies that shall shelter you in the storm and give you the strength you need when faced with defeat.

Sun Tzu said: “Treat your men as you would your own beloved sons. And they will follow you into the deepest valley”.

Recall that you too are human and as such are susceptible to short comings, failure, sadness, burnout, and poor judgment. Thus, treat yourself as though you are someone for whom you are responsible and someone whom you love. Rest when appropriate, eat good food, enjoy small niceties, build good friendships, reward yourself, do not forget to bargain with yourself as though you are another individual and most importantly, be truest to who you are so that you may love yourself.

Do not live in squalor if your environment may be influenced by your own efforts. Do not neglect your health. Do not undervalue your own time. Do not hate yourself for past mistakes (you have learned, changed and are better for it). Do not judge yourself by other standards. Do not hate yourself for that which you cannot control or change. Most importantly, do not fight the hardest battles of your life alone.

You are a unique community of self, living through time, both past, present and future, and all are as real to you as the time you experienced those moments. The pain you have suffered is real, the failure is real and so too are the scars. But bear in mind that all you have gone through has shaped you into who you are and you are beautiful for it, never wish to be anyone else other than yourself.

A warrior is someone who has been broken, beaten, failed, and yet they rise, for they have discovered the truest strength of all, the self and they are wise to the world and fear not to feel. A last warning: Be not naive to the world nor yourself.

That then brings me to the old saying, “it is better to be a warrior in a garden than a gardener in a war”.

So be the warrior in a beautiful well-tended garden and may you forever flourish.

Tristan Barnard

BSc Wood & Wood Product Science student, Stellenbosch University, South Africa

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