man wearing academic gown

Sun Tzu and The Successful Student

Posted by Barry Strauss under on May 10, 2023

In the last post, I offered ten insightful lessons from Sun Tzu and his masterpiece, The Art of War, for teachers. Now it’s time for students to arm themselves with the ancient strategist’s wisdom.  Do you know a high school or college student seeking the keys to academic success? Look no further.

In this week’s edition, we’re diving deep into strategies that will not only help you excel academically but also empower you to navigate the complex landscape of modern education.

Are you ready to harness the legendary wisdom of Sun Tzu and transform your academic experience?

Let’s dive in.

“It is by scoring many points that one wins the war beforehand in the temple rehearsal of the battle; it is by scoring few points that one loses the war beforehand in the temple rehearsal of the battle.”

Too often (trust me I’ve seen it a lot), students view their success or failure in a class solely as a product of their own effort.  Regardless of whether the professor grades on a curve, your success is never just about you. It’s about your fellow students and, most important, about your professor. It’s to your advantage to understand the “terrain” of class.  Network with other students and learn from them, both to improve your own work and understand the work others will submit. But even more important, get to know your professor and understand what s/he expects and values from students.

“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.”

I just said that you should know your professor but it’s just as important to know yourself. Assess your strengths and weaknesses and be conscious of what you do best. Always play to your strengths.

“The victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won, whereas he who is destined to defeat first fights and afterwards looks for victory.”

Because preparation is key to success, never come into the classroom unprepared; always study beforehand. True, sometimes you can’t study beforehand. In that case…

“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”

…Sun Tzu says that all war is the art of deception. That doesn’t mean cheating! Cheating is never acceptable.

(And usually, it gets caught—an unforced tactical error with catastrophic consequences.)

But wise students always put the best face on their work. If you’re in a seminar, for example, coming to class and looking attentive and interested is a much better selling point than cutting class or showing up but spending most of the class checking your phone.

“The art of war is governed by five constant factors, to be taken into account in one’s deliberations, when seeking to determine the conditions obtaining in the field. These are: the Moral Law; Heaven; Earth; the Commander; and Method and discipline.”

Sun Tzu’s work offers principles that cannot be ignored if one is to achieve success.

Every teacher wants to think the students follow the rules. With that in mind, show that you do. For example, a good but error-free essay works better than a great essay that’s full of typos, grammatical and spelling errors, and other signs of sloppiness.

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

In the interest of minimizing your effort while maximizing your result (shih): read the syllabus. Figure out what’s most important to success in class and focus on that.

“The wise warrior avoids the battle.”

Position yourself strategically (hsing). That can mean anything from sitting in the front row, to asking questions that demonstrate your commitment to the class, to coming to office hours and asking intelligent questions, or to following up on lessons learned.  Use your actions to evoke a feeling of your commitment to the course; avoid appearing apathetic or aloof at all costs.

“Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent’s fate.”

Sun Tzu says that a good general makes the enemy show his position while concealing his own. With that in mind, always try to get your professor to provide useful information about requirements and assignments. Try to remain formless and not to be too obvious about your probing. “That’s very interesting; could you follow up on that please?” works better than “Will this be on the exam?”  Your presence in class should indicate a shared interest in the subject matter with your professor.  Capitalize on that and behave as if you were engaging your professor’s interest without creating extra work.

“There is no instance of a nation benefiting from prolonged warfare.”

Extensions and incompletes are not to a student’s benefit. Speed and strategy win every time.

“Opportunities multiply as they are seized.”

Success in an academic setting is based on much more than the courses in which you enroll.  Professors take note of strong, competent, and interested students.  Frequently being acknowledged as interested and dedicated can open doors.  A student seeking recommendations, fellowships, or scholarships for future endeavors could benefit greatly from being known as attentive in class.

That’s a lot to take in, let’s recap:

  1. Collaborate and learn. Build relationships with classmates and your professor, both to increase your knowledge and understand the work others will complete.
  2. Know thyself. Understand your strengths and weaknesses and always play to your strengths.
  3. Come prepared. You’re paying for college—study the subject material!
  4. Appear attentive. But if you can’t, put on your best face, contribute, and appear to be engaged.
  5. Follow the rules. Your work may not always be excellent, but it can always be high-quality. Don’t be sloppy.
  6. Prioritize efficiently. Understand the syllabus and know the course goals. Plan accordingly.
  7. Strategic positioning. Position yourself as engaged and interested. Never appear aloof.
  8. Be formless but seek valuable information. Without being obvious, try to ascertain where you should focus your time and attention.
  9. Do the work. Meet your deadlines and hand in your assignments. In very few instances do we truly need more time.
  10. Opportunities multiply. Dedicated students will likely realize unadvertised opportunities. Don’t wait around for the one opening you want, show your dedication it’s likely that many more options will be available to you.

Do you want to take your presentation skills to the next level? In our next edition, we explore the secrets of successful presentations with inspiration from Sun Tzu. Learn how to win over your audience, stay focused and composed, and achieve your objectives with the help of the ancient master.

Barry Strauss © 2024